This essay was published as an op-ed piece entitle “Mitchell’s Still Has Magic for Me” in the Joliet Herald-News, p14, on 30 December 2010. I offer it here five years later as a commentary on supporting local economies and celebrating the unique small businesses in our home towns. Gladly, business is still good!
Normally I utterly detest shopping. But a few days before Christmas when my wife noted we were running low on some staple food items, I seized the opportunity with gusto: “Great, honey! I’ll run to Mitchell’s.”
A small, nondescript building with a friendly 1960s-vintage lighted sign, Mitchell’s Food Mart on Raynor Avenue in Joliet is the epitome of the small neighborhood grocery store, one run by the same family since opening sixty years ago.
Walking inside is like a journey back in time. Customers carefully guide half-size shopping carts down four or five narrow aisles packed full with meticulously arranged inventory. Each item features a little orange price tag that has been applied by hand (no UPC scanning here). The one register for checkout features a friendly and efficient employee who actually knows how to bag groceries and make proper change, both of which are lost arts.
The utterly delightful candy section, strategically placed alongside the checkout line, reminds me of every corner drugstore’s sweets aisle from my childhood days. It’s got a little bit of everything, much of which (in keeping with the store’s small-is-beautiful theme) is available in minute quantities. My two girls go gaga picking out five-cent Tootsies as rewards for being cooperative sidekicks.
The heart and soul of Mitchell’s, though, is the butcher counter in the back, a supremely wonderful meat-eater’s paradise (vegetarians stop reading now). The first thing I do here is grab a number, because Mitchell’s has the wisdom to use this time-honored system that is sadly neglected at most supermarket delis.
Above the lunchmeat slicers are posted the current won-loss records of Chicago’s sports teams, adjusted seasonally and updated daily. I always check the scores, then pause to regard the squadron of white-aproned butchers expertly plying their trade behind the counter, a sight I find endlessly fascinating.
Here in the queue is where one best experiences the singular magic of Mitchell’s. As folks stand waiting for their portions of hand-cut bacon or tender rump roast to be wrapped up in neat white paper, they inevitably start chatting. Time and again, I’ve had wonderfully entertaining conversations there with total strangers, or mini-reunions with old acquaintances.
From the outside, it’s hard to imagine how a small-scale operation like Mitchell’s survives, even thrives, in this era of cavernous supermarkets with their national supply-chain economics and over-the-top product selection.
But from the inside, it’s easy to see how.