Extreme Grocery Shopping

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“You can get through life with bad manners, but it’s easier with good manners.” I can’t remember who said this, but I know one thing: they never shopped at Fairway Market at 6 p.m. on a Sunday.

I’ve lived on the Upper West Side, off and on, for nearly 15 years. And I’ve always thought that a visit to Fairway, on Broadway at West 74th Street, would be a great litmus test to determine if someone has what it takes to live in New York City. The store’s motto—“Like no other market”—is catchy and accurate. But a better slogan, one that gets to the heart of the Fairway shopping experience, would be “Watch your back, and for god’s sake, keep moving!”

My sister-in-law, from Minneapolis, hates the place. The crowds, the pushing, the generally accepted rudeness—it’s all so alien to her. Recently, she was rear-ended by an unsteady senior piloting a shopping cart and was shocked when an apology wasn’t forthcoming. Now, whenever my wife and I ask if she wants to go food shopping with us, she politely declines. We agree that she wouldn’t last a week in the city.

My sister, Anne, on the other hand, gets into it—totally. She “sharpens her elbows,” as she puts it, before merrily heading off to Fairway for English cookies and caramelized ginger.

Two customers contemplate entering Fairway on a busy afternoon. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Two customers contemplate entering Fairway on a busy afternoon. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

On her last visit she even got into it with another shopper, who was berating one of the employees.

The woman screamed at the guy, “Don’t you call me ‘mom’!” My sister jumped into the fray, yelling back, “He was calling you ‘ma’am.’ He was being polite!” No wonder the poor woman was confused.

Simply put, shoppers need to bring their A-games when they visit Fairway. The abundance and variety of food is enough to make the uninitiated stop in their tracks and stare.

But, as regulars know, this only angers other shoppers. The store’s aisles are narrow, and one dawdler can back up traffic like the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour. Also, you risk getting mowed down by the stock boys pushing heavy carts laden with boxes of organic cabbages, sacks of Costa Rican coffee or cases of grass-fed beef. It’s all there, and people snap the stuff up so quickly that the stockers are always on patrol, rolling their carts down the aisles and yelling, “Watch your back!” (New York-ese for “Pardon me.”)

Unlike its uptown cousin, Zabar’s, Fairway stocks staples along with delicacies. So it’s possible to pick up Skippy peanut butter and Oreos along with Dutch matjes herring, aged emmenthaler cheese and Argentinian chimichurri sauce. The store’s blend of the ethereal and pedestrian, gastronomically speaking, adds to the chaos during peak hours.

The place may have the inventory of an elegant emporium, but the infrastructure and floor plan leave a lot to be desired. Fairway is laid out like a rabbit warren. Some of the aisles run parallel to each other; others tilt off diagonally and leave the shopper with an acute sense of dislocation. Since there isn’t enough room for the long check-out lines that form every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., lines of customers waiting to pay snake around corners and down aisles full of shoppers. Over time, seasoned shoppers figure out the best way of navigating the place.  On a recent visit, I heard one shopper tell another that he was “on line to get on line” in the express lane. The second shopper nodded his understanding and promptly got on line, to get on line, behind the first.

On second thought, maybe Fairway’s current motto captures the place perfectly. It really is like no other market. And it’s not an overstatement to say that it’s like New York City itself: often challenging, occasionally frustrating, but well worth the inconvenience. Because endless variety and consistently great quality don’t come without a price.

Not long ago, my sister Anne told me she’s thinking of pulling up stakes in Berkeley, California, and moving here. The reasons behind such a life-changing event are complicated and myriad. But she did single out the porcini bullion, available in aisle four at Fairway.

Niels Aaboe is a book editor.

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  • Joseph Bolanos

    It’s nice to finally read a story about something that many longtime residents have known.
    Shopping at Fairway is a chaotic experience. I’ve seen less pushing in a roller derby championship!
    In fact, if any out-of-towner wanted to witness the rude New Yorker stereotype, Fairway is the place to go.
    Cart thrusting like a bumper car rally, elbow jabbing that would make Vince McMahon proud and, of course, the forever-entitled baby stroller maniacals.

    And should you finally make it to the checkout line…bruised and dazed…your shopping experience is finally ended with a screaming checkout “handler” that screams you into submission…and cashier 7…or whatever terminal is open!

    And although I seldom venture in to this ‘Farmer’s Inferno’ (that only Dante would appreciate) I can’t help but wonder what would ever happen if there was a fire in this place. I dare not imagine. Surely, there HAS to be fire code that prevents such overcrowding indoors.
    One would think.

    There is some hope in the horizon, however. Trader Joe’s on 72nd & Bway is scheduled to open later his year.
    It’ll be nice to have a place where I do my food shopping without a helmet and protective gear!

  • Nancy Brandwein

    I absolutely loved this essay–wish I’d written it myself. It was pitch perfect and as a New Yorker for the past 25 years, I’ve experienced everything you described. Shopping at the 72nd Fairway is, indeed, a litmus test for “if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere.” Bravo, and I hope to read more of your essays.

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