Category Archives: Shopping

Notes From the Waste Stream #9: Still Life

A few months ago I spent some time with a baby. It got me thinking about a painting in my house. The baby is a six week old lump, eyes dilated, warm and deboned, whose major skills seemed to be sleeping, eating and pooping. Roughly in that order. After noting her smell (powdery), her manner (snuggly) and her affect (oblivious), I started thinking: What will she remember of her life? What will her parents be to her? What will she do with all the stuff her parents own? I know that most people do not have such morbid thoughts when holding a baby.

The Painting

Sometimes I write about our relationships with the things we own. This means that many, many people have suggested that I read Marie Kondo. In case you haven’t, you’re supposed to get rid of things that do not “spark joy.” My inner economist likes that her approach deals with loss aversion (we are more attached to what we have lost than what we do not yet have – see also: Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got) by shifting presumption towards disposal. But I’m not storing my socks vertically. Or speaking to my shirts. And although, like Kondo, I’m an all-in declutterer (one room at a time, no wandering off to leave the task half-done), the fundamental animism of her method doesn’t speak to me. I am extremely averse to overt branding. I relate to the “brand allergies” of Kayce Pollard, the heroine of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. But I will not cover up the labels of my detergent bottles so they do not “shout at me.” This seems a bit much; surely I can just look away?

I think that I have much in common with Kondo. Things, in general, seem to torment her. They must make their case or be banished. For me, no matter the cause of my sadness, I can feel better if I banish some stuff. I like an empty countertop. Some days I feel impossibly burdened by stuff. It’s not that I want to pick up and leave, but that it would be super hard if I wanted to. A military childhood imposes such discipline. Growing up, it was understood that everything we acquired needed to be moved every few years, so we weren’t to do much in the way of accumulating. Somebody would need to lift that box; somebody would have to pay for it to be shipped. The portability imperative seeps into you, influences every decision you make long into adulthood. Or else you refuse it altogether and decide that you will dig in absent outside orders, as my mother did in her later years.

These are first world problems. Kondo’s getting rich on a middle-brow version of affluenza. It’s a sweet spot: exporting the Japanese minimalist aesthetic to a society that takes comfort in its accumulation by watching Hoarders. “It could be so much worse,” we say as we buy something else from Amazon Prime.

IMG_2248Perhaps you have a house. Perhaps you read the glossy magazines, the tip-filled websites that armies of style mavens and merchandise wizards propagate, ostensibly, to help you achieve the kind of beauty and grace that will make people compliment you on your taste. Are you someone who needs to be complimented on your taste? If you are, in the immortal words of Flava Flav, “I can’t do nothing for you, man.” If not, you probably still have a dim understanding of the ecosystem’s map. You may not have “taste,” but you have “a” taste. Or perhaps, at the most basic level, you have graduated beyond Blu Tack to the adult practice of hanging things that are in frames or on canvas. Like all of life’s pursuits, the business of decoration has levels of obsession. How you assign worth (social worth, not monetary value, in case you’re the sort of person who gets those confused) to these levels may depend on the number of times you’ve read Hal Foster’s masterwork Ornament and Crime.

No matter where you fall on the spectrum, you’re decorating. Unless you are a psychopath, or incarcerated in an especially restrictive institution, you probably have things hanging on your walls. Some of these may be pieces you love. Perhaps they speak to you and bring you happiness. Some may be art that you just like –  they don’t “spark joy,” but just look good in a particular place, or are the proper size. And then there’s art that you hate. Or, at least it’s not to your taste. I have a painting like this. And yet it is hanging in my house.

The reason why begins with our shared human experience, whose CliffsNotes read something like this: You’re born. Your father’s hands seem impossibly huge. Your mother loves you to distraction. You learn right from wrong, good from bad, tasty from not. You navigate furniture you learn to treasure, hewing to norms you internalize but may later reject. You may dye your hair. Or get a tattoo. You’ll come to terms with your family, or you won’t. In any case, the odds are that you’ll bury them. This means they won’t have to die alone. For you, there are no similar guarantees.

When their story is over, you may end up staring at a painting you don’t like.

It is not an ugly painting. I have lived with ugly paintings before – you learn to glide your vision right past them, the way Linus says he bleeps over the Russian names when reading Dostoyevsky. There are paintings that I love but would never hang in my house, ranging from the kind of “art” generally sold around Jackson Square in New Orleans (though I have an amazing painting from there, a beloved gift from my husband) to the kitsch people buy to remember Key West. Then there’s the expensive stuff. Lucien Freud: too disturbing to contemplate over morning coffee. I love Damien Hirst but would prefer that my home not contain preserved animal corpses. A mummified bird once lingered in the sad corner of my dead mother’s basement. I paid someone to remove it to an inglorious afterlife.

This painting sits squarely at a puzzling intersection of values: high sentiment and low currency. It is a simple still life of casually arranged white flowers in a clear vase on a white tablecloth. They light up a dark background. The frame is gilded to a point that approaches ostentation. It is signed by the artist, Juan Ignacio Sardi. A small gold plaque along the frame’s bottom edge helpfully displays his name. The untitled work is surprisingly large. It hung in the dining room in all of our homes. The leaky propane-heated wreck “on the economy” (as they say in the military) in Spain where we adopted a stray cat imaginatively named Gato. The featureless house on base in Rota. The giant, sprawling coal-heated mansion in a tiny English village. The Lubbock ranch home. Albuquerque’s in-between rentals. The yellow brick house where my mother died on the couch while folding laundry.

It does seem like the kind of picture you would hang in a dining room – peaceful, even a bit atmospheric, grand but not pretentious, monochromatic but a bit romantic. In short, art that doesn’t take away from a room. In the right context. Right now it hangs in our guest room, the golden frame clashing queasily with our unfortunately mustard-colored walls. There was already a nail in place, and I worried about the way our cats might decide to interface with things made of canvas (violently, if our couches are any indication), so there it sits. I don’t go into the guest room very often, so I don’t have to look at it. If nobody looks at art, is it still art?

In Kondo-speak, I’m not quite ready to “thank it for its service.” Mostly because I’m still trying to figure out the nature of its service. While your parents are living, it’s awfully hard to learn to know them as actual humans with hopes and dreams. Oddly, one of the best things I’ve ever seen about this is a profane cartoon involving Burt Reynolds.

Once your parents are gone, your last chance to know them is through the things they left behind. I’ve been sorting through their things for years. But it wasn’t until I thought about selling the painting that I realized I’d never considered what it meant. It has always been so fully in the background – the way a parent can be if you’re not conscious or careful.

I stare at the still life. I do not understand it. What is there to understand? Table, vase, flowers, cloth. I think of the chaos it has overseen – just three years ago, a wake complete with lobster salad and cheesecake, the time we stuffed everything into the garage to make the home seem serene, driving the chihuahua to Colorado, the cat to the vet. Their deaths. The day before closing when the hot water heater leaked, the awkward holiday meals. She would have been able to see the painting from where she died on the couch, just around the corner against some florid, dated wallpaper. Did it give her comfort? Was it background that it escaped notice? What was its service to her?

IMG_2249Standing in the guest room, I notice for the first time that the flowers have already begun to shed a few leaves. How have I not seen this before? Both the not-noticing and the wilting seem bittersweet. The painting exists outside of time – flowers always about to wilt, tablecloth ever a little rumpled. It’s also deeply embedded in time and context. How will I know if it’s sparking joy? What is its service to me? Then I realize that I’m asking the wrong questions altogether. Kondo’s gotten in my head.

And then I get it. Marie Kondo doesn’t understand what objects are for. Or, more to the point, she has a fairly specific and crassly utilitarian understanding of what objects are for. They exist to serve us. Once they do not make us happy, they are released into the waste stream to serve someone else. So much of Kondo’s appeal is anchored in the valorization of the liberal humanist self, fully empowered to choose and deserving of all the service objects can provide. It’s such an appealing understanding of the world, just a little removed from the “dominion” philosophy used to justify activities like murdering and eating other animals. We want to believe that objects exist to serve us; even that art, somehow, exists to serve us. And that we should be filled with joy all the time. I get why this is popular. The alternative is pretty bleak – a de-centered self, a self shot through and constructed by the vagaries of time and chance. So instead we believe in “The Secret,” or the prosperity gospel, or The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Or we decorate.

The House

Montgomery, Alabama is a tough place to live. We moved here eight years ago and saw it as a big adventure: Strange new city! Lots to explore! Over the years, our gee-whiz optimism diffused gradually. First there was: “there must be more than this,” then “hey, stop talking bad about our city” wagon-circling, then “let’s rattle this cage and make it better,” to “let’s talk about something else for a little while.” The background radiation of persistent racism is palpable in Montgomery, where there’s little in the way of live music and vegetarian food. As for public transportation, we’re famous for our buses, but not because of their efficiency. But we were determined to make it work.

A crucial part of our big Montgomery adventure was the thrill of owning our first home. Not just any home – the kind of home you dream about, with built-ins, transom, high ceilings and all of the molding and baseboards one could possibly want (turns out these are super hard to keep clean – who knew?). Over the years, we’ve thrown ourselves into many home repairs and been thrown into many others. Someone once told me that when the world outside seems tough, you’ve got to garden your own corner of the universe. So I’ve gardened every inch of this house. Some of this has involved decoration.

