Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Impermanence: Goodbye to the real Bel Air

I had a little moment tonight, wandering the aisles of the soon-to-be-closed Bel Air market on Elk Grove Blvd.  The original Bel Air.  The old one, as you hear people say now that there's one at each corner of town.  But it used to just be the store, as in, I'm going to the store.  For most of my life it was where everyone shopped.  Sure, there were smaller markets, but Bel Air has been a reliable institution at the center of Elk Grove.

I'm going to miss it more than I should probably admit.  I took a few sneaky iPhone pics tonight as I roamed around, dodging the corporate guys who were discussing what inventory would move. Their picking at the carcass of the old store made me kind of sad.

When I was a kid, each trip to Bel Air meant a crispy cookie.  My sister and I wouldn't let my mom get much further than the front door before we'd ask to visit the bakery for our free treat; heaven help the adults around us if we started shopping at the other end of the store.  I'm not sure if this part is invented or real, but I swear I can remember sitting in a cart in that store, kicking my legs and eating my cookie while my mom looked at meat.  I definitely remember trying to hang on to the outside of the cart and catch a free ride.  That never lasted long.

As I grew older, I traded my interest in the free cookies for a few minutes of hurried browsing among the VHS tapes and the exciting (yet limited) selection of NES game cartridges.  Just how many of us traded those same ten games around town, I wonder?  If it wasn't for Bel Air I wouldn't have mastered Contra. (Okay, I had cheat codes. But you losers kept checking it out when I wanted it.)

I was never allowed to get anything from the vending machines up front, but I remember the day a little girl's hand got stuck in one. The firemen had to come from across the street to help save her.  It was both scary and deliciously dramatic, from my Elementary-school-age perspective.  From that day, forward, I viewed those machines as dangerous child traps.  Oh, how the siren song of that stale candy called to me, but I knew better than to fall for it.  Those machines were evil.

Bel Air was one of the first places I was allowed to "just wait in the car" for my mom while she "ran in to cash a check."  (Remember when that was a thing?  Before ATMs?)

Bel Air was where I learned that you're not supposed to pull at the fruit from the bottom of the stack or take a piece of wrapped candy from the Brach's display.  I saw someone eat a grape and I was sure he was going to get arrested.

Bel Air was where I learned that if you wear a wet bathing suit to the grocery store, your mom is going to linger in the freezer aisle.

Many of my memories aren't even all of the actual store.  Even the parking lot is evocative.  One day I sat in a car in front of Bel Air, waiting for my sister's friend, Hillary's grandma to run in and get something. We sat there a while, talking.  Hillary threw up.  Melissa took one look at it, and she barfed, too. All three of us just had to keep sitting in the car in the Bel Air parking lot with two piles of puke until she came back.  Good times.

But my favorite kid memory is one is of trying--for years and years and years, both pre-remodel and post--to successfully make it through a shopping trip by jumping from dark square to dark square of tile.  Bel Air had great tile and I was a tile-jumping master.  At least until my mom told me to knock it off, already.

As late as high school I was still tile-jumping, though by that time I was heading into the store with my friends after dance class, in search of junk food. Our quick trips included quick glances around corners and exchanges like this:

Is anybody looking?

Nope.  GO!

Leaps through the cracker and cookie aisle would commence.  It's a good thing I didn't run anyone over or break a leg.

My mom is a teacher, and so my entire childhood, I was affiliated with a kind of minor Bel Air celebrity.  From ages 6-12 this was huge.  I have many memories of hearing "Mrs. Scott!" and the sound of quick little feet on tile before someone would jump at her for a hug.  We couldn't make a trip to the store without one or two of these stops.  I think my mom loved it.  From my kid-perspective it seemed that way, at least.  As an adult, and now a teacher myself, the irony is that I run into my own students (and their parents) with the same frequency.  There's a lot less hugging.  Sometimes I'm not wearing makeup and it's awkward.  Often I just hope I have a teacher-appropriate cart full of groceries.

