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Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - The Death of Vicente Variety

by Frank Dunnigan
August 2009

It really was easier in the old days…

Growing up in the Parkside in the 1950s, we had a regular group of merchants that we relied upon for everything from groceries to medicines, and from baked goods to penny candy. In Mom's pre-driving days, she would shop a few times a week at Daylight Market on West Portal or at 16th and Taraval Market, but quickly became a fan of weekly shopping at QFI, aka Stonestown Market, once she had her driver's license, circa 1959 or so. We had our prescriptions filled at Reis' Pharmacy at 18th & Taraval, and Dad also went there to stock up on things like razor blades, and the occasional surprise of a pint of ice cream and a comic book or two. Cakes always came from Baronial Bakery on Taraval between 20th and 21st, while Mom preferred Adeline on West Portal for Danish pastries. There were still fruit and vegetable peddlers and a bakery wagon that drove slowly up and down the streets in the late 1950s, with housewives dashing out to pick up last-minute items.

Eezy Freezy Market on West Portal Avenue near Ulloa Street, November 2006. - WNP photo

Depending on exactly where you lived in the area, and the driving status of the lady of the house, you might do your shopping at 22nd & Taraval Market, Pinelake Market, 16th & Taraval Market, Mount Davidson Market, Daylight Market, or the West Portal Safeway. Most had an in-store meat counter, while Pinelake and 16th & Taraval had one immediately adjacent. This made grocery shopping very easy, and last-minute items were still readily available, and in a far greater selection than might be found at West Portal's Eezy-Freezy or one of the many corner liquor stores along Taraval. Mom could be in and out of these places in under ten minutes, with enough in her shopping bag to last for days, yet still light enough to carry home.

One store that was relied upon heavily was Vicente Variety, referred to by one and all as "The Variety Store." Located at the southeast corner of 23rd Avenue and Vicente, it was a regular stop for young and old alike. The tiny place contained every imaginable non-food item that a household might require on short notice, and it was an easy walk from anywhere in the area. Whether it was laundry detergent, greeting cards, a spool of thread, a new oven mitt, a baby bottle, or a handful of penny candy, the Variety Store was the place to go. Deep in the back, along the left-hand wall, was a tiny lunch counter/soda fountain where you could get a bit to eat, to refresh yourself on the day's shopping journeys, and if you were truly in a pinch, the clerk would sell you a loaf of bread or a quart of milk, though it was just steps to nearby Pinelake Market.

West Portal Avenue northeast of 14th Avenue, October 1946. Shell Oil Station and Safeway Market visible. -

Today, however, most of these convenient neighborhood merchants are long gone. Members of the public seem to have traded convenience for saving a few pennies on the price of an item (and are then forced into $40,000 vehicles that drink $3.00 gallons of gasoline in order to drive miles and miles for daily essentials). Face it, we have become a nation of fuss-budgets, as my grandmother would say. Today's consumer demands such variety that a small retailer cannot possibly stock enough items to keep the average customer satisfied. Even the big players (like those full-service 24-hour grocery stores with a pharmacy, florist, deli counter, rug shampoo machines, blood pressure readers, lotto ticket machines, and extensive wine & liquor selections) have tried and failed to satisfy our persnickety needs, thus making today's average trip to any retail store a nightmare for most of us. Gone are the days when close-by neighborhood businesses like Daylight, the Reis', Baronial, and the variety store provided for all of our daily consumer needs.

I stopped in at my local supermarket the other day with just a few items on my list: coffee, crackers, cheese, milk, lettuce, potatoes, apples, paper towels, and bleach, plus a handful of grooming items. Pretty straight-forward stuff, right? I already knew the layout of the store and which checkers to avoid if I wanted to get home in time for dinner, so it didn't look to be all that daunting a task. Was I in for a surprise!

Coffee was my first challenge, and the display of all the different types took up nearly a full side of a very long aisle. Forget the days of just whole bean, ground, and instant—they had all of those and then some. There were prices that ranged from $3 to $18 a pound just for ground coffee. Did I want it canned or bagged? Perhaps I'd like to measure out, and possibly grind my own? Trendy big-name coffee house brand vs. trendy small-name coffee house brands? Big-name national brand vs. small-name national brand vs. store brand? Imported Italian or Mexican? There were a variety of instant powders and granules, along with concentrated instant liquids. If I happened to be totally unfamiliar with coffee-making, I could buy pre-measured filter packs to avoid confusion. Likewise, if I were not bright enough to use a set of measuring spoons, I could buy individual cup-size filter bags. I instinctively reached for my usual Maxwell House ground, but quickly realized that the can has given way to a blue plastic container, and it now has other, more subtle distinctions. Did I want Classic Blend, Breakfast Blend, Dark Roast, or Columbian Supremo? Once I thought about it, I realized that what I really wanted was what my cousin in Pennsylvania served recently when I was visiting there—Maxwell House South Pacific Blend. However, I'm told that's not available west of the Mississippi just yet. Oh well…

Crackers, now there's an easy one. Growing up, the choices were simple: soda, Ritz, or Cheese-Its (which some Moms in our neighborhood would not buy because the name sounded ever-so-slightly blasphemous to their convent-schooled ears). I thought that I might grab a box of Triscuit, but I was again confronted with a baffling number of choices. Like many products over the past few years, the varieties have been expanded within the same brand to include: Original, Low Sodium, and Reduced Fat. Now the shelf has virtually exploded with even more additional types, also of the very same brand, including: Cheddar, Cracked Pepper & Olive Oil, Deli-Style Rye, Fire Roasted Tomato, Garden Herb, Roasted Garlic, Rosemary & Olive Oil, and Thin Crisps. And this is for just ONE brand of cracker! Whew… and then I noticed that there are now grocery store brand knock-offs of Triscuit, handily adjacent to the originals, also in Original and Reduced Fat versions. The aisle was literally overflowing with choices.