And then death made me sad. More specifically, I was seized with grief. I’ve learned many things about grief in the last three years, but here’s one people don’t talk much about. You can’t decorate your way out of out of it. This knowledge reveals itself in stages:

  1. What am I supposed to do with all this crap? This is the part when you drive a truck across the country and dump its contents into your front room. You despair over the pile, secretly wishing that it will vanish.
  2. I am totally going to deal with all this crap. Here, you shift into hyper-organized mode. Who can wear these plaid shirts? Shred the taxes. Stash the photos.
  3. Hey, some of this crap is really nice. You remember that you love your mother’s china pattern, even though she worried that it might be “too masculine” for you. Keep a flower vase, a few meaningful trinkets from overseas adventures. They make you smile.
  4. I can’t bring myself to get rid of this crap. It gets hard. You start slipping. Soon you hide a painting you don’t understand in a room you never visit.

Grief cauterizes the ends of more feelings than you’d care to acknowledge. Songs that used to make you sad, if you really listened, just glide through your brain now. What hard-hearted person can listen to Missing by Everything But The Girl and not get at least a little misty? You, it turns out. Meanwhile your brain’s mad librarian begins to shelve memories erratically. It pushes some to the back while others hang in front of your eyes for days. A story told hours ago seems sepia toned while a 2010 car trip feels fresh. As time whispers its contrails into the unknown future, key events become less liminal. Someday you are surprised to remember that your first boyfriend is dead. Or that there was a time when you read all of Love in the Time of Cholera out loud. Or that it’s been nearly 20 years since your father blindly choked his last in an Albuquerque hospital bed, so you can’t now ask him what to do with his military duffel bag or ancient Soviet history books. You discover that there is at least one more stage:

  1. I hate this but can’t explain why. This persistent painting, this enigma, this flat representation – how did it survive when everything else disintegrated? You hate it for its survival. You realize that this is entirely irrational.

Memory is a close cousin to grief. They share some traits. Neither prizes veracity or cares about opportunity costs. You can remember something to the letter, feel it despicable, and still not regret it. Grief drags you along, makes you look even if you don’t wish to. Memory makes wishing immaterial. Memory is the major and triumphalist key that grief doesn’t answer so much as amplify beyond your set frequencies.

Memory and grief also share a common and contested territory: time. My still life, for all of its efforts, cannot exist outside of time. This is both an ontological condition and an ethical imperative. As T.S. Eliot says, “If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable.” Redemption requires assigned value. In turn, that requires a reckoning. As you leaf through through things, sorting them for various destinations along a foreign trail divorced from both grief and memory, you will feel lost. You will want to hold on to as much as you can. You will want to get rid of everything. The painting reminds you that neither option is possible or desirable.

The flowers offer no answers. Their stillness reminds me we cannot stop time. Why, then, search for joy? Shouldn’t we let it find us? And why demand service from objects? Would we not be better to release ourselves from this sickening dependency? The truth about our belongings is much more difficult than dreamt of in Kondo’s philosophy. They’re not devices to deliver joy. Our things are the breadcrumbs we deploy so we don’t get lost in time. If they have something to do with joy, it’s only because we load them with our baggage and the things expected of us. The idea that we can discern “our” joy from the joy manufactured and force-fed us by the culture purveyors would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad.

I make my peace with the painting. Sometimes it’s okay to keep things that make you sad, or that you don’t understand. You can surround yourself with joy and not feel a bit of it. Every inch of your home can be servile and you can still want for more. Again, Eliot helps us to understand the predicament:

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

When it’s time, I’ll give the painting to the baby. Perhaps she will have grand dinner parties under it, or contemplate it with tea in a quiet moment. Until then, I’ll hold on to it as a reminder that sometimes leaves fall without notice, without joy, and this can be beautiful.

Notes From the Waste Stream #1: World’s Fair Ticket Plate

Collinsville Trade Day is a good place to take the temperature of the struggling American economy. Every weekend in northern Alabama’s DeKalb County, thousands of people converge on rows of stalls and crowded parking lots. Within these acres you can buy everything from goats to grey-market cell phone covers in a rich mix that includes popcorn machines, chipped yellow plates, children’s clothes and leaf blowers. It’s overwhelming, especially with cold lemonade in hand and the smell of funnel cake in the air. It’s not a fixed market, but an organic commercial ecosystem that seems to shift by the hour as people come from miles around to sell things out of their vans and trucks, on card tables and blankets. Although some of the vendors are selling modern plastic goods still in their original boxes, the basic principle is as timeless as an ancient souk or bazaar.

Someone made these things, most likely far away. Then someone bought them. And now, perhaps many owners later, they’re available for sale. The collapse of the American manufacturing economy isn’t news, but it does seem that we don’t make much any more. Our parents, and especially their parents, worked in jobs where goods were made. Durable goods. As in, not Big Macs. At Trade Day in rural DeKalb County, some things are made: soaps, tea cozies, lemon bars and, in a strict sense, the goats and puppies. But as the name suggests, it’s about trade.

They used to make things in Fort Payne, just a few miles from Collinsville. More specifically, they made textiles and (weirdly) opera. While both industries are defunct, each has museums open to visitors at odd hours. Also, there are shops that sell socks by the pound. The enormous mills of Fort Payne, once famous as the “Sock Capital of the World,” died out and at least one eventually re-emerged as an “antique mall.” Jobs in the sock factories dried up with outsourcing. Now antique and junk shops traffic in the remains of the faded prosperity.

America is full of cities that have learned to define themselves not by what they make but by what they sell. A few hours south of Fort Payne, the small town of Brundidge rebranded themselves in the 1990s as “antique city,” only to see the various secondhand stores shut down a few years later. As the guys on American Pickers say, there may be “rusty gold” in people’s trash, but the gold standard has always had its limits – especially for poor and working class people.

After a few years in Montgomery, when you’ve seen all the museums and the monuments and stacked them up against your lived experience, official history starts to seem both heavy and unsatisfying. This has increasingly sent us looking around the margins for the unofficial versions. It’s always risky to reach outside of canon. In the first place, there’s the stuff generally left out of history books, like Paul Robeson and Bayard Rustin. That’s important. But that’s what rises to the top. If you really want to dig deep and understand how people live and how their families have lived, you’re going to have to step out of the museums and into the state’s best (and free) museums – its junk shops and trash piles.

We were in DeKalb County for the scenery. We’d been staying in a cabin in the hills that pass for Alabama’s mountains. On the way out of town we decided to check out local junk offerings. It was a Sunday, which limited our options. Evidently Jesus was not a fan of, or at least did not want to compete with, junk shopping. So we drove around. A shop with OL’ BUZZARD stenciled on the side in three-foot high letters caught our eye. Getting in was tricky – we’d arrived in the middle of a complex operation involving several well-muscled young men and a huge grand piano that looked dubiously balanced in the back of a rusty pickup. A tall man offered to give us a discount on anything we found inside if we could help to get the piano indoors. We agreed to the deal. While the men tried to thread the shop’s needle with an 1890s Steinway, I poked around indoors.

There are two major ways to taxonomize junk shops: the identity of the merchants and the place of the merchandise in the overall junk economy. Shops are either solo operations or group ventures. The solo shop can be full of absolute crap or tastefully decorated with expensive things. As you browse, you come to believe that you’re exploring a kind of reflection of the owner’s mind. Pick up a doily. Consider that it’s been grouped with a pig-shaped cookie jar and a ragged book about the Knights Templar. Why these particular objects in these arrangements at these particular prices? It’s like a walkthrough MRI. Of which parts are for sale, perhaps for negotiable prices.

If a solo shop is an autobiography in capitalist cross-stitch, the collective approach is social history in a small town phone book. Within the country’s former big box stores and defunct furniture factories, collectible-minded folks have found each other and mustered their various wares in partitioned and leased sections. Each stall has its own number, pricing scheme, hidden rules of negotiation, and theme. Although stalls compete with each other for your attention, they also cooperate to keep the lights on while vigorously blurring the definition of “antique.” This Life magazine with the missing back page? This 16th century English stoneware? Pitcher shaped like an astonished frog? Jimmy Carter and family paper dolls? All antiques. Because this is an antique mall, that’s why. No more questions. But there is a discount if you’re paying cash.

Trash is something destined for a landfill. An antique is something that someone will pay a lot of money for. Everything for sale in every junk shop in America occupies a place in this spectrum between liability and worth. What place, exactly? Like most interesting questions, the answer is: It depends. The owner of a pawn shop (themselves unique niches in the second-hand universe) taught us some things about worth. An expert in collectable coins, he explained that value to numismatists depends on supply, demand and condition. In that order. Some people fetishize objects in mint condition, and robust debates can ensue about perceived flaws in any object and how that impacts value. But the condition of an object doesn’t matter if there are enough out there to meet the demand.

All of which is to advance a universal truth about any commercial transaction, but especially true of America’s antique and junk economy: A thing is worth exactly what someone’s willing to pay for it. The effort to separate buyers from their money causes junk shops to sort items up and down the trash ladder. Some stores are sad and damp, the kind of places where cast off clothes change hands as “new for school,” and the moldy book shelf is mostly composed of self-help and romance novels, the reading of one genre perhaps leading to the reading of the other. On the trash ladder, you’re close to the yard sale and the dump, where the most valuable things are old Nintendo cartridges (hipster nostalgia) and chipped glass-top dinette sets (lake house).

