I was fortunate to grow up regularly visiting the original Spice House in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. (The Spice House was owned by the parents of the people who went on to create Penzey's.) At a tender and impressionable age, I was imprinted with the sensual, magical experience of walking through their door and immediately being surrounded by a cacophony of smells and the promise of new discoveries. So needless to say, there's no way the Internet or a grocery store, no matter how convenient and practical, is going to be my go-to when it comes time to purchase my spices.
The advantage of a spice shop is being able to smell the herbs and spices you are purchasing. This is helpful to be sure they are fresh and potent but also to educate your nose. How does Greek oregano differ from Italian? And how is oregano different from marjoram? What dishes call for one but not the other? It also helps that a spice shop is always staffed by very knowledgeable, well trained, and enthusiastic spice geeks who are happy to further your education. And then there is the fact that you will almost always discover something new to try, something you may never have picked up if you just saw the tin sitting on a shelf at the grocers.
I'm lucky because I now live in an area where there are shops devoted to spices, such as the wonderful Oaktown Spice Shop in Oakland, CA, which is modeled after the Spice House in Wauwatosa. A trip to Oaktown is a special treat and I always leave inspired. Of course, there are times when I need to skip the spice shop, like when I need a spice or dried herb that I don't normal stock and there's no time for a special trip. Then I purchase the smallest amount possible from the grocery store, often from a bulk bin if possible. Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco has an amazing bulk spice collection, for example.
Where are the best places to purchase spices in your area?
Related: 10 Ideas for Better Spice Storage
(Image: Erich Valo)