I remember the first time I lost my dad at the local Acme supermarket, my six-year old panic as I shuffled along the scuffed floors, eyes darting each aisle for his big black parka. Finally, I spotted the bear of his familiar figure, paused in front of rows upon rows of red and white Campbell cans. I reached for his hand, relieved.
The stranger turned, confused, his blue eyes looking down into my red-faced shame.
At six years old, it was just about the most horrifying thing I could imagine.
Inside the Acme, sat a tall green CoinStar machine. One late August, my grandpa and I lugged a plastic jar of change to the store, the shiny new pennies, almost pink, winking in the sun alongside some rusted dimes, nearly black with grime. We had been saving change all summer – a couple nickels leftover from lunch here, a Tooth Fairy quarter there. I watched my grandpa hoist the jar above his waist, the coins jangling, then crashing, into the machine’s plastic funnel. Minutes passed, until a receipt inched out, “THANK YOU FOR USING COINSTAR”, with the disappointing total.
This Acme of my childhood closed in 2009, after nearly four decades of serving my hometown, Princeton Junction. The building sat empty for five years. Locals rallied around the idea of a Trader Joe’s, an affordable high-end grocer; we got half that demand when Mrs. Green’s, an all-organic supermarket, signed the lease.
I remember walking down the aisles when it first opened in 2014, stunned by the transformation. The white floors reflecting bright, sanitized florescence had been replaced by subdued lighting and vibes of industrial chic, reminiscent of Whole Foods. There was a nutritionist on-site, Australian yogurt costing $2.75 per cup and bakery cases made of wood and glass, not plastic. Instead of Seattle’s Best, I spotted a smoothie bar, in front of the store’s third(!) entrance.
The demographics of West Windsor township have shifted in the last decade to be wealthier and less white. But Princeton Junction, the township’s corner enclave hugging Route 1, with the prices of its aging, smaller homes stabilized by the proximity to New York commuter trains, maybe not so much.
Though we lived less than a mile away, the prices kept our wallets distant, unlike the old Acme we frequented at least once a week. For occasional weeknight trips, Mrs. Green’s was begrudgingly convenient. But the bulk of our groceries came from the Trader Joe’s in Princeton, sometimes the McCaffrey’s on 571.
On paper, West Windsor township seems like a smart location, with the “right incomes” to support a boutique grocer. But in Princeton Junction, we still have a Dunkin’ Donuts, instead of a Starbucks. There is a 7-11 at the corner gas station. Two greasy and delicious pizza joints operate within a quarter-mile of each other. One of them sits in that same Acme strip mall known officially as “Windsor Plaza”; Aljon’s pizza and sub shop has outlasted a number of higher-end tenants in the past decade — including a frozen yogurt shop, a fast-casual burger joint, and eventually, Mrs. Green’s.
After the first several months of promising customer sales, driven more by curiosity than anything else I think, business at Mrs. Green’s began to slow. A national chain reported under financial pressure, many of its locations struggled to keep shelves stocked. Slowly, the Princeton Junction location’s produce, deli and prepared foods section began to downsize. The store eventually scaled to just half its original layout, with a single entrance remaining. “Under renovation”, claimed the sign posted in front of the empty space. It stayed “under renovation” until Mrs. Green’s shuttered in October 2016, just two and a half years after it first opened.
Now Woori Mart is here. The store is a Korean grocer (“Woori” means “Our” in Korean), and it sits adjacent to the town’s once-contentious Asian-themed pocket park. There is another large-ish Asian grocer nearby in Plainsboro, owned by a Chinese company.
Which clientele Woori Mart intends to serve is unclear. They have locations scattered throughout the east coast, in random towns like Northvale, NJ and Buffalo, NY.
Will white people shop there? Does it matter, if it’s a response to Princeton Junction’s changing demographic? Are there really that many Koreans in my town, now? I remember being only one of three in my elementary school! What are the prices like? Who shops there now? Is it cleaner than the Asian food market, which Yelpers have docked with less-than-stellar hygiene reviews? Will it give Koreans a bad rep if it is dirty?
Time to see for myself.