At the high end of merchandise, you get posh and crisp (think Victorian, Colonial) or hip and therefore expensive (mid-century modern, ironic 1970s kitsch). If you’re engaged in that most American of pastimes – trying to get something for close to nothing – neither end of the ladder is likely to whet your whistle. What you want is someone in the middle. Preferably, this will be someone who doesn’t really know what they have or care to price it effectively despite the Internet’s copious advice about “real value” (whatever that is). Often these are sellers for whom eBay and Craigslist either expose fundamental Internet illiteracy or reflect a series of stories of betrayals.

The man supervising the piano lifting turned out to be the actual Ol’ Buzzard. His shop was somewhere in the middle of the junk ladder, perhaps because he’d only been open for a few months. This inspired hope in our buyer’s hearts, as it might not have been long enough for the predators at the top of the junk ladder to buy out the good stuff, either for keeping or re-selling in tonier shops. There was a lot to look at, curated but still several steps above the junk ladder from the bargain bins at Trade Days just a few miles away. The piano eased in the door with much huffing as I weaved between stacks of National Geographics, three decades of vinyl, a dozen pewter trophies and kitchen machines that defied description or need.

photo 1 photo 2High up on a shelf I saw a piece of metal covered with small versions of an iconic American image particularly familiar to fans of The Simpsons – the Sunsphere from the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. A closer look showed that the plate, about two feet wide and a foot and a half high, was engraved with admissions tickets to the Fair. This was likely to be a souvenir rather than a plate used to actually stamp tickets, but it was still awfully cool – and after our piano-moving discount, only $20. Sold.

I’ve been interested in the history of the World Fairs since reading Erik Larson’s marvelous Devil in the White City. While the scope and ambition of the Chicago World’s Fair is amazing in historical hindsight (the first Ferris Wheel! An ice pavilion!), it’s not that different than what we’d seen at Trade Days. Under its varnish of global citizenship and culture, the World’s Fair was essentially a set of vendors with big names like General Mills and Ford. The brass tickets I bought symbolized a profound optimism for the global economy. But even the most visionary World’s Fair booster probably could not have conceived of a world where a monkey playing cymbals made in Taiwan (in its original wrapping) would be for sale next to a live pig and a dented crescent wrench.

What was the brass plate worth? Exactly what I paid for it to sit on my mantle. The Internet turns up no images or auction records for something like this, but I’m not looking to sell. Each carefully numbered ticket reminds me that someone’s always trying to sell me something, especially if they can dress it up with monumental sculpture, the promise of an exotic provenance, or at least some cold lemonade.

Is Retail Dead?

Grandma Advertiser told us this week that Foshee Management is going to start in earnest on mixed-use properties on Dexter. They’re calling it the Montgomery Market District, which is a little odd because a) Dexter Avenue is a name known around the world and b) there’s no market there, unless they mean the slave market, which was right there, and they can’t possibly mean that, can they? Anyway, they’ve bought a domain name and set up a website for this part of town. This website informs us that Dexter used to be called Market Street. Perhaps it was renamed for a reason.

Quibbles about the name aside, the idea of retail returning to downtown is pretty exciting — especially given that it’s struggling around the city right now. The Look left Five Points for Zelda Road and is now shuttered. Talbots closed over there too, and there’s been no replacement for some time. M. Bagwell’s been closed so long we’ve forgotten what it looked like inside. Locally-owned hardware stores are vanishing. Ciao Bella moved down to that trailer/incubator down by the Alley; the Mulberry Street businesses seem to be in a constant state of turmoil with a few exceptions, perhaps because it’s hard to park over there. The Dandy Lion seemed so promising and is now suddenly closed. There’s a weird absence of retail in the Alley development itself. And although there are some bright spots (the Herb Chateau is a welcome new business, as is Hue Studio over in the A&P lofts, and Fairview Homebrew seems to be doing fine; of course we can’t mention everyone here, please don’t write), there’s just not a lot of places to buy interesting stuff around here. Which is weird.

Except that it’s not. This week The Atlantic ran a piece called “Radio Shack is Doomed (and So Is Retail)” that delivered some sobering facts about shopping. Amazon, it turns out, is more than three times more efficient at selling products than the competition. That’s part of the reason this chart (from the article) looks the way it does:

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 1.25.58 PM

This is part of why Zelda Road looks the way it does – tons of tutoring businesses, health places, food options, but not a lot of shops.

Ever since a trusted local business owner told us that retail was dead, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this matter. Driving around our town and others, we’ve asked each other: What store would you put there? What makes this street so cool and this other street not so cool? The answer seems to be a mix of establishments. Bars and restaurants are cool and all, but they’re generally more hopping at night. What about daytime options? What about contributing to the arts and culture vibe of a city? As much as we’re not into rank consumption, tangible things remain important to our lives, just like everyone else.

I know Montgomery’s not New Orleans, but one of the things that makes the French Quarter so fun is its abundance of awesome used bookstores. And other shops – not the big tourist/gator head/hot sauce emporiums, but places like the store where they hand loom rugs. We were in Memphis a year ago and visited a cool neighborhood with a great record store and a few other shops worth wandering into after we ate a great vegan meal and picked up an awesome cup of coffee. Down in Mobile, they’ve opened a big cavernous vintage/antique/junk shop type place downtown – it doesn’t seem like it would work, but it does. Birmingham’s Five Points has a great eyewear store, a shop with strange gifts, a health food market which covers all of your incense-and-hippie needs and an amazing record shop. The Second Avenue development has What’s On Second (highly, highly recommend) and a few other places to complement the bars, restaurants and cafes there. Albuquerque’s Central Avenue has an amazing mix of one-of-a-kind retail, food, bars and cafes, even with the recent addition of an Urban Outfitters.

There’s something about a well-curated shop or two that makes a neighborhood special. We’re not talking about a chain store; we’re talking about someone who lives in your neighborhood picking out things for sale that they think other people in the neighborhood might like. When you transact with this person, you’re not just buying a thing. You’re transacting with your neighborhood, engaging in a conversation whose currency is nominally monetary but even more important than mere coins and bills.

Up in Decatur (Morgan County), we wandered into a cool shop that combined a performance space with records, comics, vintage clothing and a few arcade games. This was perfect – the kind of place where you want to chat with the owner, spend some money, and even meet some people you might like to know. We think RAD! Vinyl Records Shop over on the Atlanta Highway is promising. Why didn’t that shop get tax credits invited downtown to make the Alley a more interesting place? As it is, it’s a drive-to destination, rather than someplace you  might shop before meeting friends for a drink or a meal. Retail is social; this is a major thing the big boxes miss and something Amazon will never capture. Sure, your trash bags or dishwashing detergent may not be a social purchase, but buying a well-made shirt or a vintage mirror might be. Or could be, which is the point here. Retail should be aspirational, not merely (only) transactional. As much as some of us make fun of the artisanal facial hair boutiques of Brooklyn, they do provide a particular retail experience not offered in the current market – these folks should be celebrated as entrepreneurs even as their sideburns are relentlessly mocked.

We’re not merchants and have never run a retail shop, but we keep asking ourselves what we would sell, given the chance. Sure, we’d love to run a bookstore – not to compete with Capitol Book & News, but to complement them. We know that record stores are having a hard time right now, but they have an awesome one down at the planned Seaside community in Florida. And we know Montgomery’s not the richest place in the world, but there are folks here with disposable income, especially if you give them well-priced stuff and a good shopping experience. We need more antidotes to Wal-Mart, something different and more human-scaled than Eastchase. It’s probably only a matter of time until Eastdale goes under too, then the city’s going to have another dead mall on its hands with no schools willing to move in. Is retail dead, or does it just suck?

Maybe people shop online not just because it’s convenient, but also because shopping is pretty unpleasant at the big box stores. Maybe the chain stores are too predictable, and you can find something more interesting online at Mod Cloth than you can at Ann Taylor. These are not insurmountable obstacles. Painted Pink over on Mulberry does it right, even if their clothes aren’t for you. They have outstanding customer service and great communication with the outside world (they post pictures of new clothing regularly on their Facebook page). When you go in there, even if it’s just to browse, you feel like you’re being let into the closet of someone with very specific taste. A great store is like a great museum: It’s specifically organized, with rotating exhibits and leaves you feeling good afterward, even if you didn’t buy anything.

But of course, you need to buy stuff. If you don’t, retail operations fail. We could set up a couture gowns store in the Alley, and everyone would come in and coo over the merch, and we’d be out of business before we could even make a single rent payment. So it’s clear that shops need to offer a mix of the affordable and the aspirational – heck, even Wal-Mart knows that. You might admire the new lawnmower but walk out with a deeply discounted pack of Axe Body Spray – still, they got you in the door and relieved you of some of your monthly paycheck.

For starters, the city should invest in supporting a store for local artists like the Christmas pop-up shop downtown. Except it should be permanent. On a recent long layover in the Minneapolis airport, I was delighted to find a store specializing in local products. This was evidently the product of a special initiative. It makes the airport about a million times better (that, and they have pinball machines on every concourse). It’s too much to ask for something similar at Montgomery’s tiny airport, but it should certainly be part of the Market District, if not the Alley. You could say that there’s not enough local craftwork to fill a permanent store, but I’m sure that’s false. Even if it’s true, that’s a chicken-egg problem. Artists are encouraged to produce when there’s an actual place to sell their stuff, not clawing for attention on Etsy.

