A couple of weeks ago I found myself at the end of a line that wrapped itself around and through almost every bookcase at a Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side. I kicked myself for forgetting that in a city of 8.5 million people, a few hundred of them probably have the same evening plans as you do. As I stood in line to meet Catana Chetwynd, artist of the popular “Catana Comics” (@catanacomics on Instagram—thank me later), I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the couple in front of me.

“This line is not very well managed,” a young blonde said to his partner. “They should take a lesson from Trader Joe’s.”

I inwardly cheered. Trader Joe’s not only has the most well-managed line I have ever encountered in the history of anything, but I actually look forward to going there to grocery stop. I will now proceed to explain way. (No, I did not get paid by Trader Joe’s to write this.)

First of all, you should know that during peak hours the Trader Joe’s line pretty much takes up the entire store. It weaves its way between the aisles so that shoppers have to reach between line-waiters to grab a jar of Speculoos Cookie Butter. At first glance, this complexity could seem daunting. It may tempt you to turn around and go home to the grocery store that’s closer to your apartment and promises a much more peaceful and emptier experience. But then you look down at your container of matcha yogurt and realize that you can’t get this at your local grocery store. And that at your local grocery store a six-pack of Bell’s Oberon is ten dollars, where as here it is only $6.99. Your local grocery store doesn’t carry falafel mix, either. Or frozen cauliflower rice. Or cauliflower pizza crust. (I’m really into cauliflower right now?)

So, you take the basket you can hardly carry anymore due to the groceries you’ve amassed to the end of the line. (I’m afraid of what might happen if I get a cart. I’m afraid if I buy more than I can carry in my hands I will begin to develop the expensive habit of paying for Ubers to take my groceries home.) Don’t worry about finding the end of the line because there is a man whose sole job it is to carry a banner five feet in the air with the words “THIS IS THE END OF THE LINE” painted on it. Once you’ve located this man, you will remember that you should have only shopped for produce and frozen food at first because you can pretty much get the rest of your items from the line. But you probably forgot coffee anyway (half the price of your corner bodega’s!) so it’s good that you’ll pass through the coffee aisle in a few minutes. In the meantime, feel free to listen to your podcast of choice or contemplate whether or not you need more chia seeds.

You will also pass by the free coffee and free samples while you are in line. Feel free to leave your heavy load on the ground to run to grab a little cup of tortilla chips and Indonesian salsa or whatever is being served that day. There is a very real Yelp review of a Brooklyn Trader Joe’s from a person named Peter D. that reads, “They’ve got lovely little samples in the corner, perhaps a berry crumble pie, and the nice lady actually wants you to take four of five of them. I swear, that’s what she said.” The person behind you will understand if you temporarily abandon your basket for such a sample. Likewise, if the person in front of you leaves the line for a free coffee, it is courteous to push their cart ahead for them when the line moves. They will thank you and then you can smile and say, “Don’t worry, I do that all the time.”

When you come to a place where you need to turn a corner or zig-zag into another aisle, there will be an employee stationed there to tell you where to turn and when—to avoid traffic jams and confusion between line-standers and active shoppers.

You’ll know you’re getting close to the cashiers when someone tells you to go to the yellow cheese, the red pepper or the green grapes. At the point, the line will split into three sections. Dividing these three sections will be buckets of things you don’t need but probably want, like chocolate-covered crystallized ginger or tiny soaps. There will also be things people have discarded in last-minute moment of panic, after agonizing in line for thirty minutes about whether or not they actually want that gluten-free trail mix. The line can make people crazy. But never fear! At the end of these three parallel lines, there will be a man standing on a box! His elevated platform does the double job of making his Hawaiian shirt look more formal, and giving him the vantage point of being able to see every check-out person and their tiny checkout platform (no conveyor belts here!) to see when they are available. When a cashier becomes available, they will wave a large red flag with a number on it, and the podium man (or woman) will point at you and say “Three!” or “Twenty!”  

Be prepared to make small talk while your groceries are bagged. I have talked to my cashier about my jewelry, profession, and “what I am going to do with the rest of this beautiful day.” While this may seem overly-friendly to the typical New Yorker, I recommend that you get over yourself and just enjoy it. Also, prepare to complimented on your choices of food. For example: “Oh man this truffle cheddar is so good!” This is because the employees there (affectionately called “crew members”) get to sample all the new products. Prepare to be surprised at how low your total is. (Note: Maybe only true for people in NYC. My sister who lives in Michigan said Trader Joe’s is actually more expensive than your average Dutch-named superstore. This is just unfortunate.) Don’t say you want their iconic paper bags if it’s raining outside. It’ll make you look less cool, but go for plastic if there’s even a hint of rain. Trust me, I know from a traumatic experience I don’t want to talk about.

Oh yeah, and you can also get a decent three-dollar bottle of wine (or a twelve-dollar box), but you have to go all the way to Manhattan for the TJ’s Wine Store. For me, that’s a thirty minute subway wine. But wine does go damn well with truffle cheddar.

Caroline Higgins

Caroline Higgins (’11) lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she spends the vast majority of her time teaching English Language Arts. You may also find her at barre exercise classes or playing (and losing) at bar trivia. She continues to be inspired by the energy and diversity of New York City and the beauty of that certain slant of light.

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