I'm not sure if this is true in other cities but here in San Francisco, it's not unusual to encounter a corner bodega that's devoted to natural foods. These places stock the familiar organic labels, local organic milk and vegetables, and often a nice selection of wine. Sometimes there's an odd mix of the organic and conventional bodega fare (bags of Cheetoes tucked in with the taro chips, for instance.) Out front, buckets of sunflowers are propped up against the brightly painted murals and a bowl of water for the dogs is placed next to the pile of free alternative weekly newspapers. It was the hippie stores of my younger years that first supported my ventures into cooking. Before Whole Foods had become a national chain, these stores were the early adaptors of organic produce and local foods. Here I could find what was then more unusual offerings like arugula and garden heirloom tomatoes, tins of Spanish olive oil, and local and imported cheeses. It was at the hippie store that I bought my first hunk of parmesan (not from the green can) and discovered the many alternatives to bleached white flour.
I think our current food interests owe much to the hippie stores of the past. They paved the way for small farm produced vegetables and dairy, albeit with a bit of a learning curve (those produce bins stuffed wilted vegetables circa 1970 are legendary.) The concepts and practices of organic, local, small batch, small farm, sustainable, and artisanal were first incubated in the natural foods stores of the past. A generation has grown up since then and it's encouraging, at least in San Francisco, to see that the mom-and-pop natural food stores are still in business. Some, like Other Avenues pictured here, seem to be thriving
Whenever I visit a hippie store, I feel a little tweak of happiness and contentment in my belly. Somehow these stores, with their isles devoted to incense and candles, their hand lettered signs and chaotic message boards, give me a sense of connection and hope. They're not always perfect but that's actually the point. While a shopping trip to the sterile, efficient grocery chain is just a chore to cross of the list, a visit to the hippie store is an adventure. I'm never quite sure what new product I'll find or if the brand of honey I bought last month will still be there. And, it's true, occasionally one encounters the reason why 'hippie' is a not-so-complimentary word in some circles.
I've always had a soft spot for hippie culture, so perhaps I'm biased towards finding most of it charming. It's the quirks and foibles of the hippie store that make them more interesting in my view, and I'll take interesting over efficient any day of the week. Has your local hippie store survived the big box assaults of Whole Foods and Walmartization of organic? If so, give it a shout out here and support your local economy!
(Images: Dana Velden)