Also there should be a store that sells weird stuff. A mix of vintage and new, like the Tip Top Atomic Shop in Milwaukee would be cool, even if rockabilly’s not your thing. One key will be not to poach other retailers, even though I just said we think RAD! Records should be in a different place. Maybe Montgomery can’t support two record stores just yet, but if you want to build a vibe downtown where young people want to live and work, you need to give them places that sell cool things to spend money on. Definitely a junk shop should be high on the list – lofts need interesting furniture, and paying top dollar for loft living means that you might need a slightly cheaper coffee table.

Obviously, there should be a cool coffee shop. It should also sell stuff, like books and stationary and cards. It should also have a performance space and a pinball machine or two, while we’re dreaming. Chris’ Hot Dogs shouldn’t have a pinball monopoly in this town any longer! The Standard up in Birmingham is awfully nice as a model for using old space, but could be combined with a little retail for added interest here.

Most importantly, there needs to be some kind of grocery store — one kind of retail that will never go out of style and isn’t likely to be eroded by online buying. The lack of one stymied downtown living in Los Angeles for many years. Sure, there’s not going to be a Publix downtown anytime soon, but there needs to be a functional market where people can get milk and eggs and canned goods without paying a fortune. The mayor should do everything in his power to get a Trader Joe’s downtown. That would bring people in from all over town, lifting the boats of other retails shops there.

On Dexter Avenue, which seems like an improvement over Market Street even as you can learn (as we did) how Andrew Dexter got the street named after him. This guy, in an alternative future a Apex Predator-level Goldman Sachs employee, was a Rhode Island banker who bought sight unseen land in Alabama and moved in aggressively to found New Philadelphia, across the fountain from Alabama Town. If you’ve ever wondered why downtown streets meet at weird angles, Dexter’s partly to blame. At first, Montgomery was two cities that merged around an Artesian well (also the slave market site) – read Who Was Dexter Avenue, Anyhow for more. In any case, this guy was kind of a swindler. He ran a bank that failed its shareholders in spectacular fashion in the early 1800s, even as he set aside land for what would become our state capitol. He gave some of his land to be used as a burial ground, but himself ended up in an unmarked grave somewhere on the way to Mobile, not even 50 years old.

This is the global brand we embrace? Fairly you might ask after the costs of remaking it into the Market District. But Dexter is the one that took us to the dance. He performed in a predictably clumsy way at first but warmed up later, surprising us with his innovative footwork much later on, dipping us in ways we hadn’t expected until our whole world changed. Why are we ditching him? Andrew Dexter was our city’s first failed retail experiment. We should still embrace his inadvertent and lasting legacy, at least when it comes to the delightful narcissism of branding.

Maybe you’re of the Olive Garden school, where it’s commonplace so guaranteed; maybe you’re of the Chipotle school, where it’s known and therefore good; maybe you’re of the El Rey school where people you know know it so it’s good. Wouldn’t you rather be on Dexter than in the Market District? Wouldn’t you rather say you’re a few blocks from the failed Subway or Dr. King’s church or close to the failed Winter Building with the alleged shackles in the basement? You don’t have to be Cayce Pollard to feel like something dangerous could be afoot here. We say to Montgomery: Make the right decision. As crazy as it might be, being a little more New Philadelphia than Alabama Town might be the right direction for our fair city right now. Minus the racism, and the oppression/appropriation of indigenous peoples. Is that even possible these days? And can we add charming well-priced gifts?

We’re doomed.

The End Times: Brought to You by Publix

For the last several months, we’ve been out of town and out of the country more than we’ve been here in Montgomery. Coming back, we found ourselves lacking in basic foodstuffs and needing to make a serious grocery store trip. So we girded up and went to the Publix on Zelda Road this weekend. No offense to the Carter Hill Winn Dixie, which is easy, affordable, and getting better all the time (though still plays really terrible music and still lacks a good vegetarian selection). We don’t shop at Fresh Market because a) we’re not rich, and b) it’s not really a grocery store. Publix is reliable and carries a surprisingly wide selection of vegetarian and vegan items. They have tempeh and plantains and the good veggie dogs and Daiya – really, it’s a very good grocery store and we feel lucky to live so close to it.

But it’s also a disturbing place. You see a number of products there that make you think simultaneously: “Somebody buys this?” and “Sigh. Somebody buys this.” The difference in inflection, the jump to the declarative that identifies your neighborhood as one where people live who actually buy these things, can drive you insane if you think about it too much. So of course we think about it too much. We took some pictures.

What follows is a sample of the products and trends we found that were horrifying, head-shaking or simply things that make you go hmmm.

1. Shouldn’t that be refrigerated?


Sure, meats and cheeses have been stored without refrigeration for most of human history. And we did just get a lecture from a fractious European cheese seller about the many ways that refrigeration can kill a cheese. But still, it’s kind of shocking how many unrefrigerated and “ready to eat” perishables abounded in the Publix aisles – including a $15 pack of cheese designed to be melted in a fondue kit. These room temp items are a plus for the preppers among us and a minus for those of us suspicious of nitrates or watching our salt intake.

2. Gee, your house smells terrible.

People of Montgomery, your homes must smell just awful. We have discerned this by noticing that Publix devotes approximately 600 square feet of shelf space to household odor correctors/enhancers. These come in all kinds, from weird little dipsticks to plug-in wafters, from old-fashioned incense to Yankee Candle-style assaults on your brain’s cherry vanilla olfactory sensors. I’m not sure what a mangosteen is, exactly, but evidently many people want their house to smell like that. And also pineapple.


The above photo demonstrates the shelf space devoted to this stuff. Everything down to the outstretched arm could be filed under the category of “anti-stink technology.”


A triumph of cross-branding, without any of the sticky residue that clings to your back molars like a bad high school crush. Except whatever caustic films they leave in your lungs after you inhale them.


New look!


So many different ways to improve your home’s odors. Or you could just, you know, clean your house.

3. Of course that’s now a brand name.


This is totally what Kropotkin intended. If you rub this on your body during a shower, the government will totally crumble. And the fact that they’ve jammed 33 percent more of this goop into a bottle not only means that our new social order will be more harmonious, but also that these bottles will fill up the landfill just a little bit quicker.

4. Our planet is doomed.P1040552

Click, swish, toss. No time for space colonies! Click, swish, toss. What is wrong with you people who can’t just have a regular toilet brush like the rest of us? Must the River Region dispose of toilet sponges the aggregate size of Cramton Bowl every year just because we cannot figure out how to keep a regular, less than $9.49, cleaning utensil around and vaguely sanitary? Answer: Yes. Re-use of toilet brushes causes Socialist health care.


Also, can we talk about your cat? And how evidently he/she needs more varieties of food than all of the “Asians” and “Hispanics” in Montgomery? Because this is wack, people – appetizers for cats? Get a grip. The economy is collapsing around our ears, but as long as Mr. Whiskers gets his amuse bouche in time for you to settle in and watch The Biggest Loser, everything will be just fine. Meanwhile, the Publix does not stock falafel mix, which is helpful in making one of humanity’s most ancient and delicious foods.

5. Nostalgia is toxic. And evidently sweet.


Need a popcorn popper? Cake pop maker? Snack on a stick maker? Mini pancake maker? Nostalgia Electrics has got you covered. And evidently Publix thinks so highly of their products that Nostalgia Products, LLC gets about the same shelf space as peanut butter. Okay, a little less, but the price per ounce is a money-maker. Perhaps Publix is just betting that your ideas are similar to notorious mini-pancake lover Lou Reed, who famously said: “I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.” For the record, the “cake pop” trend is an atrocity and should be ended as soon as possible.

6. Flavor sauce is everywhere.


Don’t be shocked, but it turns out that panko-blonde Guy Fieri is a symptom rather than a cause. You may have read the recent and scathing review of The Next Food Network Star’s restaurant in New York. In case not, enjoy. We’ll wait. As you see, much of Fieri’s bro-appeal is a matter of flavor sauces, one piled upon another, as things are madly stuffed inside of other things and deep-fried. This “flavor sauce” thing has legs. It’s basically the whole Applebee’s menu. And now Publix is in the grips too – all the things that used to be called SALAD DRESSING are now called ANYTHING DRESSING. Because salad, that’s for ladies, right? And also, who wants to sell a product just for salad when you can slather it on your muffincandywafflemini-pancakeAxedeodorantinANARCHY™?

7. People don’t know how to cook.


Look, obviously you have no idea how to cook. Otherwise this would not appeal to you. That, or you just like to sample stuff in tiny plastic cups, in which case you are a) making penguins extinct, and b) stupid for not going to Costco, where there are way more and better plastic cups of crap you will never actually cook. Publix understands your flailing. They give you the recipe and then stick all the stuff in the same refrigerated case so that you don’t have to actually go around the store and collect the ingredients. You just follow the instructions on the card, eat the food, chew joylessly and head into the bathroom. Repeat. Die.


