Aldi comes to town

It took Trader Joe’s forever to get to New Hampshire. Now the other half of the Albrecht corporate identity in America has finally arrived, with a new store in Dover.

The nearest TJ’s, for the record, is in Newington, one town to the south of us, with its mall, cineplex, power plant, big industrial park and airfield, and a slew of retailers serving both Dover and Portsmouth.

If you’re familiar with the German-based Aldi discount supermarket chain, you know it’s spartan about low prices, boasting that it undercuts Walmart. Rather than a choice of brand-name products, the shelves present mainly storebrand items – still in the cardboard shipping box. You put a deposit on a grocery cart, if you need one, and you have to pay for a grocery bag, if you didn’t bring your own. And, despite the frugality or stinginess, there are customers who rave about its specialty chocolate and coffee. And those who complain.

The name Aldi stands for AL-brecht DI-scount. And, oh, yes, the owners, Germany’s richest family, have been feuding, providing plenty of gossip. By the way, the cart rental means you take it back to the store for your quarter, saving the company the expense of hiring someone to retrieve it from the parking lot.

The local Aldi doesn’t sell alcohol, tobacco, or lottery tickets.

~*~

The grocery business has always been competitive, with thin profit margins. Success has depended on volume, for the most part, and niche loyalty, where possible. There’s little room for error.

Regionally, the Market Basket chain dominates. It has the lowest prices overall, wide variety, locally responsive product selection, fierce customer and employee loyalty, and a 1950s’ New England identity. We’re grateful it survived its own Greek family feud and continues with its enlightened leadership.

Meanwhile, the other two players in town pitch themselves toward stylish, but they’re almost never crowded. You might stop there if you don’t want to face the crowd at Market Basket or prefer closer parking, but there’s definitely a sense that they’re not where the action is, despite the corporate decor.

Scarborough, Maine-based Hannaford is owned by the Ahold Dehaize group in the Netherlands, which also operates the Giant, Food Lion, and Stop & Shop chains in the U.S. It feels sterile.

Shaw’s Market operates jointly with Star Market out of West Bridgeport, Massachusetts, and is owned by Boise, Idaho-based Albertson’s. Its tone is somehow greener or more intimately lighted. Do we really care if it’s the official grocer of the Boston Red Sox?

In Dover, Hannaford and Shaw’s sit side by side north of the hospital.

Intriguingly, Aldi chose to tuck its new store in across the street. Rather than building, it could have taken over the former Staple’s site a bit up the street, closer to both the freeway and to Market Basket. We’re curious about the corporate thinking here.

Our guess is that Aldi figures it can pick off at least one of the two rivals that share its traffic lights. Hannaford has a satisfactory pharmacy, one that my health plan pointed me to. Shaw’s turns out some fine baguettes and the tortilla chips are superb. So we’d miss either one.

For perspective, the Shaw’s in Newington recently folded, unable to keep up with its neighboring Market Basket and TJ’s.

Aldi is closer to downtown Dover than Market Basket, and for some prices, it’s coming in lower. But is that enough to cut significantly into No. 1?

We’ll see.

~*~

For now, I’m viewing it more as a convenience store with low prices. A gallon of milk is a dime or two cheaper than anywhere else … for now.

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Jumpin’ Jehosaphat, the place starts rocking

The old church is rechristened, as it were, when their live rock nights take over. In What’s Left, my novel many of the musicians are already connected to the family restaurant, one way or another.

As I explain in a passage that was more than anyone needed in the final version:

Much to their credit, Dimitri and Graham and Barney and Pia have a knack for attracting talent – and for listening to all their ideas. It isn’t all just food-oriented, either.

Oh, I’m so glad Cassia’s stopped talking like this. In the final version, she’s refreshingly snippy.

~*~

Thanks to her aunt Yin, a teenaged Cassia winds up booking up-and-coming acts – ones that can play well in their old church. It’s a matter of people skills and organizational skills, especially, along with taking good advice from her musically alert cousins.

Imagine stepping in for her. What kind of music or other entertainment would you most like on the schedule? Is there a local band or singer or comedian (nobody widely known yet) you’d like to pitch to Cassia if you could? (Feel free to add a link to their website or YouTube action, if you wish.) Go ahead, shamelessly plug them, be the loyal fan club – let the world know! Go wild, oh yay! Me? How about a weekly contradance?

Right next door, hallelujah

Let me confess, as an author, this was an impulse purchase for me. Have you ever driven through an old residential neighborhood and noticed an old church just plunked down in the middle of the block?

The one in my novel What’s Left sits next to the family manse. Here’s an early description of the site, one I decided not to include in the final version:

One thing that hadn’t been discussed when he left was the use of the old white church. We bought it just because we could. Thea Nita has joked it was the missing lot on our Monopoly board, and you could agree that she’s right. Yes, it was a great indoor playground for us kids but, as I’ve learned, that hardly justified the expense. Early uses included folk dancing, especially square dances and New England contras – events that included live music and callers, along with instruction. And there were a few weddings. It wasn’t a particularly big church, though – the pews held maybe a hundred people? Well, we promptly put those into storage.

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy. You get the idea.

~*~

I’m ready to up that capacity number somewhat, anyway. Wouldn’t 200 be more fitting?

If you’re like me, music’s an essential part of life. I’m in a community choir that rehearses in the social hall of a church that rents out space for our offices, too – we do a big Christmas production at Harvard every year. I could imagine something similar working out of this space.

Where do you go for live music or dancing? Do you prefer a small club setting? An auditorium? A big arena? Or just somebody’s garage or basement? What kind of neighborhood is it in?

