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On Scarcity’s Appeal

On a Sunday afternoon in January, with an inch of snow forecast for later that evening, a queue of about fifty shoppers lined up outside the front door of the Downtown Brooklyn Trader Joe’s (DBTJ). The crowd inside had reached capacity. Those waiting outside shivered with various degrees of sincerity: some crested their shoulders to their ears, others blew into their hands, but everyone’s gestures seemed not just expressions of coldness but also signals to others that yes, we are cold, we are cold together.

The quality of the customers’ outerwear suggested they might be able to afford a fancier grocery than the DBTJ (of which there are several in the neighborhood), but bargain prices hold a universal appeal. A line manager wore no coat, perhaps to display his official Hawaiian shirt uniform. At this man’s bidding, people filed into the store–individuals and families, but mostly couples, and mostly those from Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, and other affluent neighborhoods nearby.

Inside the building, a former bank, two-tiered carts and standard plastic carts, fewer than ten total, lined up in a scrap wood stable; the holster for baskets lay empty. Above the milling heads and aisles, flags marking the end of the queue hung slack against their poles. I tried to buy some vegetables and found a few women wearing thigh-length down coats over their gym wear, waiting next to empty shelves. The scene slowed shoppers down, made them take a closer look, and prompted the natural questions: What once inhabited these empty shelves? Why can’t I have some? Do empty shelves mean there are fresher products on the way?

Eventually, a re-stocker arrived, wheeling a dolly loaded with boxes of vegetables. The women helped him take the boxes off the dolly and open them. The re-stocker seemed accustomed to this kind of behavior–at least he didn’t ask them to stop–and when a floor manager sent him back to fetch more items, the women announced some other things they needed–brussels sprouts, baby zucchini, bagged spinach.

The checkout queue was at least 200 shoppers long. As they shuffled along, they read the thoughtfully-written copy on the product packaging and pricing placards; they picked boxes up and shook them. Some shoppers grabbed appealing treats stocked at eye-level; others grabbed products they may have actually needed. Everyone grabbed something.

The checkout queue provides the backbone of the DBTJ experience. It snakes throughout the store, reinforcing the store’s narrative, which is a narrative of waiting and coercion. The queue communicates the philosophy of an understocked grocery, and demands that shoppers follow its doctrine: You will wait, says the queue, and while you wait, you will see what’s on offer. What’s on offer, if appealing, will become more appealing with time.

Food scarcity provides extra motivation to buy as well–now, before stuff runs out. I’ve experienced the feeling myself, over at the apple shelf, which is designed to hold a scant two-dozen apples. On one visit, only five apples were left, four of them bruised, so I took the one clear choice. It occurred to me that I took the lone apple not because I truly needed it, but because it was the last. I felt a rush as I closed my hand around it.

To search the empty and emptying shelves at the DBTJ is to familiarize oneself with this feeling–to fight it off, to get used to it, and then sometimes to give in to its pull. If this feeling has a name, that name is desperation. It is, more precisely, a desperation shaped by an ancient sort of greed, the greed for food that led to hoarding, hoarding that allowed our ancestors to prosper–but let’s just call it desperation. It’s a good thing so many DBTJ shoppers come in athletic wear. People sweat in the DBTJ. Shopping there is competitive and physical. Desperate shoppers shoulder their way through the store in half the time it takes polite shoppers to shop. Those who do not act on their desperation, who fail to be early or crafty or rude, will not get the food they want. Scarcity does not forgive.

And yet DBTJ shoppers willingly reenter the arena of human need. Although desperation makes the DBTJ uncomfortable for some, it also makes food shopping into a high-stakes game, and I can’t help but wonder if some other shoppers develop a taste for this. Maybe it’s the aura of competition, or that I sense the awakening of an ancient need in myself, but I always seem to leave the Downtown Brooklyn Trader Joe’s in a certain mood. I reach the street alert, upset, sweating, and very hungry.