You know that song by Arcade Fire called “We Used To Wait?” No? Too impatient to look it up on YouTube? Perfect. These QuickCook Blackeye Peas are just the thing for you. We used to wait. Now, you steam peas in the bag with the other veggies in the freezer aisle and think yourself damn healthy as you sink into another season of Downton Abbey. Shovel peas into your mouth in ten minutes. Hell, why wait that long? Just rip open the cellophane and turn the peas into mouth mush without waiting the eternity that the package demands.


You should be ashamed of yourself for buying this. Deeply ashamed. And if you bought it for your child, even more so. Shake AND pour? Two steps? What is this? The Gulag?

8. The Reading Aisle

P1040541 P1040540

Literacy! You could do an entire entertaining blog for months and months tracking the contents of a grocery store’s reading material. The novels represent an even lower denominator than the airport bookstore. We’re open to being tarred as literary elitists — and sure, we do read the high-brow stuff. But the bleak quality of the grocery store book section is not just an antidote to populism, but is enough to make someone relish the oncoming post-literate age altogether. Skip this section entirely, download some mind-rotting apps onto your tablet computer, and move on.

The magazine section is also fun to examine for the narrow demographic nets being cast, along with the gloomy darkness of depression from which emerge the kind of lonely thoughts that would cause someone to seek something from these shelves. If only they’d make a single magazine about ineptly-rapping brides using guns and hot rods to decorate their country cottages, they could just reproduce the same thing every month. Now with recipes and crossword puzzles!

9. Heat and stir

P1040538 P1040539

Spam is gross. All canned meats are gross. Given the amount of food and water and space and energy needed to raise an animal and kill it, meat should be expensive. Meat should cost more than vegetables. Canned meat like Spam should not be in plastic trays to be put into microwaves. If a “Compleat” is what you are having for dinner tonight, well, maybe you’re doing the best you can and we shouldn’t judge you.

And an entire treatise could be written on how macaroni and cheese has morphed from a single food item into an entire line of products, with cheese in silver foil packets (in both powdered and goo form) being ingested by millions of people every year. Pasta is one of humanity’s great inventions, but retain some galaxy-sized awe for the immensity and sheer amount of shelf space devoted to this bewildering array of one narrow and processed vision of a noodle drenched in cheese (or cheese-like simulation).

10. That should not come in a can.


11. Positioned at handy child level!


Tooth rotting cereal meets tooth rotting cupcake in a bar. Lubricated by a few too many brand execs from General Mills (which owns both Better Crocker and the cereal brands featured here), the two go home together and make babies, which are boxed and sent to supermarkets around the world. Dentists rejoice.


For other leading-edge Lost in Montgomery coverage of Montgomery grocery stores, check here and here.

Things that are closed on Mondays

It’s a Monday. That means that if you want to go out to a nice meal in this town you’re basically out of luck. Recently we had the opportunity to take someone dear to us out for a nice celebratory meal. We were looking for something good, with tablecloths and a wine offerings beyond simply “red or white” and a good vegetarian option, or at least some good seafood. Alas, it was a Monday. Evidently this means most good Montgomery restaurants are closed. We know, because we called them.

We started with Jubilee, because nothing says “Happy Birthday” like an amazing piece of fish served with overpriced rice pilaf. Closed. Then we thought: Michael’s Table! We’ve still never been, but this might be just the right time! Closed. The Olive Room, for spy-movie ambiance and martinis? Nope. The Chophouse, where we’ve been meaning to go when we get rich someday? No. Sure, Roux is open on Mondays in our part of town, but at what cost? We decided to look further afield.

We considered Garrett’s, which is basically in Shorter but has amazingly delicious flash fried oysters. Closed. The last time we had a nice dinner with our loved one, we went to Ham and High – enough to convince us we weren’t going back there, plus it’s at (shudder) Hampstead – nevertheless, the home of Montgomery’s worst fried green tomatoes was closed.

What were we left with? Capitol Oyster Bar is closed on Monday, and although the dining is fine there, it’s not exactly fine dining. There’s always El Rey, but we eat there so often with our loved ones that we feared it wouldn’t have the super special birthday feel we were hoping for – though we knew they would do us proud, we wanted to tablecloth it up and use cloth napkins (instead of the otherwise perfectly serviceable roll of paper towels at the table).

Then it came to us – the City Grill. It’s way out in the Hellscape, and we’d seen it before when we visited the simply atrocious East China years ago (our stomachs may still be recovering – if you haven’t been, spare yourself). A call confirmed our reservation, and we had a plan.

City Grill doesn’t have a website. They have a Facebook page where updated menus and announcements are posted, and it’s easy to find their contact info all over the Internets. We rolled in for a fairly early dinner and immediately found the place to be warm and inviting. The wine list was affordable and unpretentious, the bread was good, and even though we were sitting in a booth we found that the place met our tablecloth-y needs. Two of us got fish, and one got some mussels and their grilled Greek cheese salad. The latter had been highly recommended by a bunch of people on Yelp, which should have been taken as a warning rather than advice, given that the damaged online mob was basically the same group of food idiots who got us to East China in the first place via the Advertiser’s “Best of Montgomery” supplement. The fish was good. The salad was slippery, oily and weirdly sweet. But the fish sure was good, and the mussels were also delicious, like the dessert (creme brulee) we shared afterward. City Grill’s a find, for sure.

Unfortunately, we had to drive all the way across town to get there. What is the deal with the Monday night conspiracy, Montgomery?

We understand that many places are open on Saturdays and want to have a two day weekend for staff. But this doesn’t seem to bother restaurants in other cities. You just rotate staff. That seems like a reasonable solution. Or maybe some people want to work 7 days a week. Kind of like people enjoy eating 7 days a week.

Isn’t this a gaping hole in the market? Won’t some enterprising restaurant owner step up and say, “People of Montgomery! Feast at my table for a reasonable cost on a Monday night!”

East-South Boulevard

I walk this empty street
On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams
When the city sleeps
And I’m the only one and I walk alone.

— Green Day, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”

The westbound section of the Boulevard between Norman Bridge and Court may be the most depressing stretch of a very depressing road. It’s certainly possible that it may have, at one time, been an optimistic slice of poorly-designed road, ferrying happy folks on an outer loop around Montgomery, a key artery between the Montgomery Mall and the airport.

But the Mall is now dead, with the city unable to destroy it or re-develop it. And although this stretch of the Boulevard is still relevant if you are going to the airport or taking Highway 331 to the beach, most people in Montgomery don’t want to spend much time around this piece of the poorly-named East-South Boulevard. Driving by it, no matter which side of the road you’re on, is enough to take the smile right off of your face. It’s grim.

There’s really not a lot that makes this stretch of the Boulevard all that special – no real reason to single it out. Other stretches of the same road are really equally depressing.White flight and the eastward flood of capitol have left behind a hollow and crumbling infrastructure for many miles of this boulevard.

But let’s look at this segment: You’ve got a fire station at one end and (at one time) a good restaurant at the other. And in between, a puzzling collection of eyesores. And now the restaurant is gone too, smartly moved to a riverside location. What remains?

Come down Norman Bridge from downtown. Pass the abandoned shopping mall at Normandale on your right and a Krystal on your left. After the Krystal is the fire station.

Click here for an expanded view of the section of street we're talking about.

Turn left onto the service road and you’ll see:

1. The Fire Station

Not a lot to say about this. We are glad the government collects tax money and uses it to create public structures that promote the common good. Some people think that city fire fighters are not real workers at real jobs because they don’t work for the private sector. Those people are also the same folks who probably purchased a FDNY hat after 9-11. We like our fire fighters, support the role of city government, and are glad there is a fire station on this corner. We hope it’s a nice one. They were grilling out on a recent lovely Sunday afternoon.

2. A MATS stop.

The most noteworthy things here are: 1) It’s pretty depressing to imagine someone needing to come to this part of the Boulevard but not having access to a car, meaning they have to hang out here for a while waiting for a bus. 2) Every MATS stop should have a bench and covering. So many of them are just signs, with no place to sit and no shelter from the elements. It shouldn’t be that hard to put one of these at every place the bus stops.

3. Import Center Automotive

With a roof shaping like the habit of the Flying Nun, you’d hope that this building would house something more interesting than a car repair place. As it is, it’s set far back from the road and the cars in the lot appear to be “imports” in the sense that many cars are not made in the United States. Also, they appear to be for sale, making this seem something like a repair place and something like a very small car lot. The building looks to be in rough shape and the nothing about the property is particularly attractive or inviting. On the plus side, it is near a bus stop.

4. Chellaez

Well, that’s one way to avoid using an apostrophe.

We assume this is pronounced “Chellie’s,” but we may be wrong. We sometimes also use “Chell-Izzz,” stringing that last Z out for a few extra seconds to add extra seediness. And this may be one of the seedier bars around (other nominees for that distinguished title: The Shack, Johnny’s Zip Lounge). The signs disclaim any responsibility for “vandalism.” Not sure what that means. We have not yet mustered the courage to wander in here on one of the weekend evenings that it appears to be bumping, but if we do, we’ll provide a full report.

Until then, we give this video and its sequel (Mother’s Day!) our highest recommendations. They appear to have been filmed at Chellaez.

5. ABC

After two empty fields that probably serve as parking for Chellaez on busy nights, you have the ABC Store. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that these empty lots contribute to an appearance of abandonment and blight, we are glad that these lots are empty and not filled with, say, a payday loan store.

