Warning: this is not entirely serious.

Grocery stores are complex sociological machines; they signal all sorts of things from class to domesticity to indulgence to frugality. They are laboratories of design and commercial art, the end point of massive campaigns and small-scale upstarts; they house legacy brands that tweak childhood memories and new ideas that appeal to your need for the new. Everything you need to know about American culture is in a good grocery store, and that's why I went to the newest of the new. Twenty-four minute drive.

Worth it, I thought. HyVee is the new brand that's blown into the Metro with fanfare and great cheer, exploiting a niche that's bound to grow: it's like Cub, which is cheap but dowdy and institutional, but it doesn't make you feel like grocery shopping should include some form of atonement. Yeah, you're paying less, but the price is being here.

Cub is better than Rainbow, which exited the market a while ago after everyone agreed they just bit the wax tadpole hard. The high end is occupied by Lunds & Byerlys, where everything is nice and luxurious and you know you're getting jobbed hard on some things, but they do have good deals. And there's Kowalski's, which is a niche neighborhood chain that's quality all around. It's my local store, and I love it, but I don't do the weekly staple-shopping there. I have moved Target out of the general rotation because A) they fired Dale, the guy in the wheelchair, and that turned me against them, and B) it's just lost its way. It's boring. It used to be interesting, part of the local culture; now it's just a store. If you took a survey around town I'll bet you'd find that 70% of the people who used to believe in Target Chic or call it Tar-zhay or at least expected to find delight here and there, well, they'd shrug: it's a store. I go there when I need sheets and maybe I'll get milk.

First impression on HyVee: brother, are you goosing the goodie-goodie demographic. A big pole with a solar panel on top and a WINDMILL and a sign that said it was for electric cars. They get the close-up parking. (At Cub the close-up parking is for cops and vets.) It's one big building with a facade that echoes a downtown block, with varying heights to indicate the different purposes inside. Cafe, Pharmacy, Hooch, Starbucks.

I love the name HY-VEE, because it's a throwback. Makes no sense, came from something back in the company's history, doesn't sound modern, but has history, right? Has to have history. Maybe there will be vintage pictures inside of women in dresses pushing small wire carts. Initial impression upon entering: niiiiiiice. Produce up front, of course, because the riot of green and red and yellow, all freshly misted, gives you the impression of bounty and health, and even if you came for chips and cereal you feel somehow healthier for having passed through this area. Against the wall, the take-out food with different typefaces and signage to make them seem like separate establishments; chalkboards for that "little cafe with a wonderful daily special" routine. I liked it. Made me think of Whole Foods without the miasma of sanctimony.


There was something I saw right away that irritated me. (Not a difficult task, tbh) The prices included calculations about reduction in your gas purchases. You get 2 cents off a gallon if you buy these pork chops. I like to regard petrochemical purchases and pork-chop impulse buys as discrete categories. It also suggests I need A CARD, and I hate having A CARD. Until, of course, I have a card, and then we're all good and I'm part of the club, but it's another damned thing to carry around and forget, and I'd rather just wave my phone and be done with it.

Okay, there was that. If I joined up, this wouldn't be an issue. I'd be an insider. Kept going. Looked around. Did they have different things? They did, but they were indistinguishable from the other stores' different things.

Kept going. Here are my pronouncements.

* The more "Temporary" price tags hang off the shelves, the less I think I'm getting a deal. Lunds & Byerlys hangs a few in selected areas; you note them, you consider, you respond. When everything is on sale then nothing is on sale.

* All your carefully studied labels and tags are defeated when you have this:

All-caps script?

* Finally - and this is crucial - what does the packaging on your house brands say about me? Market Pantry at Target is in the middle of an upgrade, swapping out old generic designs for an attractive logo with product-specific variations. Hy-Vee seems to be working through the same process. I saw a box of house-brand Corn Flakes that was nicely designed - modern fonts, clean layout. But the majority of the house brands said "Hi there! It's 1995 and here's some shredded cheese."

Even the new packaging is underwhelming. Here's the Lunds & Byerly's house brand potato chips.

