Words by Triana Hernandez
Have you ever wondered what life was like prior to large supermarkets? On September 2013, Footscray’s Coles closed due to renovations, leaving the vibrant inner-city suburb without any large supermarket for 12 months. Like many other Footscray residents who don’t own a car, I decided to do what I had seen so many old ladies doing; I bought a small chequered red and black shopping trolley.
I started taking my two-wheeled friend around the neighbourhood, exploring the streets in search of butchers, bakeries, veggie shops and other small businesses. It was a big change, and as a 24 year old girl used to a sense of ‘immediacy’ thanks to smartphones and the internet, it felt like stepping into a Charles Dickens tale.
A year later, Coles re-opened its doors to hundreds of people eager to see its white floors again. As I strolled down its tall aisles filled with colourful boxes and hundreds of familiar brands and products, I pondered about the pros of living for a year without a large chain supermarket:
- You get to know your community better. You get to talk to the people behind the counter; you get to know their stories, where they are from, what their dreams are, what they are saving for. Every person has an amazing story to share and the past year has been an amazing way to get to know the people that make this place so special. Subsequently, after months of going in and out of stores around Footscray, I am now familiar with all the faces and personalities that inhabit my neighbourhood. In a society where everyone is so individualistically consumed by tiny technologies at the palms of their hands it was a refreshing change to walk down the streets being greeted by name. My sense of ‘belonging’ went through the roof and I would smile walking down the streets singing out loud and waving at people. I felt like a modern age Snow White.
- You discover new amazing flavours. I now realise that growing up in a Coles/Woolies culture means you will probably end up in a life-long loop of always buying the same groceries, the same brands and the same flavours. After shopping for months at Little Saigon and Footscray Markets I discovered so many new products, fruits, herbs, spices and vegetables – all these wonderful things I would’ve never tried otherwise simply because I was not exposed to it. My kitchen now stocks tasty bundles of water spinach and Vietnamese mint, handfuls of mandarin oranges (great for tea!), sweet mangosteens, cute-looking rambutans and the beautiful and delicious queen of all fruits; the dragon fruit (you have to try it!).
- You become less lazy – I have to admit it; Coles makes me lazy. Knowing that it is there, open pretty much all day means I often leave doing the groceries to the last minute – sometimes even 15 minutes before they close. In contrast, organising my weeks allocating specific times to walk around my neighbourhood was not only a great form of exercise but it also meant that I started using my days and weekends more productively. On my days off I got out of the house more often and I woke up earlier to fit trips to the shops. Go me!
- Shopping around the neighbourhood is heaps more fun! – I honestly feel like in the past year I have sort of travelled around South East Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The variety of new smells, the variety of new languages and the amount of stories I have to tell just from spending one Sunday afternoon walking around Little Saigon do not even slightly compare to a lifetime shopping at Coles. In addition, I know this might be a bit too poetic or romanticising the experience a bit much, but I think that there’s something beautiful and almost liberating about seeing most products outside of boxes, outside of plastic bags, outside of tidy shelves. They are out there, out on display, fresh and natural, smelling the way they should smell. It is oddly beautiful.
- Last but not least: It’s cheaper! – Coles might have a magazine with their ‘bargains’ that save you an average of $1.50 – $2 per sale. However, if you walk down the markets at the end of a day you would be surprised at how much the prices can drop. One time I bought a kilo of perfectly edible and delicious shrimps for $5 on a Sunday afternoon! If you are game enough you can also bargain, which is how every now and I get a kilo of avocados for $1 – though in general and when in season you will pay no more than $3 per kilo at the Markets. Bargain!
Here, I would also like to mention that in my year sans Coles, Cheaper Buy Miles became my first stop at the start of most of my shopping trips. It is true that you never know what you will find, but the days in which you find 5 tubs of butter for $3 or 500 gr of feta cheese for $2 are quite a victory and you might even find yourself texting the good news to your friends as if you just won the lotto.
These days I shop at Coles only if it is late at night and I forgot to buy an ingredient, or if I need to buy specific products that are hard to get around Footscray like various types of cheeses or soy milk. I appreciate it’s convenience since it is open almost all day, every day of the week and you can find everything in one spot… but I am happier spending an hour of my Sunday morning biking or walking around Footscray, talking to the locals behind the counter, walking into the butcher like my grandmother probably used to do, genuinely smiling and laughing as I try samples of pears, mangos and apples and continue to fall in love with my suburb.
(Photos copyright David Porteus: https://www.flickr.com/people/davidporteus)