For those of you who don’t know what an ABC store is, it’s like this: People in Alabama really, really hate the government. The government can’t do anything right and will always make mistakes (except in executing people … they never, ever make mistakes in carrying out prosecutions and executions). And the government shouldn’t interfere with private business at all … except for alcohol. In the case of alcohol, the people of Alabama prefer that the state government actually sell alcohol and compete with private industry liquor dealers. Why? Well, asking questions like that is what allows the Demon Rum to suck out men’s souls.

As such, here we have the state government selling booze to the low-income folks that hang out in this part of town, leading us to give thanks for the alcoholics clutching their paper sacks as they weave out of the store towards their cars. Thanks for your tax dollars to fund our schools and fire departments, Mr. Wino!

Fortunately, this place is closed on Sunday because Jesus doesn’t approve of people buying booze on one particular day of the week. The other six? No problem! Glug glug!

6. Title Loan/Nation of Islam/Barber Shop

As you can see, this place was actually jumping on a Sunday morning. We assume the cars were because people were studying their issues of Final Call over at the NOI. But maybe there were haircuts being dispensed as well over at Roots of Style. We’re not sure which of the two places offers title loans, but the sign was still up:

We’d assume that the Fruit of Islam would be totally against predatory lending, but as White Devils created by the evil scientist Yakub, we confess that we may not be in on the latest NOI business plans. They may have purchased the building from a title lender and just not taken the sign down yet.

7. Auto Detail King

This building looks rough. Unclear where they actually do the auto detailing. We’d guess that it isn’t on site. The homemade sign doesn’t inspire the greatest confidence that these ought to be the folks to paint and touch-up your car. But maybe you have a think for stencils and monarchy.

8. Airport Barber and Style Shop

It’s fun to imagine the competition between the ABSS and the Roots of Style folks that adjoin the Nation of Islam place. Certainly ABSS has the larger building, although it may be in worse shape. Why do they need that much space? It’s a very large building for a barber shop.

Also, there is the fact that the Airport Barber and Style Shop is over six miles away from the airport. That said, it is on the way to the airport, so maybe that’s legit. But it’s less than four miles away from the state capitol, so when you’re coming up with names for your barber shop, you might as well pick something that’s somewhat cooler (and closer by) than the Montgomery Regional Airport.

9. Freeze Daiquiri Bar and Grill

After the barber shop, you’ve got a whole bunch of empty space. You’re talking about a big empty lot, a cell phone tower, and then what appear to be two more parcels of land — one grass and one gravel. In our experience, these latter two lots were parking lots of the next building, which was once the very-good Capitol Oyster Bar.

We’ve written before how we like the COB because it was on this kind of sketchy block, keeping it real as the economy crumbled around it. But then the COB made what was (we’d assume) a smart business choice and left this block. In its place, we have Freeze Daiquiri Bar and Grill, which encourages us to eat, drink, and chill. Get it? Because it’s called Freeze, they want us to chill?

Needless to say, we are not likely to check this place out. A quick online search reveals no reviews of the food from the grill part of the “bar and grill.” Dwayne L. Bradley applied for a liquor license from the city back in April 2011, and we guess he got it. But there are never, ever, ever any cars here. We miss you, Capitol Oyster Bar.

Another look at Freeze, only because the sign hilariously suggests that they have NFL Sunday Ticket, starting at 5 p.m. after almost all of the NFL games are over. Do they realize that the Sunday night game is on regular TV? If someone wanted to watch out-of-market NFL games, they would be doing it somewhere else before 5 p.m. Given that the place appeared to be closed on a recent Sunday afternoon, they may be already out of business.

Oh, and they evidently kept the bleachers that the COB used for outdoor seating for live music. Freeze is using the bleachers to offer folks an awesome view of a wooden fence:

10. Kade’s Day Care Center

Dude. We know there are a lot of parents out there that have to work. They need a place to put their kids. But seriously. Dude.

They take kids at six weeks old. If you have a six-week-old child and feel like you need to take them here, the busted up place between a daiquiri bar and the Island Lounge, you need some folks to step up and help you raise that baby.

11. The Island Lounge

Someone named Tapengo Williams applied for a liquor license back in August of 2011, so someone still thinks this place is the site of a viable business. Since we have not been inside, we cannot confirm the rumors that it is an enchanting tropical paradise. On the other hand, islands aren’t all awesome. If you’re in a Cuban prison, you’re still on an island.

12. Next you’ve got a giant weedy overgrown lot. Some people were using it as a cut-through by day. Unclear what goes on here after the sun goes down. A sign in the lot says it’s 2.51 acres and is for sale for around $200,000. We assume that since our reviews of the surrounding real estate have been so glowing, it has probably been snapped up by a motivated buyer by this point.

13. The Petro station

That’s the last thing on the block. Well, it’s the first thing if you’re coming from the other direction, obviously. No idea what’s it’s like in the Petro, but it’s probably a gas station with beer and candy and whatnot. Around the corner if you turn left is K&J Rib Shack, which has some sweet spray-painted pictures of food on the exterior wall.

It’s not entirely fair to end the review of this scenic block here, since across Court Street is what we call “the Murder Chevron,” on account of my having seen a dead body in the parking lot within the first few weeks of having moved to Montgomery (a guy from Selma killed in what was suspected to be a drug deal gone wrong). And it’s not entirely fair to start the review of that block with the fire station, since across Norman Bridge is the Diplomat Inn, which may be, um, how to put this diplomatically, well, not exactly the kind of hotel at which you would reserve a room for the most favored diplomats.

According to Wikipedia, a boulevard is, “usually a wide, multi-lane arterial thoroughfare, divided with a median down the center, and roadways along each side designed as slow travel and parking lanes and for bicycle and pedestrian usage, often with an above-average quality of landscaping and scenery.”

East South Boulevard? Still working on it.

Capri Movie Poster Sale

Although the struggle between art and commerce has been waged since the advent of humanity, there was nevertheless, on Saturday morning in Montgomery, a beautiful excerpt from the front lines.

It happened in the lobby of our treasured arthouse movie theater, The Capri, and it was captured in the trajectory of the blindly swinging elbows of the obese man, sweatily trying to unroll a movie poster. Although we left the poster sale only minutes ago, I have already forgotten whether he was wearing a shirt with a character from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away on the front, unrolling a poster from a Francois Truffaut film, or perhaps the other way around.

You see, this enthusiastic shopper was one of many — an innumerable mass, really — that had descended upon The Capri to acquire (at low, low prices) what is evidently the highest art form that America has to offer. The sale was not of the movies themselves, which people probably screen on Netflix while doing God-knows-what. Rather, they were seeking to grab up the paper advertisements for the “indy” films, perfect for hanging in the hipster home, loft, or dorm room. Soon, someone will be getting the poster for Goodbye Lenin! as a gift, offering an awkward thanks, having no idea that the giver of the gift nearly got pressed to death in a poster sale that called to mind the Hillsborough soccer crush.

We thought we were smart to arrive a few minutes before the doors were scheduled to open. We suspected trouble when we joined the line at the corner in front of Sinclair’s. We felt pity when we reached the door of the theater and looked back and saw that the line was now extended back around the block. We felt remorse when we saw that the movie posters were not unrolled, not attached to cardboard backers, and were, in fact, in tubes (which were jammed into boxes) and were somehow linked to a numerical coding system. We felt fear when we saw that the crowd, many of whom had browsed the list of posters ahead of time, had no idea what numbers were linked to their desired posters and, as a result, were frantically unrolling, re-rolling, and crinkling various posters in a hurricane of outstretched arms, flying elbows, cardboard tubes, and movie nerd sweat.

Our arthouse movie theater does not possess a very large lobby, and the people that had been standing in line for 30 minutes or so in the Alabama July sun were anxious to crush into the lobby, get some air conditioning, and beat the mob in the quest to find that poster of Mifune’s Last Song. Codes? Numbers? Must buy something! Adding to the crazy was the fact that it appeared that the crowd (in full consumer conquest mode) smelled bargains that could be re-sold on E-Bay. And the fact that The Capri is currently screening Will Ferrell’s Everything Must Go didn’t help. People probably read the theater marquee and assumed that this was some sort of going out of business sale.

Not sure how long this link will be up, but the list of available posters is here. We hope they sell them all, since we love and support our theater and want them to have as much space and money as they need. We just hope the mob didn’t make off with the popcorn machine and we’re glad we got out alive.

Anybody want to sell us a really cheap poster from Waltz with Bashir?

Earth Fare

Regular readers of this blog know that we express our opinions with a reasonably ruthless honesty. If we like something, we are more than happy to sing its praises. But if something unfashionably crosses our critical gaze, we’ll also tear into it with great relish.

I think we’re always fair, but we do have opinions, something at odds with the “say something nice or don’t say anything at all” crowd. We try to back up said opinions with facts — and articulate them in a way that you can relate to. And while we know that we come from a set of particular perspectives that perhaps most people in our city don’t share, we also do our best to go into situations with an open mind.

All of which is a sort of meaningless preface to our review of Montgomery’s new grocery store. It feels necessary because we went there expecting to hate it. And we loved it.

Why would we expect to hate a grocery store? Well, for starters, it is in a part of town that we have dubbed “The Hellscape.” This is the part of town that you might call “the east side.” It is comprised entirely of sprawl, driven by environmental disregard for beautiful country farmland that once surrounded Montgomery, fueled by racism and a fear of city life. It is a land of McMansions and facially race-neutral explanations involving school districts and land values, a realm of soul-crushing big box stores and mono-cultural consumerism, big churches and people clinging to their gas-guzzling SUVs as if they were lifelines. You know the place, even if you’ve never been there. It’s evil.

