The bog turns first

For whatever reasons, New England’s autumn foliage color often first appears over swampy spots. Soon the riotous splashes will be everywhere.
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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.

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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.

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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.

Morris men in a ring at the autumn equinox

The Pinewood Morris Men continue a festive dance style from the late middle ages in rural England. The performers wear costumes specific to their troupe, including bells, and often wield sticks or handkerchiefs in their routines. This group frequently appears in Boston Revels’ events throughout the year. Here they are greeting concertgoers to last fall’s equinox RiverSing in the Herter Park amphitheater along the Charles River in Allston.

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?