So let's talk embarrassing cart items. Bel Air wasn't just for food. Over my 32 years I've purchased just about everything else there that a person can purchase. Medication. Tampons. Tequila. Diapers. Pregnancy tests. (Yeah, I was so glad a former student was bagging my groceries that day.)  Condoms. (Another former student as bagger.  Sigh.)  Toilet paper. Neti pot packets. There's nothing quite like your friendly corner store where you can pick up anything and everything, then slyly push it under a giant bag of potato chips as you round a corner and run into someone from your grandparents' church who is buying mayonnaise.

There's something to be said for the place you make those first nervous purchases.  I had several at Bel Air.  The first time I bought an adult beverage--I'm guessing it was a four pack of strawberry daquiri wine coolers in the year 2000 (classy, right?)--I know I was sweating it.  I was 21, but my hand trembled a bit as I showed the checker my ID.  And why shouldn't I be embarrassed?  That same checker had been staring me down since I could walk.  That same checker knew my grandma and all of my aunts and uncles.  Shopping at Bel Air meant a few rites of passage, including standing up and buying the things a person sometimes needs to buy.

I'll be honest.  When I first got married, I couldn't really afford to shop at Bel Air.  It felt like some kind of luxury store and I could only visit in emergencies or special occasions.  But it was a proud day when I could walk the aisles of my mother's store--my grandmother's store--and buy anything I wanted.  I learned a lot there. I learned what people bought on a regular basis and what I should stock in my house.  I learned about how far my money would get me (or how far it wouldn't).  When I became a mom I started to think about taking on the mantle of baking and arranging meals for others.  I discovered all kinds of new ingredients there that I didn't even know existed--cumin! coconut milk! ginger!  When Eric developed food allergies, I was happy to see that Bel Air was so good about carrying different options.  I spent a lot of time there reading labels, learning about what I was eating.  In recent years I've come to really appreciate the quality of their produce and meats.

In my adult life, most of my visits have been at lunch time, making sandwich runs with my friends and coworkers.  I've enjoyed Bel Air's convenience and the fact that I can get a relatively good turkey and swiss on ciabatta for a decent price.  Who are we kidding?  That sandwich was huge, too.  That's a two-day lunch.  Someone was always willing to go to Bel Air because it was close.  We always come back with a full-size bag of potato chips and a giant cup of ice for K.  I loved the quiet senior citizen crowd of Bel Air, midday.

What I liked best about Bel Air as a kid was that the current season was reliably clear.  If it was time for the Western Festival, then checkers and baggers would be wearing plaid.  Someone would be cooking Chili in the parking lot.  If it was Easter, there coloring contests with bunnies and packets of egg dye lined up to be taken home.  Halloween meant mountains of candy or pumpkin-shaped cookies with sparkly orange sprinkles.  Bel Air was always changing but it was predictably warm, friendly, and safe.  Those things are at any grocery store, but Bel Air was at the heart of Elk Grove.

Bel Air felt like the community store, and I suppose that's why I am most sad about it going.  It means an empty storefront in the center of town, but it also signifies that there is no longer a center.  Families have moved outward and it means something different to live in Elk Grove than it used to.  Bel Air is no longer the hub.  It was inevitable, really, but it's a significant change.  She was a good store.


  1. You put it perfectly. It's a center, and so many, MANY childhood (and adult) memories are wrapped around and through that center.
    Thanks for putting it so well (as always!)

  2. Great post Heather. You captured it perfectly.

  3. I have SO many child-hood memories of that store, too. Love this post. I'm sad it's closing. I hadn't heard that until now :( My brother actually worked at that BelAir too for a while and I remember your sister working there in HS. I worked at the BelAir on Laguna Blvd for 3 years in college and loved (almost) every minute of it.

  4. I feel the same way - when my parents used to live on that side of town, that was "the store". I grew up walking those aisles with mom and visiting my aunt in the pharmacy. I am sad to see it go :(

  5. I'm really sad this store is closing as well. I work right across the street, so running over to grab a sandwich is one of my favorite things to do in the day! Everyone there is so nice and friendly, I am going to miss it!!!