And yet, as health-conscious vegetarians, quasi-foodies who shun the label, we couldn’t resist the allure of a new grocery store devoted to things we revere: locally grown grown produce, organic foods, fresh bread, succulent fake meats. We figured we’d go, take some pics, and then come home and rip the place for being over-priced and full of yoga-pants-wearing bourgeois soccer moms beaming self-satisfaction and stocking up on quacky new age medical cures.

But even if there are a handful of walking stereotypes in the new Earth Fare, the bottom line is that this store is amazing. The only negative thoughts (other than the ad hom cheap shots added for humor value) we really could muster was a sort of profound sadness that this grocery store is so far away from our house.

We just posted a lament about how downtown re-development has been hindered by a lack of a grocery store. And there’s an entire blog’s worth of posts to be written about the starvation and malnutrition being inflicted on the parts of Montgomery that qualify as “food deserts.” (see also here for a look at another major Alabama urban center dealing with this disgraceful phenomenon).

So perhaps we can be forgiven for celebrating the arrival of a health-themed grocery store in a state that has some of the least-healthy children in the nation.

But really, it’s not about how this amazing grocery store serves the greater needs of a state that seems allergic to being healthy. Nope. Our sense of consumer desire, our urges grounded in food-buying lust … that’s selfish. And we’re at least somewhat OK with that.

We follow the organic food industry with all of the righteous zeal of modern crusaders consumers . We try to buy from corporations that behave in ways we approve of. And we track the boardroom political debates as best we can. Check out this blast from the Organic Consumers Association regarding the reprehensible Monsanto — and then check this (also persuasive) reply from Stonyfield Farms.

And Earth Fare has got what we need.

There’s an entire post to be written about the awful Fresh Market, which is out on the Boulevard. But whatever acid-tipped daggers we had for that overpriced joke of a grocery store were rendered wholly unnecessary by the opening of Earth Fare, which ought to drive Fresh Market out of business within a year.

In the words of one of the total strangers emerging smiling from Earth Fare last week, “Now, tell me again why we’d ever go to Fresh Market again?”

So … what makes it so great? (“Finally,” you grumble to yourself, “the review part of the review …”

It’s not the fruits and vegetables. Sure, there are good deals to be had there (niche items like Meyer lemons and the only organic oranges and lemons in town — besides the ones at sinking ship Fresh Market), but in general you’re going to get a better overall value and selection at the Winn-Dixie or Publix. We might be shrugging it off more than most because we already get local and organic produce from  our magnificent CSA share (spring shares may be available, get yourself to the Red Root Farm Facebook page).

The bulk food section is good. It’s better than Healthwise (though theirs is good too, this one has more stuff and also has bulk spices). It’s a little spendy, of course. We got organic tri-color quinoa ($5.99/lb) and organic pinto beans ($2.49/lb). The beans have a date with the New Mexico green chile we peeled and brought home in freezer bags this summer. (Note to Montgomery grocery purveyors: whoever starts stocking Hatch in the freezer case will win my eternal patronage.) There’s an unbelievable amount of bulk and pre-bagged coffee. It smelled amazing. It was expensive, but it smelled amazing. Next time. The coffee and bulk foods are next to a kind of specialty imported foods rack with the ultimate Stuff White People Like rows of specialty salts and delicious looking imported anchovies that we did not buy but wanted to melt into a pasta sauce.

There is a really big personal care products section with all the quasi-obscure soaps and lotions you might care to purchase. Some of this stuff is hard to get around here – I noted the selection for future trips, thinking it might end up saving me shipping on inevitable online orders. Also there are rows and rows and rows of vitamins and “herbal treatments.” Seemed like Healthwise had that part of the market all locked up, but I’d be surprised if the vitamin-and-cleanse crowd decided to shift its loyalties just because organic olives can now be purchased at the same time as flaxseed oil and protein powder.

The fake meat divisions were a big hit with us. We don’t need you getting all preachy with us about the need to get away from meat substitutes, or talking about dioxin, or just trying to convince us that there’s nothing wrong with inflicting suffering on sentient beings so you can consume their flesh with a light dusting of truffle powder. When you don’t eat meat, you (may) miss its texture. This doesn’t mean you want to eat Tofurkey (really, nobody should). But it does mean that sometimes you just want to buy packaged seitan rather than always making your own, that veggie dogs can be delicious, and that Publix doesn’t have to have the tempeh market cornered. Earth Fare had all that and also a bunch of weird stuff in the freezer case. We’re gonna keep making our own seitan, but it’s nice to know we can get packaged foods like the rest of the bourgoise.

There’s an olive bar, of course. The thing about olive bars is that you can’t tell until you’ve tasted the stuff. The one item we got was really good, but we’ve only tried that. More sampling required.

The cheese selection was lavish, what you’d expect, really, and is by far the most exotic and well-curated in town. We’re merely amateur turophiles, but we felt confident that their vast (and expensive) collection of cheese contained many gems.

The deli looked great. One of us was sort of overcome by all the vegetarian food in the deli, and wanted to try/buy it all. Fortunately, she was prevented from emptying our bank account into various kale-soy concoctions by the hordes of dimwitted idiots mobbing the understaffed counter. These are the people who have tons of time to study the menu and look in the case and still get to the counter with a “hmm, let’s see. I think I might like to have…” So we opted out. We couldn’t escape the desserts, of course we couldn’t, with our well-documented sweet tooths – the kindly man pushing apple pie samples ended up selling us single serve treats instead (good, not great). We also got bagels. Needed salt. And onions. For “everything” bagels they were curiously nihilistic. But still, they had bagels! Can’t get fresh baked bagels at Publix or Winn-Dixie. At least not in our neighborhood. Depressing.

Of course by the time we got to the register we’d already spent way too much money. An avocado here and a salad dressing there meant it was pretty easy to rationalize the seasonal sixer of Sierra Nevada at the register. Sigh. A trip to observe and sample ended up as a triple digit expense. Ouch.

Still, we’re glad the store is there. It exploded our expectations and we’ll likely be back. Yet, all of the above commentary about sprawl and the abandonment of Montgomery remains spot on. We’re glad Montgomery has a top notch store in Earth Fare. But when Trader Joe’s comes to town, can they please find some way to build it on the Boulevard?

Montgomery’s Best Milkshake

You’re in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. It’s hot. You want a milkshake. Your Google search of the terms “Montgomery Alabama milkshake” provides, not information about which establishments have tasty ice cream-based concoctions, but rather, information about revolting sex acts. It’s time to change all that.

The Montgomery Advertiser’s rankings of the best milkshakes in Montgomery have Hardee’s at #1, Chik Fil A at #2, and Dairy Queen at #3. As with many of Grandma Advertiser’s “best of” rankings, we totally disagree. We hereby offer you a breakdown of the ultimate truth of the milkshake landscape and we crown a legitimate winner of the title of Best Milkshake in Montgomery.

Chick Fil A – (915 Ann St.) – Loathsome purveyor of advertorial concentration camp humor. Georgia-based chain owned by right-wing super Christians. Refuses to sell food (and milkshakes) on Sunday because of ancient traditions regarding rest dating back to book of Genesis. Still, we were told by a trusted source that the peach milkshakes were “just like home-made ice cream.” We got one peach and one chocolate. Unless you are into 7-11 diabetes-inducing “Mega Gulp” sizes, take the small. Small is still plenty big. Both came with whipped cream and cherry on top. The price is good. For two, we spent $3.50.

The peach was not “just like home-made ice cream.” It had good little giblets of peach in it, and was pleasant, extremely sweet but not cloying, and easy to drink through a straw. The chocolate was better, even though it didn’t have a super rich chocolate flavor. Overall they balanced thickness and flavor, didn’t seem to be full of artificial ingredients (though we’re sure they were), and were affordable and good. The texture was nice and it didn’t melt too quickly. Stephen gave them between a 6.5 and an 7 out of 10, and Kate rated them an 6.

Sonic – (2025 Carter Hill Rd.) – You drive in and order at the box. They bring you your stuff. Easy & straightforward, and you don’t sonic shakesneed to idle your car. No, really. Please don’t. We went to the Sonic at Montgomery’s Worst Intersection™ – the absurd chaos of the place where Carter Hill meets Narrow Lane meets Mulberry. We ordered caramel and chocolate. The caramel was really good – nice and thick, with a caramel flavor that wasn’t overpowering or chemical-ly. The chocolate wasn’t too rich and was a bit thinner. Both were good and more than enough shake comes in the small size. Sonic offers a variety of frozen & ice cream treats, as pictured in the menu here. Kate gave them an 6.5 out of 10 – they were very good, but lacked that “wow” of a really great milkshake. Stephen rated them an 6.

Bruster’s – (6835 Vaughn Rd) – Stephen ordered oreo. Kate ordered strawberry cheesecake. The list of flavor options is dazzling. The Bruster’s shakes put the emphasis on the milk. They’re creamy and thick, but also have the ice crystals that add that “milkshakey” texture. It flows through the straw easily. There’s no aftertaste. The prices are reasonable. The only complaint is that a “regular” is quite large and is too much for a person us to drink in a single sitting. Then again, with Alabama the second fattest state in the nation, many people probably think that these milkshake are too small. They are delicious. Almost certainly the best in the city. 9 out of 10.


