In a little over a week, my boyfriend and his roommates will be moving out of their first house. While it’s an exciting experience to move on and upgrade a little, their house was really the first house of all their close friends who frequented it, too. It almost took on a personality of its own. For my final paper in my nonfiction class last semester, I wrote a research paper about his house. To pay it its last little tribute, I thought it might be worth posting an excerpt here. It was a long paper, so more might follow, if there’s any interest.
From the sidewalk, it looks like the kind of place you’d shoo your kids past while Trick or Treating. After weaving through the cars in its “parking lot” to get to the front door and noting the peeling paint from its once-white window panes, any passersby would assume it’s either been abandoned or is inhabited by a crack dealer.
No one would expect it to be a bachelor pad, let alone the site of countless locally-legendary house parties. And maybe that’s the reason they’ve never had the police called, even when nearly 75 people are crammed inside on a Friday night. That, and the fact that although the wind whistles through its poorly-insulated brick, sound never seems to escape from the confines of its walls. It appears to be the last place anyone looking for a good time would feel safe, and yet, this shabby little house has provided a sanctuary for socialization and has created countless friendships, relationships, and memories.
It’s a speakeasy of sorts: it provides a safe place to do unsafe things, and unless you know someone who lives there, you don’t hear about its weekend festivities. Even when the party’s raging, you’ll never find more than five to ten strangers. Besides, people never stay strangers long there.
My boyfriend, Chris, and his three roommates moved to the house about a year ago. Recently, I was cuddled into the nook of the dusty blue leather couch in the living room, watching TV with Chris and his dog. I peered over his shoulder at the laptop resting on the arm of the couch to find he was scanning Craigslist’s rental property classifieds. I felt a pang of sadness. Even though it’s never a comfortable temperature and the electricity bill climbs to over $400 in the winter, this strange little place has cultivated a community of close-knit friends. What would happen if they moved?
I remember when the guys first told me about the house.
“You’ve gotta come check out the Grocery Store,” said Alex, Chris’s longtime friend and roommate. “We just signed the lease and put the deposit down.”
They were chattering so excitedly about rooming arrangements and how to furnish the house that I couldn’t raise any of my many objections.
Frustrated after getting noise complaints from even having the TV on too loud in their last apartment, the guys were looking for someplace where they could entertain. Moving into a place called the Grocery Store didn’t sound like a solution to me.
Nevertheless, I agreed to take a look.
“You’re probably going to think we’re crazy when you see the outside,” Chris warned on our drive to the Grocery Store, trying to keep me from immediately hating the place. “Give it a chance – It completely redeems itself once you go inside.”
In the residential neighborhood, the warmth of the first breath of summer brought children outside to ride their bicycles and play with the dogs that were being walked by several neighbors. Joggers’ ponytails leapt wildly down the sidewalks. I was so enamored by the homey neighborhood that, when we turned into a corner lot, I didn’t immediately realize we’d arrived at our destination. From the passenger seat of Chris’s pickup, my subtle smile faded as I stared through the windshield at the house in front of me.
“You’re kidding, right?” I pleaded, shooting Chris a glance.
He laughed, as if he was expecting this.
That made one of us. I opened the car door and looked across what appeared to be a parking lot. Despite the lot’s attempts to smother the lawn where the front yard should have been, mossy-looking foliage sprouted through the many cracks in the pavement. Weeds choked out the grass in the sliver of lawn on the side of the house, barely visible behind Alex’s car in the snapshot. I followed the brown grass to the backyard where I found a scraggly, stunted plum tree feebly clinging to life. Circling back to the building’s front, I noticed an antiquated yard light protruding antennae-like from the roof, which you can find at the top right corner of the snapshot. Wood splinters bristled angrily from the window panes.
I found Chris holding the front door open for me at my right.
“Just come inside,” was his reaction to my unpleasantly surprised face.
As I entered, I felt myself react like the shocked homeowner on a home remodeling show taking in the surprise renovations. The majority of the one-level house’s floor plan was an open expanse. The large main room shown above would later be shaped by furnishings, providing space for a bar, living room, dining room, and kitchen. I felt like I was atop a high-rise loft apartment in a big city. Something about the house drew me in; I moved naturally through it.
“Wow,” my voice echoed in the unfurnished space. “I wasn’t expecting this.”
Chris and Alex grinned at each other.
“But what’s the story behind the whole ‘Grocery Store’ thing?” I asked, inspecting the too-good-to-be-true interior for any flaws.
“It used to be a grocery store in the 1950s,” Alex started. “I want to sleep in the frozen food section!”
Actually, Grand Forks County Property Records explain that the Grocery Store was constructed in 1948. Exactly how long it served as a neighborhood grocery store is a mystery. But the building had another more well-known function before it became the guys’ home and a party destination.
“It used to be Amazing Grains, too,” Chris added.
Amazing Grains is a natural food market and co-op in Grand Forks that provides organic produce periodically to paying members. The store serves a very select group, since the organic food trend isn’t exactly widespread in the area. In 2000, the co-op had around 250 members, as the stated in an interview between then-University of North Dakota student Curtis Stofferahn and Amazing Grains’s manager, Betsy Perkins. As reported by the local newspaper, the Grand Forks Herald, Amazing Grains made the Grocery Store its home from its inception over 35 years ago, until December 31, 1999. Perkins told the Herald she decided to make the move to a high-traffic area downtown in early 2000 because, tucked into a residential neighborhood, they felt they were in an “invisible location” at the Grocery Store.
Even so, when the Grocery Store served as Amazing Grains, it found itself the shelter to a following eerily similar to the group of friends it houses today. Before Amazing Grains’s move downtown, unless you knew someone who knew about the store, you probably wouldn’t have known where it was or what it provided. But the close knit group of members, small staff, and volunteers gave life to the building, putting on events like their annual Co-op Cookoff, which was established in the early nineties, according to the Herald.
“So … how did it turn into this?” I echoed in the empty room, wondering how many times the question had been asked in that same spot.
That’s about half of the Grocery Store story. Part II may follow.