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Fresh advice

OUR little neighborhood grocery store's pale new hardwood floor pleases me immensely. Surely, I tell myself, this third such floor in as many decades is almost a pledge that we devotees of the ambience found here can expect our love affair with the place to continue for years to come, despite the mushrooming of sleek supermarkets all over town. My fondness for the place probably stems from my memory of the country store I knew as a child, where farm wives met on Saturday afternoons to barter eggs for calico and catch up on their visiting. For months here, I may not see an acquaintance except for chats in our store while selecting bananas or artichokes.

You might almost call us another California cult, we shoppers who feel that bigger is not necessarily better. This is not to say our gem of a store is a hole-in-the-wall operation. It has five aisles, albeit they are short. Today lettuce is cheaper up the street. But broccoli is holding its own here. We faithful have found that prices even out, and many of us no longer bother to read the ads.

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Perhaps because I live alone, I especially cherish a visit to this store whose friendliness extends beyond the front door. A baked food sale may be in progress by the window plastered with notices of community doings. Veterans sell poppies here. And often a dog sits on nervous haunches waiting for its shopping master.

I feel, even on the busiest day, that more than food and household items are dispensed here. Perhaps it is because the office of the owner-manager is but a few steps from the checkout stands and this genial man mingles frequently with the customers, advising on purchases when asked, like as not pushing a loaded cart to the parking lot out back to stand chatting under the huge avocado tree.

Some unspoken agreement decrees that most shoppers make their way clockwise around the store. The narrow aisles make for much cart-banging and good-natured apologies. It's as if the members of a large family have all gone to the pantry for dinner fixings and naturally get in one another's way. The clerk squatting to replenish shelves does not help matters. But he is friendly and not averse to going to the storeroom for some requested items.

Across the back of the store amiable butchers hold forth behind a long glass case displaying an astonishing array. As one waits one's turn, a great chunk of beef may be reduced before one's eyes to neatly trimmed roasts and stew meat to replenish the trays in the counter. A fryer is held up for a customer's inspection, or a recipe for barbequed ribs or Swiss steak given with such mouth-watering detail that one hastens to jot it down.

A fellow shopper told me the other day of an incident when she thought she had behaved badly in our store. Looking for apples for a Waldorf salad, she asked the produce man if a certain variety was sweet and juicy. Assured they were, she hesitated and said, ``Are you sure?'' Without a word, the man whipped out a knife, split an apple, and handed it to her. ``I felt so silly,'' she said. ``Of course, it was delicious.''

``Almost the same thing happened to me,'' I said. ``Only it was radishes. Assured they were mild and firm, I still said, `Not pithy and tongue-biters?' The man snatched one from a bunch, wiped it on his apron before handing it to me, and said, `Try one.' '' This was the man who, when I wished to take some of our local artichokes to my family up north, told me to come early on my day of departure and he would get some for me fresh from the truck.

Checkers here are not automatons hurrying one through the line. They ask about my grandchildren and like to get new recipes. And they are grateful when one senses a busy time and does not stand talking. One thanked me once for putting coins in her hand. ``You've no idea how much time we spend picking them up when they're thrown down,'' she said.

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Sometimes, as I wander up and down the aisles in this little gem of a store, I half expect to find a pickle barrel around the corner, or a wheel of cheese on the checkout stand. It's that kind of place.

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