Very large milkshakes

Zolo’s (2055 Carter Hill Rd) CLOSED – We really wanted to write this place up.

Marble Slab Creamery (7929 Vaughn Rd) This is the one in the Hellscape, over near the Rave movie theater. We had high expectations for our chocolate shake, if only because it seems unfair for the purposes of competition to compare a milkshake that costs $5 to one from a fast food place costing less than $2. Yet, here is a case where the extra expense does not befit the resulting product. Not worth the time, money and effort.

In particular, I really didn’t like watching the preparation process. The bored lady behind the counter started by pouring some kind of clear mystery fluid from an unmarked bottle. This stuff (simple syrup?) went into the mixer before the milk. Gross. I do not want mystery liquids in my shake. The use of real ice cream is good, but the end result is way too thick. You can’t pull it through the straw. Further, there are no tasty ice crystals, so you basically have your giant cup of mostly-solid ice cream, whipped through with suspicious liquid, and you’ve got to wait for it to melt or go at it with a spoon. Oh, and there’s a slight coating on your mouth lining after you’ve decided you’ve had enough. Glop, glop, glop, pass. 4 out of 10.

Cold Stone Creamery (7240 East Chase Parkway) – I had Milk and Cookies. She had Lotta Caramel Latte. Our description of both: “outstanding.” The purchasing process is quite an exercise in pretension. We cracked up about how the advertising signs use three umlauts to spell German Chocolate Cake. There are three sizes, each linked to desire: You’ve got the $4.09 “like it,” the $4.49 “love it,” and the $4.99 “gotta have it.” No word on future plans for a $7 “will kill for milkshake” size. But we do commend the Creamery for being able to monetize the distance between like and lust. Hey generations of poets, suck it. The answer is $1.

The PB&C (peanut butter and chocolate) flavored milkshake at the Creamery made headlines recently for being equal in nutritional content to 68 pieces of bacon. Yes, really.

End result of driving to the Hellscape and waiting on these shakes? Tasty, but it’s no Bruster’s. 8 out of 10.

Dairy Queen (Atlanta Highway) – These are sort of the baseline archetypes of the modern Montgomery milkshake. The ice cream is better than very good, verging on great. It’s that soft serve stuff you know so well from your trips to the DQ. But the flavors aren’t eye-popping. Sure, you get a few other choices when ordering, including pineapple, but our ultimate reactions to the chocolate and strawberry were mixed. On one hand, they were quite good and really improved our mega-hot day. On the other, we had to drive a good way to get them and were somewhat nonplussed with the power of the flavor. The chocolate was the better of the two but did not have an especially rich taste. The strawberry did have tasty bits of berry (risking straw clog), but it was just that packaged, probably once-frozen “berry sauce” stuff they keep in the tub next to the fudge and other toppings. We decided that the shakes were great, but probably not as good as the more famous DQ offering, The Blizzard. And yet, the shakes made us happy to the point that we were delighted to be writing reviews of milkshakes, even as we said that no decent shake could be worse than the DQ baseline. Rating? 6 of 10.

Flip’s Uptown Grill (Atlanta Highway) – We’ve never actually set foot in the Uptown mainstay that is Flip’s (check that hilarious website). We’ve heard they have good breakfast food, but we were there for one reason only: a Jiggle. That is what Flip’s calls the small size milkshake they serve. We were not entirely sure how to react to this news, much less how to react to the Flip’s employee who seemed dead set on forcing us to say the word “Jiggle” into the order box. Finally we just mumbled something about how we wanted two of those, one chocolate and one vanilla. The size-that-shall-not-be-spoken is actually perfect. The shakes themselves are great. They taste like milkshakes, not just whipped up ice cream. The chocolate could have been more chocolate-y, but otherwise we liked our, um, milkshakes just fine. The difference between these and the Bruster’s shakes could be chalked up to a difference in ice cream, but Flip’s does use the ever-reliable and tasty Bluebell, so it’s a close call. Quite tasty, although next time we’ll just say, “give us your smallest size” and take it from there. 7 of 10.

Hardee’s — Hardee’s is one of those fast food milkshakes that used to be like, well, average fast food milkshakes. The kind you grow up on. They used to come in the same sizes as the drinks. And you’d have your basic trifecta of flavors: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry. Well, some marketing jerk got a hold of the Hardee’s brass and told them that they needed to specialize and start advertising “hand-dipped shakes.” Now, they only offer one size and have tripled the cost of shakes. Thing is, aside from serving them in new kinds of plastic cups and spraying some whipped cream on top of them, they sort of taste the same as they used to. And that’s not good. Our recent order (a strawberry without whipped cream) turned our conversation to the oil dispersants being used in the Gulf by BP — as in, what they may taste like. The shake, stunningly voted the Best in Montgomery, by the readers of Grandma Advertiser, tasted like a coagulated sugar carpet. This made us think about Krusty the Clown’s notorious fast food franchise from The Simpsons, where instead of milkshakes they sell patented Krusty Partially Gelatinated Non-Dairy Gum-Based Beverages. 3 of 10.

McDonald’sWe did not sample the McDonald’s milkshakes.

Final rankings (in order): Bruster’s, Cold Stone Creamery, Flip’s, Sonic, Chick-Fil-A, Dairy Queen, Marble Slab, Hardee’s

The Book Cellar

The waves of heat radiate off of the amusement park-sized parking lot, reminding you that you are in the Hellscape and it is June.

The massive, largely full Sunday parking lot is for the gigantic corporate movie theater screening various early-summer Hollywood excretions. But we are there, not for the overpriced CGI mindrot, but for the bookstore. More importantly, it is a used bookstore — that rarest of the bookstore breed. Because we don’t really care for the overpriced and lame offerings of Books A Dozen. But we do love used bookstores. And when we find a good one, we not only write about it, we go back often and spend a whole bunch of our money there.

So we’re not THAT picky. We’re not looking for first editions. We don’t need it to have a coffee shop. We just want a couple of good shelves (or even boxes) to browse. We’d like some serious attempt to stock non-fiction, and we’d like prices to be reasonable, if not competitive with the Internet. If you’ve got to traffic in romance novels and run some kind of manga trade operation, so be it. We support the circulation of crap pulp novels (your Grishams, your Dan Browns) if that’s what’s needed to keep the lights on.

But there’s got to be some there there. The Book Cellar is like a bookstore as if run by someone who had never been to a bookstore, but had once had one described to them over the phone. They clearly purchased a ton of shelves. They rented a place in the shopping center. And then they skipped to “next step: profit.

A few points: There’s nowhere to sit. Well, that’s not technically true. There is some sort of grandmotherly arm chair set up in the front of the store that looks more like a decoration to be seen through the window than an actual comfortable chair that someone would want to sit in.

There’s no step stool for getting to top shelves. We didn’t need one, but heard a customer ask and be told that there was none.

There’s no sense of value. Some of the used paperbacks with creases in the cover and other small cosmetic problems are $6. Too high. There’s a 25-cent table, which would ordinarily be a great thing. But the only thing worth noting about that table is that the books there were slightly better than the books on the $2 shelves. In that they weren’t guides to the year 2000 (we wish we were joking). Not that the quarter books weren’t nutso too, but at least there were multiple copies of FutureShock (sensing a theme here…). And the only thing that makes it remotely worth looking at those shelves is the likelihood that you’ll find some kind of crazy religious self-published thing. You might briefly consider buying one of these as a joke for a friend, but really, you just end up feeling depressed that this is the quality of the books being stocked here.

The books here are like a window into the mind of the average Hellscape resident. There are no college textbooks or even semi-academic stuff. There’s no philosophy section. The non-fiction section is too hilarious to describe properly. There are a curious amount of books about owning pets, with hilarious titles like “So, you’d like to own a Great Dane.” There are self-help books galore. And, like we said, plenty of crazy religious stuff.

There’s no literary fiction besides a Louise Erdrich novel and a handful of other readings that smack of Book Club. There are certainly slim pickings on the “classics” front. The children’s section seemed okay, if a little heavy on the heirs to Goosebumps and other trashy pre-young-adult type offerings. It made us reflect on how important it is for young people to read fiction and how much good fiction there is for young readers, little of which was represented here.

The non-fiction section is just awful – entirely bereft of legitimate histories (we bought one of the only serious nonfiction books on offer — a medieval history book) and it’s rife with conspiracy theories, half-baked right wing diatribes and weight loss pep talk manuals. The bottom line on the bookstore is that it reveals either how awful the store owner’s taste is or what slim pickings she has to work with around here. Probably we’re looking at some of both, but our opinion of the Hellscape is so low that we could certainly imagine someone coming in to resell the O’Reilly Factor For Kids to partially pay their ticket to see Prince Of Persia — not despite but because it is based on a video game. And there, dear readers, is your explanation of Vaughn Road in a nutshell.

It’s a damn shame. It’s a shame that this is what passes for a passable used bookstore in this town.  It’s a shame that the Thomas Pynchon book they stocked (Vineland) was priced the same as the Oliver North novel they stocked. Mostly, though, it’s a shame that people once bought these books and (shiver) read them.