The Grocery Store: Part II

If you missed part one, you can catch up here.

—–

“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.

“Two brothers bought it a few years ago and made it into a house,” said Chris over his shoulder, as he helped Alex measure the room he’d chosen.

The Grocery Store truly disappeared into an “invisible location” for the two years it sat empty after Amazing Grains moved to its new home. According to a Grand Forks County Property Report, Eugene and Olga Fetsch, the Grocery Store’s owners, lived just down the street from the building on a plot of land that spans much of north Grand Forks known as “Alexander and Ives’ Addition” [sic]. No publicly-accessible information explains who Alexander and Ive are, or where their main plot of land is, if that large chunk is merely their “addition.”

Map of the north Grand Forks area, which includes Alexander and Ives’ Addition in the area surrounding the balloon. It’s hard to tell where exactly that plot of land ends through property records.

Through property transactions, cold government documents declare the news of Eugene Fetsch’s passing in November of 2002. After Eugene’s death, his widow, Olga, put the building up for public auction. Still, the Grocery Store sat vacant until March of 2005, when property records show that two brothers, Darren and Kelly Thompson, expressed interest in the Grocery Store. On May 10, 2006, records show that Olga placed the Grocery Store into the brothers’ names. After the Thompsons completed renovations to transform the former Amazing Grains into a residential house, the Grocery Store was open for business. It’s been housing groups of renters who are drawn to the Grocery Store’s bachelor-esque style ever since.

Who else but a bunch of college guys would have a Christmas tree like this?

So, like many others, Chris and his roommates couldn’t resist the Grocery Store’s charm and moved in. The space gave them everything they’d been longing for in a home: a place to entertain, a yard for outdoor activities, and a pet-friendly environment for the future dog they planned to adopt. Even if the Grocery Store had been as dilapidated on the inside as it is on the outside, I think the novelty of living in a Grocery Store would have been too much for the guys to pass up.

But all silliness aside, the Grocery Store has a charm beyond its appearance, a function beyond the bare shelter it provides. There’s no denying the history: it affects everyone who has lived, worked, or visited.  It brings people together in a way that’s even more unexpected than the juxtaposition of its interior and exterior.

Another angle of the Grocery Store’s exterior
A shot of its gorgeous kitchen

“How many people can say they’ve lived in a grocery store?” the guys always ask the skeptics. And there are many.

But, like my dad said on his first tour of the Grocery Store, “You guys are going to remember this place forever.”

Over the past year, the Grocery Store has increasingly become the first place people look to when making their weekend plans. The house’s intimate social circle keeps growing, but somehow remains close-knit. The Grocery Store even has its own Facebook page, boasting 118 followers. Its page provides a brief history of the Grocery Store, along with its “house rules.” There, residents also keep their “fans” up to date with the latest events the Grocery Store is hosting.

When friends and relatives of the Grocery Store’s regulars come to town, they make sure a trip to the Grocery Store is on the agenda at least one night of their visit. Matt, one of the regulars, even got a Grocery Store shirt custom made. He wore it to a party one night, and at least 20 people asked him where they could get one. The guys love entertaining, and the Grocery Store is definitely a party house, but it never gets out of hand. Both the tenants and party-goers have an unspoken respect for the sense of community their home provides.

The one and only official Grocery Store T-shirt

This spring, a small group of friends was gathered around the fire pit in the backyard early one evening before a party. Unable to resist, the next-door neighbor (also named Chris) and his wife stumbled across the street, lugging two lawn chairs. a case of beer, and a bottle of wine.

Although the couple had a few years on us, their arrival came as no surprise. A burly, beard-sporting hunter with the thickest “Nort’ Dakohhhtan” accent you’ve ever heard, Neighbor Chris gets in on as many Grocery Store bonfires and barbecues as his wife lets him get away with.They dragged their chairs near the fire and plopped down, making themselves at home.  I turned toward Neighbor Chris’s wife.

“Chris and Alex were saying there’s a lady down the street who owned the Grocery Store when it was actually a grocery store – back in the 50s. Is that right?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah. Olga lives right next door to us,” explained Neighbor Chris’s wife, whom Chris didn’t introduce to me. I later learned her name is Tania. “She’s the nicest lady, but she’s at least 90, so she doesn’t get out much.”

“Nooo,” Neighbor Chris quickly objected. “She’s only like … 83 at most.”

Tania turned toward me, silently rolling her eyes and shaking her head in objection, mouthing, “She’s 90.”

“Anyway, ever since Darren and his brudder bought the house a few years back, dere’s been a group’a guys rentin’ it out,” Neighbor Chris said between swigs of his Keystone.

“So it’s always been guys living there?” I asked.

“Yah, dey’ve always been a lot like these guys, too. Loved to entertain,” Neighbor Chris said, looking into the fire. “Some groups are a little rowdier than others, though. A lotta times they ended up on the roof. There was even a bullet hole from a BB gun in one‘a tha front windows for a while there. But der’s always a really close group’a guys livin’ here.”

A logo Alex’s girlfriend made for the Grocery Store

As more people started arriving for the get-together that evening, the group around the bonfire slowly dwindled, as everyone began to head inside for the main event.

The falling-in screen door swung open. I heaved my way through the thick wood door behind it. No matter how softly I try to close it, it always makes an unmistakable thunderous slam. The hardwood floors were sharply cold on my bare feet as I slipped off my shoes to join the party.

