Pedestrian: 15 – A Gem, a Portal, a Dream
Visiting the most beautiful grocery store in Des Moines.
Welcome to another edition of Pedestrian: a newsletter for people who like to walk. Before we get started I’d like to give a BIG thanks to David and Julian for making this weeks’s edition possible. If you’d also like to support this work, please consider becoming a patron.
Ok! Now for this weeks’s Pedestrian:
I met Johnny shortly after entering the automated sliding doors of his grocery store, however, we did not introduce ourselves at first.
“Hello,” he said from behind the cash register. He had a command about himself that calmly assured me he was the owner of this establishment. It was as if I’d walked into one of those empty saloons you commonly see in old Western movies. Being the only customer inside, I felt his eyes fixate on me. Clearly this was a movie set, or better yet, a portal into the late 70’s.
I should have known given the weathered sign sitting on a pole in the empty parking lot. It read, “LINN’S SUPER MARKET” in an outdated, yet tasteful slab serif typeface. Set upon a black and yellow facade, it only accentuated the sign’s beacon-like qualities ushering me to come inside. I could not resist.
I had no intention of meeting Johnny, let alone discovering his supermarket. In fact, I was four or five miles into a long walk across town that would eventually end near the river downtown. I ran out of water over an hour ago and the light breakfast I chose to eat that morning was clearly not enough. I ditched my route in favor of stopping by a neighborhood called Highland Park with hopes of finding water and cheap sustenance to carry me through the rest of the journey.
Linn’s Supermarket sits just north of the main drag at Euclid and 6th Avenue. The neighborhood has seen better days. Considered the largest neighborhood centered commercial district in the Des Moines area, several buildings are in need of repair. A storefront that once served as a record store sits empty on the corner. Across the street is a former bank, likely built in the early 20th century. Plywood covers the facade windows. A vintage shop once operated next door, but many of the remaining furnishings are chaotically spread all over the place as if a tornado struck.
Despite the widespread vacancy, a handful of businesses still operate. For example, a recently opened general store selling handmade goods that local residents likely cannot afford. Down the way is a tiny African grocery store that has no shortage of customers and a dry cleaner that appears to have been in operation for eternity.
Relatively speaking, Linn’s Supermarket sticks out like a sore thumb – a true gem tucked away in the back of the neighborhood. Spend some time inside the store and you’ll soon recognize that it is the most beautiful in all of Des Moines. The walls, painted baby blue, make customers feel as if they are shopping in the clouds. Above the shelves are small, hand painted murals of hens sitting on eggs, pigs with bacon, cows with slices of beef, and children playing in the grass and feeding swans. A panoramic view of an open prairie stretches along the entire back wall. It’s a miracle this place is still intact.
Linn’s carries your basic essentials, such as bread, canned fruits and vegetables, spices, and eggs, but despite a beautiful appearance, the available stock leaves much to be desired. Many of the shelves lay partially bare, as if to suggest the store isn’t a financially viable enterprise despite being one of the few grocery stores in the area. Perhaps if there were more products, I wouldn’t be the only customer inside of the store.
In the back stands a stool with an AstroTurf cylinder adhered to the seat. Artificial palms shoot out the top of the cylinder. Hooks carrying bananas in varying stages of ripeness cover the entire structure. It’s clearly trying to look like a palm tree, but looks more like a beautiful example of contemporary art, akin to something Manfred Pernice would make.
Feeling as if I’ve spent enough time investigating the store, I grab my bottle of water and quickly choose a granola bar beside the register. It’s unclear where exactly to bring my items as there is so much junk accumulated beside the two separate checkout lanes. Behind a display case one can purchase an assortment of knives, cheap hats, and poorly made t-shirts as seen in dollar stores across America. To the right hangs an old plastic sign that displays the prices of cigarettes. Coming from New York I recognize they are so cheap and I don’t even smoke. It’s unclear whether this is another maintained relic or just another item in the store that has been neglected.
I take a photo and Johnny signals for me to bring my items to the lane furthest to the right where he waits with a stack of plastic bags. A glowing orb on a poll stands above the register. I'm dumbfounded. Obviously this is the only lane open.
Johnny rings up my items. I hesitate for a moment before barraging him with an array of compliments. I cannot help myself.
“This is the most beautiful grocery store in all of Des Moines.”
“Thank you, thank you,” he says.
That’s when we introduce ourselves. I soon learn he is not from Des Moines, but moved here 5 or 6 years ago from Los Angeles after purchasing the store from the former owner, Merlyn Linn. Hence, “Linn’s Supermarket.”
Merlyn started working at the grocery store when he was 15 years old, and in his early twenties, bought the business from his boss. At the time he made a dollar an hour and worked 72 hours a week. He claims to have enjoyed every day of work since, although he almost had to close his doors after the electrical company shut off the power to perform an outage repair. Due to an error, Merlyn’s lights never turned back on once the repairs were finished. This error completely fried his registers and a compressor that fed a whole row of coolers, leaving him with over $30K in repairs.
The electrical company reluctantly paid for most of the damages, however, Merlyn decided to retire a year later. To my understanding, that’s when Johnny came into the picture and bought the grocery store. Merlyn offered to paint over the murals, but Johnny insisted they stay. That was all fine and dandy, but before handing over the keys, Meryln had one last request: that he could continue to run the haunted house out of the store’s basement every Halloween, which has been a highlight of the community for the last 37 years. Johnny obliged.
I continue to rave about all the fixtures inside of the store – the original aisle signage, the paper American flag hanging above the register, and display cases full of toiletries that are illuminated by a soft glow – it’s all so beautiful. Not many places like this exist in Des Moines, let alone the country, these days.
Johnny appears unfazed, but accepts my compliments with a subtle smile. It was as if he already knew all I had to say. He did, after all, move across the country just to run this store.
While ringing up my last item, a large bottle of water, the store begins to feel eerily quiet. I can hear the soft rhythm of music humming from a distant speaker. The sunlight radiating from the clear glass of the front doors makes it feel as if time has come to a standstill. My imagination runs wild and I begin to build an alternative reality inside my head:
Johnny has stood at this register for over a century – maybe more. That would explain why he seems so unfazed by my presence – he’s seen it all. Could he be a ghost? I can see it in his eyes. They're telling me he’s been tasked to stock these shelves for eternity. Is this what it feels like to be in limbo? Don’t worry about the hours. This place never closes. Take all the photos you want. Nothing changes. There’s no compliment Johnny hasn’t been told. He listens to the radio to pass the time. Smiling, always smiling. Emitting from the speakers is a soundtrack of music you’ve never heard, but it feels familiar, perhaps of the late 60’s. He stocks the shelves and listens to these songs day after day, over, and over, and over aga...
“That’ll be $3.76.”
The automated doors abruptly open and the silhouette of a figure emerges from the radiant sunlight. Johnny repeats himself once again as I blankly stare at the front door. It’s as if I’ve been shaken from a very long dream. A woman walks past the checkout lanes and waves. It’s just one of Johnny’s many regulars.
A bit rattled, I fumble with a five dollar bill sitting in the front pocket of my backpack. I slowly hand it over to Johnny. He smiles and presents me with my change. As I grab the plastic bag containing my water and granola bar, I assure him that I’ll return once again before leaving for New York.
“Yes, yes, I’ll be waiting,” he says.
Thanks for reading,
Linn’s Super Market – the most beautiful grocery store in all of Des Moines. Find it at 3805 6th Ave in Highland Park.
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As always, I’m Alex Wolfe and this is Pedestrian: a newsletter about walking and our everyday surroundings.