By Nancy Davidoff Kelton
As a Village resident who does not own a car, I plan to make my first shopping expedition to the Brooklyn Wegmans when I rent one at the end of January to attend a family holiday party on Long Island. I am more excited about the ride home and stopping at Wegmans than I am about making very small talk with relatives I hardly know and others I don’t like over crabmeat canapes in Great Neck.
I moved to New York in 1967, a decade before Wegmans opened in Buffalo, my hometown. My parents first took me to the new store when I arrived in Buffalo for a visit in 1977. On the way from the airport, they said they needed a few things.
It was love at first sight. Comfortable and exciting. Familiar, but new. Magical. Inexplicable. Different from every supermarket in which I had shopped. Superior to the scrawny, dingy ones in my adopted, superior New York, where hip, cultivated, stuck-up me belonged. Mostly.
I never liked grocery shopping in the small New York stores, less so after discovering the Buffalo Wegmans. The day after my parents needed a few things, my father wanted to need a few more. He asked my mother for a grocery list. She wrote “milk.” My frugal dad, who typically shunned extras and even necessities, checked the fridge, then the linen closet, and wrote down “toilet paper” after “milk.”
Standing in front of the toilet paper rack at Wegmans, he told strangers that they could go several more times a week if they bought the store brand. With his two-item grocery list in his back pocket, he told them he had left his list at home and asked to borrow theirs. He asked other customers the same thing in other aisles, and did that frequently on our subsequent Wegmans shopping trips over the years. My father majored in talking to and at people, but Wegmans inspired him to reach out, chat up, linger, and be himself even more. Me too.
I shopped at our Buffalo Wegmans after he died when I visited my mother in a nursing home. I brought her cookies and cupcakes. She would ask if I had helped myself to several bakery samples—some for Daddy; and when I said, “Of course,” we laughed.
Wegmans is about warm family memories. That is part of it. Its enormity, wide aisles, quantity of goods, friendly staff and customers, lovely café, and bakery samples are part of it, too. Wegmans is Haimish. Genuine. Authentic. Welcoming. Down to earth. It has that inexplicable quality. One just knows. Like love.
Wegmans came to Brooklyn. New Yorkers are in luck. I love this city. It is the greatest in most ways, but the lack of extending and appreciating warmth can be off-putting. I include myself among those who get caught up in snubbing, striving, working, working out, catching up, catching the latest, frequenting salad bars and gourmet stores, knowing whomever, and knowing what is new and what is “in.” Now we have the opportunity to hang out, stock up, and enjoy fun moments browsing, buying, and stopping strangers in the wide aisles to tell them we forgot our grocery lists and to ask to borrow theirs.
Nancy Davidoff Kelton is the author of seven books and numerous essays in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, Parents, Writer’s Digest, Redbook, and other publications. She teaches writing at the New School; offers workshops at Strand book store—the next one is March 26th, 2020, at 6:30pm; and is adapting her published memoir, Finding Mr. Rightstein, for the stage. On June 8th, 2020, the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York will present the first staged reading.