The sickeningly sweet scent of peach shisha tobacco from the hookah lapped at my nostrils. A small group was congregated around its spot on the stove, leisurely passing the hose during a friendly competition of “who can blow the best smoke rings.” I wonder what the Fetschs would think.  The scent of the hookah wrapped itself around the thick smell of beer that hung in the air like a hefty fog. It causes an instant headache, but the positive connotations I associate with the smell keep me from disliking it.

I photographed one Grocery Store party for a school assignment in a photography class — The theme was “Party Time.”

The competing smells choke each other out at different points during the evening, but are amplified when they introduce themselves to the stale scent of bad decisions the next morning. The guys always wake up to find at least one or two friends have spent the night on one of their lived-in dusty blue couches. Sometimes an ambitious partier will even unearth the squashy denim futon in the entryway from underneath its pile of jackets, backpacks, and everything else people toss onto on it as they enter.

I make my way to the middle of the living space, where the table Chris and I have dinner dates at has been converted to a beer pong table. A perpetual game of beer pong always goes on during Grocery Store parties. I greet the players, noticing that the spills from the game have caused the wooden table to take on a wavy, warped texture.

The night is just starting, so almost everyone in the Grocery Store is wearing a jacket or sweatshirt to combat the slight draft in the building. Once a larger group arrives, though, the temperature will quickly rise in what quickly becomes a cramped space. The regulars know to dress in layers. The more distant acquaintances know not to complain.  I bet the members of Amazing Grains followed the same system.

As more friends arrive, I head toward the group that’s beginning to congregate around the portable bar in the entryway. Made of dark wood and vinyl-like burgundy faux leather, the fully-stocked bar is the first thing you see when you come in the door, much to the chagrin of some of the tenants’ parents.

“What’ll it be, little guy?” my friend Kevin asks Elliot from behind the bar.

The group around the bar laughs as Elliot, a guy of average height, struggles to see over the bar top.  It’s a difficult feat while sitting in the barstools that are about two feet too short for the purpose they’re meant to serve. Even if the stools were an acceptable height, Elliot’s view would be obstructed by bottles, glasses, junk mail, keys, and a red revolving police car-style party lamp, which all clutter the bar top. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my friend Kristina make a face after resting her hand on the bar top, which is sticky with a thin layer of spilled drinks.

 

Since the party is growing, Matt (the Grocery Store shirt guy) takes the initiative to bring out a blanket to cover the large window facing the street. The regulars know all the precautions that keep the Grocery Store a safe place to hang out, free from complaints by neighbors and police visits. The blanket darkens the already dim room, casting shadows on the heather gray walls. Playing off the house’s name, a small, reversible “Open” and “Closed” sign sits between the blinds and the glass on the windowsill, still visible from the outside. The sign almost always reads “Open.” If it ever says “Closed,” the guys are bombarded with texts asking why there won’t be a party that weekend.

As the night rages on, party guests sink into the three couches that make square living room area around the 47-inch flatscreen mounted to the wall. They’re singing along to every song that plays over the surround sound, toasting to the night and each other. With their coordination blurred from drinks and lethargy, the obstacle course of mismatched coffee tables in the center of the living room becomes increasingly difficult to maneuver.

As I sit on the middle couch cushion, between a group of close friends, I wonder what it is about the Grocery Store that has made it a haven for friendly gatherings both historically and today. The Grocery Store certainly owes a lot of its popularity to its inherent strangely homey and inviting atmosphere. I don’t know if any place Chris could find in those classifieds on Craigslist would be able to compete.

It’s incredible that this odd little building has served as a grocery store, a natural food market, a gathering place, a home, and a party hot spot. It provides a place to develop old friendships and cultivate new ones. No drama ever erupts. No one ever leaves without a safe ride. No one is ever left out.

Friends comment that the guys have effectively breathed new life into a place that seemed to have passed its prime long ago. But the atmosphere of the Grocery Store may not entirely be because of the people who make it a home. The Grocery Store has a history of housing niche groups. First it provided a haven for those who care about eating organically-grown food in a town that offers virtually no resources for them. Now it’s housing college students:  young people who are displaced, together – yet isolated, living on their own for the first time. The Grocery Store provides the sense of community and the place to call home that all of these people need. It brings them together, providing stability amid stress, support in the face of solitude, a home among friends, and a place to house it all.

Early on

What happens if the guys move out? I wonder silently despite the noise of the party and the presence of my friends around me. Will the friendships survive? Is the Grocery Store what’s keeping all of us together? Will the parties pick up and move to the new location?

I don’t know. But I’m confident that even when the party’s over, even when our group of friends has moved on and left this place, certainly the Grocery Store will endure, its charm intact, as it has for so many years – a shell waiting for its next inhabitants.

—–

Some things have changed since I wrote this about a month ago. Some tensions have surprisingly risen. I guess “nothing gold can stay.” The guys did decide to move on — and not all together. Today marks the beginning of their last full week in the Grocery Store together. Whatever happens after this, none of the people who called it home, whether their names were on the lease or not, will ever forget the place.

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The Grocery Store

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.

Ok, it's not quite this ... grainy.

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.

The Grocery Store

“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.

The surprising interior

“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.

Amazing Grains's current downtown location

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.