By Cynthia Balderman
I was born to shop. My maternal grandmother, her violin abandoned in the ashes of the Holocaust, enthusiastically embraced retail sales in her new country. She sold draperies, about which she talked incessantly. The fabrics, the styles and the tastes of her many loyal customers were never far from her thoughts. She described the benefits and drawbacks of the materials and styles of the time, and I listened attentively, always anxious to accompany her to the mysterious and colorful drapery store where I could admire the merchandise in person.
My mother, too, was smitten with the variety and plenitude of merchandise in America, but her taste ran more to clothes and accessories than to housewares. She began taking me through department stores before I could talk.
One of my earliest memories is the scent of plastic as she taught me to sniff a purse to determine whether it was made of genuine leather or mere imitation. When we tired of examining handbags, we would check the dresses, feeling the fabric and closely examining it for the dreaded “dry clean only” tag that meant it was too costly to maintain or buy, no matter its beauty or reasonable price.
In department stores, I learned to shop but not to buy, a habit that remains deeply ingrained, but never applies in grocery stores.
In my mother’s eyes, food shopping was a privilege, not a chore, and the variety and availability of produce and kosher products still brings a smile to her face, and a cart loaded with more food than my parents and a steady stream of relatives can eat each week.
At the grocery store, I learned the joy of retail therapy. Although my mother was careful in selecting only measured amounts of delicacies like lox flakes and cherries, we never held back on the staples of the day – frozen waffles, fish sticks and half gallons of Neapolitan ice cream. My tastes developed at the Acme and Super Duper of old, but my palate was really perfected at Park Edge on Eggert Road.
It was a spectacular experience to shop there when the store opened in the 1960s. On Sunday mornings, when the Benatovich brothers offered coffee and bagels to the customers, it became the gathering place for my parents and their friends. I remember desperately hoping that my Sunday school teacher would get sick and cancel class so I could hang around that coffee pot and listen to the adults gossip while I grabbed just one more crusty bite.
My early romance with grocery stores has only grown deeper with the passage of time. I love each store for its special character and the unique items it carries that I can find nowhere else. Rather than binge shop on Sundays, as I did from childhood until my own children were grown, I now shop for food nearly every evening after work.
I glide through familiar aisles, planning dinner as I shop. When lunchtime is non-existent, this can be a dangerous hobby, because hunger makes everything look tasty. As I sip my sixth cup of coffee, I fantasize about the concoctions I will cook as soon as I have time, while I toss delicious prepared dinners in my cart, microwave- and stomach-ready.
My friends may need to go to several stores to find just the right item to satisfy their need to buy. My shopping trips are far more satisfying. My purchases provide nearly immediate gratification, and I never need to worry about size or fit. And with a little ingenuity in replating, I can even claim credit for cooking dinner.
Cynthia Balderman, a mother of five living in Buffalo, was born to shop.