When home is almost a castle

In my novel What’s Left, the home life of Cassia’s extended close-knit family revolves around a large Victorian house they call Big Pink. It’s just a block away from their restaurant, and sometimes it’s hard to count just how many generations and their guests are living within it.

~*~

This passage, though, didn’t quite fit on their plates:

Baba tells us of a dorm buddy who once bandied about the idea of taking an old house and serving intimate dinners in the various rooms. Be like eating in somebody’s private home, he’d said.

Well, Dimitri says, we have this imposing but monstrous citadel in our project. (Meaning Big Pink.) We could move the restaurant right here, but I rather like it as the center of something better. He reaches for a piece of paper and hands it to Baba.

See, if we enclose the porch, like this, and put a grill in here … uh-huh, they grin as Baba pencils in this creation. An entryway here. Steps leading up to an enlarged dining room, which goes here. The kitchen, you see, builds into this area, and …

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy and Big Pink remains filled with children.

~*~

As I’ve learned the hard way, old houses demand a lot of repair and maintenance. One like Big Pink could be a full-time job. Fortunately, Cassia’s great-grandfather Ilias left his imprint, and some of her cousins follow suit.

Traveling about, it’s always fun to look at different kinds of dwellings, especially where people have made their signature marks.

Tell me what you’d most want as your dream house.

A spotlight for new talent

In the years after World War II, many older neighborhoods fell into neglect as home buyers and developers fled for the suburbs. You could buy up in-town properties for a song in some places – districts that have now become quite trendy, even chic, especially when gentrification takes place.

In my novel What’s Left, her great-grandfather quietly snapped up many of the sites around the family restaurant – storefronts and offices, old houses and apartments – and, as a result, added real estate rentals and leasing to the family business. He saw the ‘hood as his own urban village, one he nicknamed Mount Olympus.

One of its anchors was a big pink Victorian house with the witch’s hat turret, the imposing dwelling that became the family headquarters a block away from the restaurant. At the time, it would have been more destined to become a funeral home or law offices or a flophouse than a revived mansion. It was too large for the typical nuclear family, and developers would have deemed needed renovations and maintenance too costly for the existing market. If it sat a few blocks closer to the hospital, it might have found use as medical suites.

So Cassia’s family’s timing was right. Victorian came back into style, in part as a reflection of hippie style.

Another twist in the story involves the building next door, an old white-frame church her uncle buys up on a whim. Apart from its location, there was little to support the decision as a business move. Another uncle, in fact, wanted to see the money used for a more promising development – there was a no-brainer payoff in that option.

When I introduced the church to the story, I had no idea where it would fit. Would it become the Tibetan institute Cassia’s father was helping establish? Or a hippie hangout of some sort? Or an underground theater? So it kind of sat there for a while, largely as the kids’ indoor playground, probably sapping up money that could have gone elsewhere.

And then it took off on its own, in part inspired by tales I heard of another restaurant and its live music influence. But that one was in a big city and was set in an old movie theater where the staff would party in the balcony.

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For some out-of-this world sensations

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s father balances his career between work as a professional photographer and as an American authority on Tibetan Buddhism.

This description seemed a tad overcooked for the final serving:

In the end, Baba creates a dozen-and-a-half commercials before returning to his seat between a pair of six-foot-long brass trumpets and a twelve-hour holy recitation.  

~*~

No matter how much I like the image of long trumpets and chanting, the average reader is going to require too much explanation to get it. Oh, my. Maybe it’s a danger of my being a poet, too.

I have no idea about your father, but I can assure you mine was nothing like that. Mine worked as an accountant for a division of a global corporation. He wore suits and ties, and I never, ever got to see the floor where he worked.

Let’s just say Cassia’s Baba had a lot more freedom and flexibility than most.

Could you imagine having a father like hers Or maybe a famous TV actor? How would your life be different?

What’s happened to Portsmouth?

The Port City is hemmed in by water on three sides, and it’s running out of room to grow.

While the waterfront and beaches are part of the city’s tourism and residential appeal, the demand on downtown real estate has been going up steeply. Literally.

Not all that long ago, Portsmouth was a sleepy little New Hampshire city with a hippie edge and a lot of historic Colonial houses. Unfortunately, the city fathers had jumped on the urban renewal boom in the early ’60s, nearly demolishing one old neighborhood that was instead miraculously transformed into the Strawbery Banke living history museum. Visit it, if you can.

The side opposite the downtown wasn’t so lucky. Much of it, an Italian neighborhood of large Victorian houses with impressive interiors, was razed to make room for a small mall that never took off. It instead became a forbidding asphalt graveyard for private parking surrounding some kind of small bunker.

At least that vacuous mistake and eyesore is finally gone.

I’m not so sure about the replacement, though.

In what seems like one fell swoop, a monolithic set of five-story buildings has popped up to form a forbidding wall along the north side of the downtown.

It’s all new.
But does it leave you with any invitation to walk along this?

It has none of the variety and charm of Congress and State streets that run parallel to it just a few blocks away. It’s largely not pedestrian friendly, preferring instead to maximize every square inch of rentable space, and despite its visual unity has a cookie-cutter quality that bears no kinship to the rest of the district other than brick. Where are the quirky touches that abound so close at hand in the earlier eras?

There is one exception.

This break in the wall has some of the pedestrian welcome you might feel in the North End of Boston. The slight bend in the street and awnings help.

Downtown Dover, ten miles to the north, is undergoing growth of its own and seems to be avoiding this kind of monolithic development, even while going to five stories. Whether we can avoid something similar on the riverfront project on the other side of the Cocheco is another question.

In both cities, these are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for defining the larger community. What does this say about Portsmouth?