Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
December 3, 2008
Weve spent the week in San Francisco, visiting relatives and trying to ignore the fact that we cant afford to be here.In an effort to keep the cost of travel under control, weve been skipping some of those ruinously expensive restaurants, which is a real sacrifice in San Francisco, and eating a few meals at my relatives home.As a result, weve been shopping at Whole Foods.Yes, I know its not the cheapest place to shop, but its on the way to my relatives place and its a great place to shop. The selection is superb, the quality is astonishing and almost everything fruits, vegetables, cheese, bread, wine seems to come from a local source.And if it isnt local like the French wines my wifes been buying then its still carefully chosen and generally excellent.So weve had some great meals from Whole Foods and it has left me thinking about the long-anticipated Whole Foods at Willits in El Jebel.The same financial mess that has me shopping at Whole Foods in San Francisco seems to have sabotaged the Whole Foods in El Jebel, which has certainly been delayed and perhaps mortally wounded. Developers assurances aside, only time will tell what will come to pass in that gaping hole in the ground. (Should we call it Hole Foods?)On one hand, I am sorry that the new market is in trouble. Perhaps it never could measure up to the San Francisco store, but it would certainly be a grand step up from City Market.Do I really need to go into any detail on this point? No, I thought not.On the other hand, as has been mentioned before, the added traffic and congestion as people flock to that market from throughout the valley would certainly be an unwelcome side effect.But on the third hand, I guess theres another reason Im ambivalent about Whole Foods.And that is the problem of what it will do to the handful of great little food shops that have been thriving in El Jebel.City Market which definitely does not fall into that category of great little food shops will, of course, continue to rumble on, come what may. Whole Foods might put a little dent in its armor, but serious damage is unlikely.But stores like Epicurious, with its great selection of fish and meats and cheeses, prepared foods and assorted delicacies, and the Upper Crust, with its great pastries and breads (and, yes, a whole lot more, but Im trying to simplify here), are almost certain to suffer.And that will be terribly sad.Its a great pleasure to shop in a store where the people behind the counter greet you by name, where they remember what you like and what you bought last week, and can suggest what you might want to buy today and how you might prepare it.Shopping that way is, of course, less efficient than shopping at City Market. But, by that same token, it is more human. It is also, of course, more expensive. And that means it is going to be more vulnerable, more likely to be crushed between the two big chains: City Mark-up and Whole Paycheck.If those small stores do disappear, they will be following in the fading footsteps of the many small, locally owned shops that disappeared years ago in Aspen.Once, Aspen had a host of small, very local stores that catered quite nicely, thank you to the people who lived here and visited here. There were specialty stores that filled small, specific niches. There was Aspen Tea & Spice, which sold well, you can guess what they sold. There was the Cheese Shop. There were any number of quirky local clothing and home-decorating stores with a vast eclectic array of choices.Then, sadly, as Aspen became more and more upscale, those unique local stores were forced out by a combination of sky-rocketing rents and competition from the big international luxury chains.And the hell of it was that those small quirky stores really were much more in keeping with the needs and tastes of the truly wealthy people who were coming to Aspen.People who measure their wealth by the cubic yard dont need to come to Aspen to shop at Prada. They can fly their jets to New York or Milan if thats what they want. They come to Aspen for a unique experience. And yet, somehow the presence of the billionaires was part of the process that forced out that unique experience that might have suited them.Or maybe it was just that the nouveau billionaires didnt have the taste or class of the plain old millionaires of decades past.Now I need to note that, after perhaps a decade or more in the desert of the chains, Aspen has been seeing a resurgence of local shops. The Butchers Block, of course, has survived and prospered right on through. And now it has been joined by a number of relatively new specialty food stores. (Although, in other areas, Aspen still lags. Nothing ever will or ever could replace stores like Uriah Heeps or Geraniums n Sunshine.)Still, I dont think were going to be seeing a Prada handbag museum in Willits any time soon. (Let us pray.)But I do worry about our losing those small local stores that have gone a long way toward creating a more human environment when we go shopping.I like dealing with people who know me and greet me by name when I shop. They know me; I know them and as a result I care about them and I care about their success. More to the point, I care about their survival.And yet, I know that when Whole Foods opens, Ill probably be right in there with the rest of you. Whether I can afford it or not.
Andy Stone is a former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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