Communities need focal points to survive and to grow: locally run and owned businesses that are unique to the community and that provide an individual flavor and feel to a city. These local points are necessary for the community to continue to provide the multitude of functions that we expect from them and need from them to feel connected and to live full and healthy lives inside that community. Many kinds of institutions can play the role of these focal points: churches, restaurants, and even stores are capable of doing this. They are points of contact between individuals, and it is these connections that people form, develop, and experience with others that bind communities together. They are habitats where the various parts and stratus of a society are mixed, and like in a chemical reaction, when various previously isolated elements are brought into contact with each other, something new is formed. Various people from different levels of society—with different experiences, jobs, and functions—come to these focal points and are brought into contact each other. This sort of cohesion and connectivity is a hallmark of health inside a community.
It is one of the great weaknesses of our modern society that these focal points are disappearing. Many of the great things that we tout and praise about our modern lives have a darker side to them, that rather than fostering community instead tend to isolate us. Even as something as wonderful as air conditioning plays a role in this. Now, full discloser, I love air conditioning. I don’t know what has happened to me, and I am sure that my ancestors who lived for the better part of 200 years in the heat and humidity of Southern Louisiana are rolling over in their graves, but I hate the heat. Maybe it is that trace of Swedish blood that I carry. Yes, I am 6'5" and capable of growing a full Viking-style beard, so maybe that is it, but I will take the cold, even below freezing temperatures, long before the heat we have been experiencing over the last few days. But all the preconditioning that goes into living your entire life with air conditioning leads us to shut ourselves inside and away from those who live around us when temperatures rise above our comfort zones. Many other modern innovations also contribute to this sort of isolation: televisions, cars, and don’t even get me started on kids and their text messaging and smart phones. We have become an insulated and isolated collection of individuals rather than a community. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Opportunities for the re-creation and sustaining of focal points continue to occur, and it is up to us as members of the community to nourish and support these when we find them.
While many institutions can fulfill this role, one has throughout the growing pioneering communities of America fulfilled this role more than many others: “the store.” More than other early social institutions, it cut across all lines that might divide a community. Protestant and Catholic, teetotaler, and imbiber, farmer and city slicker, men and women, all needed the store. All came to the store, met there, interacted, and were a community. Up until a few years ago one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jackson still had such a place. There had been a store in the area known as Hicksville, right in the heart of Midtown, since at least the first decade of the 1900s. During the 1940s Harold Simpson built a new grocery store and shopping center in the community and named it Highland Park Grocery. The store provided such a community focus for the Midtown area long after many of the other Hicksville and Midtown local businesses had disappeared. For around sixty years, people on the northern edge, and eventually the heart of the city, had a locally owned and run store to which they could come.
When my wife and I moved into the LANA area, not long after we married, we both fell in love with Highland Park. I had spent much of my high school afternoons working in a small local grocery store, and Highland Park reminded me of this. The wonderful fragrances from the bakery, the clean metallic smell of the meat department, were the same as any one of countless other small grocery stores in which I had been, but this one belonged to our neighborhood. All the quick runs to grab something we had forgotten as we were in the middle of cooking meant trips to Highland.
The connections we develop with places are not just about convenience. Otherwise we would feel a great amount of attachment to our big box stores because they are, in the big picture, far more convenient. Rather it is the connections we make in physical places, and the atmospheres those places create, that bind them to us in special ways. The people I saw in Highland Park were neighbors. Even if I didn’t know them, I could stop and have a conversation with them knowing we shared something in common. It was a new connection point for me to interact with my neighborhood, a new way to draw me out. Development of these connections is essential to the health of a community, and when Highland Park finally closed in 2007, a piece of the Midtown community died with it.
But now with the opening of Grubb's Grocery, the LANA and downtown communities have a similar opportunity. Grubb's is a wonderful grocery store, and it will need to be in order to survive. Even though the last few years have seen a renewed interest and support for locally owned and run businesses that are unique to a community, it is fortuitous not just in timing but also in the need that it fills. One of the reasons that Highland Park went away in the end was that while it was unique and special, the service it provided to the community was not so. I and many other people loved it for its atmosphere and for what it represented (that and the awesome donuts), but just as a grocery store there were other options that offered bigger selections and better prices.
The need that Grubb's fulfills for the whole of Jackson as a place to purchase fresh, natural, and local food is unique and therefore special. The delicious fresh soups, salads, and sandwiches and the large selection of organics is something that, until now, one had to travel to Memphis or Nashville to experience. This uniqueness is vital for its survival as a business, and we need places like this to not just survive in our town, but flourish from both an economic point of view and just as importantly from a social and cultural point of view. Grubb's can become such a focal point for the community again, and not just for the areas immediately surrounding it, but for the entire city and community.
Get out and go downtown, or if you’re already there, go around the corner or just down the street. Get a soup or do some grocery shopping. Buy something healthy, organic, and local. Connect with people that you already know and meet some new ones. Reconnect with what it means to be part of a community again at a local grocery store.
Visit Grubb's Grocery's website, and make sure to stop by during their Grand Opening, happening this Saturday and Sunday, July 25-26.
Kevin Vailes teaches whatever they ask him at the Augustine School in Jackson, though if he had his choice he would spend his time ruminating on the intricate complexities of the classical world and trying to get his Latin students to study their vocabulary. Kevin grew up in and around Jackson and went to Union University where he met his best friend and wife Elizabeth. They live in the Jackson’s historic LANA neighborhood in a 100+ year-old bungalow with their five children. He believes that stories are what bind us together and cause us to love and care for something, and he hopes that in sharing Jackson’s stories with you, you will fall in love with Jackson and care about it too.
Photography by Kevin Vailes.