I need not tell anyone that the store's cheese selection looked like showtime at the Wisconsin State Fair—a dizzying array of oranges, yellows, and soft creams—offered in block, sliced, cubed, and shredded (both coarse and fine) forms, plus every single combination of two or more types, already packaged (1 cup, 2 cup, and 4 cup sizes), alongside "warehouse packing" sizes so large that my left ventricle began to feel like it was about to slam tightly shut. Cream cheese—plain, reduced fat, fat free, or flavored with salmon, pineapple, strawberry or herbs? Most stores sell cheese items from a refrigerated case alongside the packaged lunch meats, but there's often an equally large presentation of other cheeses, many of them imported from around the globe, displayed by the deli, and the clerk told me that if I was looking for Parmeasan or Romano (or blended together, if I preferred), those could be found adjacent to the pasta, and if it was spray cheese food product in a can that I wanted, or perhaps a block of Velveeta (large, medium, small, reduced fat, with diced Jalapenos, grocery store knock-off brand), or microwavable Cheez Whiz in a jar (small, medium, large, reduced fat, etc.), then I could find those near the…oh my…cracker aisle.

Maybe I would have better luck with the milk—how many kinds can there be? Of course there's whole milk, reduced fat (2%), low fat (1%), and fat-free. And then there are sizes—gallon, half gallon, quart, and pint. Still not too bad, but what's that? Lactose-free? Acidopholous cultures? Extra rich? Organic? Goat milk? Soy milk? And then for each product, there were national brands, local brands, and grocery store brands…And what was my preference among packaging? There were glass, cardboard, or plastic containers to choose from, plus variations of milk including powdered, canned, condensed, and evaporated, along with low-fat versions of every item, thus raising the number of ultimate possibilities exponentially.

Sunset Super, 2415 Irving Feb 1951 - WNP collection

Growing up, there was one kind of lettuce—iceberg, usually served with a squirt of bright orange French dressing. Now I faced far more choices—butter, romaine, red, Chinese, organic, loose leaves in bulk, pre-washed/bagged in single or multiple varieties, with carrot, or with extra carrot? Local grown or imported? National brand pre-packaged or grocery store brand? Perhaps I'd just like to buy a single bag of "salad mix" that also included other veggies, plus croutons and packaged dressing? And did I want that bag of mixed salad lettuce in American, Italian, Chinese, or Mexican style? With thousand island, ranch, or vinaigrette dressing? Regular or low fat? Maybe I'd prefer just some pre-shredded lettuce, but did I want that in a bag or just in bulk from over at the salad bar? Far from making me feel hungry, this grocery store experience was making me feel like I never wanted to eat again.

Potatoes, ah there's a homey, satisfying choice. Now did I want russet, white, red, baby red, Idaho, Yukon gold, fingerling, Baby Dutch, purple, or something else? I could also find them dehydrated and boxed (many with a variety of different cheeses included), canned (whole, sliced, diced), frozen (including more than 24 different varieties of cut, French fried, mashed, twice-baked, hash brown, O'Brien, chopped & formed—aka Tater Tots, both national and grocery store brands—some with a variety of flavors/seasonings, etc. in the freezer case), plus fresh cooked/mashed and uncooked shredded/bagged, and aseptically packaged salad in the refrigerated case, plus already cooked and ready to serve (whole, mashed, salad, and French fried) in the deli case.

Apples? Used to be that they came in red, yellow, or green. Now, I was being confronted with 27 different types of APPLE in the produce section, including Rome, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji, McIntosh, Jonathan, Gravenstein, Gala, and on and on. The color wheel was spinning in my mind, and I was beginning to feel dizzy, and I suddenly began to realize why many men rely on cell phones while in a grocery store… "Hi, honey, I'm standing here in front of the apples, and I was just wondering…"

Paper towels? Plain, printed with flowers, designs, inspirational sayings, jumbo roll, select-a-size-sheet, environmentally friendly, single-ply or double-ply, single, double, triple roll packages, large "family" packs of 6 or 8 rolls, or "super saver" packages of 16 rolls…you get the idea.

Finally, can there be anything complicated about plain old bleach? Oh, yes—regular Clorox, Lemon Scent, Spring Bouquet, Fresh Pine, Raspberry, and "Splash-Less"—a slightly syrupy version that well, does splash somewhat less. And did I need the gallon, half gallon, or quart, or perhaps save a few pennies with the grocery store brand that comes in Classic, Fresh Linen, Mountain Spring or Citrus? Maybe I'd do better with the powdered bleach…but am I going to use it on whites, colors, heavily soiled fabrics, or just pour it into the toilet?

It was an exhausting experience by the time I was done, yet I still had to forge ahead to the drug section or else leave the grocery store for the mega-drug store (now housed in what used to be a decent-sized neighborhood grocery store) where I needed to pick up the deodorant, mouth wash, and razor blades that were also on my list. I pondered what I might find there—at least 10 different brands of deodorant, and did I prefer solid, roll-on, cream, or spray? Regular or anti-perspirant? One of at least 5 different scents in each particular brand or possibly unscented? Brand name or store brand? Men's or unisex? Did I want basic old Listerine, or one of its several new colors (orange, blue, green, or purple?) and its new flavors? Store brand or unknown brand knock-off? Other brands that promote "good taste?" Small, medium, large, or Big-Enough-for-the-whole-6th-Army size that comes with its own built-in hand-truck? And what about those razor blades??? Oh, don't even get me started there…

Bring back Vicente Variety…

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Page launched 7 August 2009.

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