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Style & Culture | L.A. CENTRIC / MARY McNAMARA

In the aisles of Trader Joe's, a culture all its own

July 08, 2003|Mary Mcnamara | Times Staff Writer

Traditionally, Los Angeles has been depicted in film and on television in two ways: the really violent moral corruption of South-Central and the really tacky moral corruption of Beverly Hills. But in the first season of HBO's "Six Feet Under," there was a tiny ray of hope. Two of the characters -- David Fisher and his male lover -- were seen chatting and pushing a cart through a Trader Joe's parking lot.

Trader Joe's! A local store not on Rodeo Drive! The brown paper bags rustled convincingly, the cars jockeyed for parking in the signature impossibly small lot ... why, it seemed just as if someone who actually lived in Los Angeles had something to do with the script. Then, two stupid-looking white guys, waiting for David's parking space, shouted out a homophobic epithet. This worked as a plot point but not as a reality check.

Because homophobic-epithet-shouters do not shop at Trader Joe's.

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The original idea

It's the late '60s and Joe Coulombe, owner of a handful of convenience stores, is sitting on a Caribbean beach trying to figure out how to fight the barbarians at the gate -- that new chain called 7-Eleven. In the grand tradition of Disneyland's Tiki Room, he decides to go with a tropical adventure theme. He decides to focus on low-priced gourmet items, to keep it simple -- small stores, few frills -- but make it fun -- breezy explanations of where items come from, product names that refer to literature and philosophy and often include really bad puns.

Coulombe said at the time, and again in 1988 when he sold the chain to the Albrecht family, that Trader Joe's aimed for "the educated customer." The person who would appreciate sprouted wheat bread and Ghirardelli's chocolate, who might actually be looking for black rice, unpressed soap, soy milk and really good New York cheesecake, a canny Argentine merlot and a frozen spinach lasagna offered by "Trader Giotto."

One could argue that he was appealing to yuppies before there were yuppies, but it has gone much deeper than that. Trader Joe's has changed somewhat since the Albrechts took over. Where there were once 27 stores, there are now more than 200. In 15 states. Many of the original stores have been redesigned -- the aisles are wider, there are automatic doors, and in some, the fishnets and nautical-themed tchotchkes have been replaced by colorful but tasteful murals, often depicting the local neighborhood. Trader Giotto and Trader Juan are not so much in evidence, and most of the food labels are free of those windy yet clever back stories. The Fearless Flyer, with its Victorian clip art, is still around, though, and the Web site looks like something out of Monty Python.

But Trader Joe's' expansion has been as spiritual as it has been physical. Over the years, as more and more people picked up those orange baskets and headed through its door, Trader Joe's has created a unique demographic, a decidedly local lifestyle -- TJ Culture.

TJ Culture is to food shopping as sort of what the Episcopal Church is to Christianity -- a realistic idealism that rejects many of the rules and regs associated with stricter sects. Just as the Episcopal Church borrows some from the Catholics but is generally more liberal when it comes to sin and attendance, Trader Joe's dips into the health food movement, the gourmet food, wine and booze craze, and the ever-popular discount ideal. But all in moderation.

In mixing these three, along with a recognition that you can't have too many kinds of chocolate chip cookies, corn chips or cheap but decent wine, TJ Culture creates a safe haven at the intersection of several groups known for their competitive testiness.

Few people have the time, money or frequent-flier miles to become Truly Educated about Spanish cheese or Chilean wine. And many find mega-store shopping a hellish ordeal that must be limited, like pelvic exams and dental appointments, to once, maybe twice a year.

But a TJ shopper knows that upon entering the store, she'll get a few bargains without having to walk the warehouse equivalent of the Appalachian Trail, and she'll also get enough culinary cred to pass just about everywhere. But not so much that she becomes a bona fide snob. TJ Culture is all about being prepared but relaxed, knowing but never condescending, being clever but not trendy.

This is why, when asked what they are bringing to the picnic or the party or the farewell dinner, many people will simply say: "Dunno. I'll just go to Trader Joe's." They know that whatever they need -- a bottle of single-malt scotch, a mess of spinach dip and pita chips or just an armful of really cheerful sunflowers -- will not only be available, it will be of the Right Sort.

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