Is it thrilling? No it is not. But it's part of a store-wide visual ID system that tells you from a distance that it's a house brand, and hence it is higher quality. Here's the frozen soup:

The layout has a hierarchy: store name on the top, type of product below, then BIG NAME FOR WHAT IT IS, then picture, then some lint about its properties. I would redesign the holy hell out of this if I were king of the forest, because the attribute tier under the store name is superfluous. The little triangle suggests that it's tuned to something - it would be in this position for Ruffled Chips, this position for Kettle Chips, and so on. But it's not. It always points to the center to indicate an attribute in tiny type that's either obvious or irrelevant. CHEF-CRAFTED. Oh I thought it was made by monkeys.

The real show is the product picture, and I like the way Lunds & Byerlys just billboards it without words or swooshy logos.

Now let's look at Hy-Vee's chips.




The store logo is small, as if they're kinda sorta stuck with this old thing for branding purposes, and they emphasize the worst word they could have chosen. It's obvious that it's PREMIUM, because the package is more designy than the cheaper house brand, and more thickly constructed. The distinguishing attribute - the flavor - is off to the side in smaller type.

GET IT TOGETHER, HY-VEE. I know, I know, it seems picky, but grocery stores are all about emotion. I see this item in my pantry, it's a wash. So it was with everything else in the store - nice initial presentation, but nothing that says "this is a place to which I want to switch my allegiance." I had that feeling about Traders Joe, because everything said fun and different and quirky! and all the rest of the self-flattering emotions the carefully calibrated merchandise is designed to produce.

Been there, done that, bought the potato chips. Curiosity satisfied.

PS: No Apple Pay. No chip readers. No self-service, which is a killer. Gave the cashier three reusable bags, and she put everything in the three bags as if I had wanted the items distributed amongst them. Outside the store I set everything down on a table and repacked the bags, turning three into two. At Lunds they know how to pack a grocery bag.

Same thing at Cub, because I'm the one doing the packing.

One more thing: don't you hate it when you buy water and it doesn't work?



From 1949, a feature in Look, the magazine that was Pepsi to Life's Coke. They said nice things about people who had hard-working, succesful, persistent publicists. Today:


After that, more of the same, which was pretty good, and government work and philanthropy - fading away from the public eye until people said "who?" when he died in 1994.

That's it for Look magazine's applauded people - a warm-hearted cop, an opera singer, a public servant and a captain of industry.

Who would they choose these days?






Is it upstate? It's in Central New York, but given the oversized importance of Manhattan, it's probably considered Upstate. Twenty-seven thousand souls. Let's see how the downtown shapes up.

Fine Court house in the Doric manner. I wonder if the architect was pleased by the row of windows between the capitals and the pediment, or appalled when the client asked for them. That hadn't been done before! For good reason!

One more story, and it would have looked ridiculous.

Well, this is a good sign: sandblasted, tuckpointed, reasonably well-maintained.


You can tell that the building in the middle used to belong to the one on the right. Either the cornice started to drop bricks and they knocked the rest of it off, or - well, I can't come up with another reason, unless the facade spent some time under a metal sheet.

You can understand why some people hate the late 60s and the 70s, can't you?


Could it get worse?

It could always get worse. And did.


Buckaroo Revival on a blank brick wall - it makes you weep.

You might understand my susipcion of tree-planting efforts downtown. Whenever they try to revitalize a downtown, they redo the sidewalks, put in planters, stick in some trees. Then the trees cover the storefronts, or . . .


. . . they die.

The most modern one of these I've seen. The windows could stand some work.


It replaced a nine-story Lodge that burned down in the early 30s, I believe. The restrained facade may have something to do with the fortunes of the era; it was a relief for everyone that the new style just happened to be less expensive.


Next door, this amazing facade:


"Schine" was the chain that ran the theater. Renovation has been proposed, but this story suggests that the problems may be insurmountable.


Take a look at the photo gallery - as the clickbait headlines say, #4 is stunning.

Even the most robust town has a few of these senior citizens on the edge of town.


Wood over bricks. Like a hockey mask over an old face.

If they're lucky, they also have one of these.


Everyone a downtown should have, right there; a facade that breaks the monotony of the usual row of bricks, a whimsical touch added by the current owner or resident, and a nice old piece of neon advertising a nook where you can find refreshements. But buildings like these were looked down upon by the men who wanted to remake downtown.

They prefered a different approach.


It's a place where lots of paper has to be filled out.

Oh, er, ahem:

Yes, last week I did everything with the motels except upload them, so today there's six. Six!



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