One of the most satisfying relationships I’ve established while here in the Hudson Valley is the one I have with a purveyor, Kingston Natural Foods Market. It’s no stretch to classify it as a ‘love interest.’
Love comes in many forms, it’s true, and unfortunately the word itself is subject to overuse. I am not one to throw it around with indiscretion. I don’t “love my warm socks” or “love my new phone.” I do appreciate them, I do hold them in regard. But love? No, I save that for truly unique things. I can always buy more socks; the ones I’m wearing now will be forgotten, regardless of how much I might love them today. And the minute a critical call doesn’t go through, well, I don’t really love my phone. There’s no reason to invite such fickleness.
But my relationship with this market is another matter. It is love, derived from many a splendid thing (with apologies to Han Suyin).
Before I get to talking about KNF, let me say a few things about similar love affairs of the past. There are some common traits and behaviors, of course.
When I was in Denver, I had a strong affection for a small shop that sold specialty teas, herbs, spices, and kitchen gear. Owned and staffed daily by Michelle Bontrager and her brother Ethan, Lily’s Kitchen and Garden was truly a unique place. I wrote an article about them for a quickly-defunct arts magazine. By ‘article’ I mean ‘open love letter.’
What I admired about the shop was the sense of ‘connection’ that permeated all they did. From selection of products—they tested or used every single item themselves, seeking worldwide for just the right things—to engagement with customers, to personal attention, to remembering (mentally, not electronically) someone’s tea preferences. The proprietors were deeply committed, not just to their retail space, but to everyone that walked in the door.
As I wrote in the article:
It’s a simple chain of goodwill and quality: Lily’s works with distributors that treat them well. They in turn treat their customers well. The cumulative goodwill translates into high quality experiences while using the products at home. It’s a reminder of the reason merchandise is often referred to as “goods.”
A few years after that article, I moved to Mendocino, California. As if living in a coastal village Paradise weren’t enough, I found several small local shops where I could trade love for love.
For example, Corners of the Mouth is a tiny organic grocer, located in an old converted chapel. Quite apropos, the choir loft contained their bulk teas, herbs, and spices. I would cloister myself there frequently, blending some specialty brews or reading up on some unique herbs. They had the same commitment as Lily’s, expressed in their focus on local organic produce, connection with their customers, and concern for quality. It was obvious that they valued relationships.
I drifted southeast from there, landing in Santa Fe, another local, indie Mecca. From the La Montanita Coop to the truly exceptional Farmers’ Market, I was sustainably surrounded. Due to my role at Tree House Pastry Shop and Café, I was constantly in touch with the farmers, valuing the direct line from their field to my kitchen. There is no better experience.
Coming to the Hudson Valley, with its focus on small, locally supported farms, I felt like I was taking another trip to Eden. As I procure things for the program here at CAS, I find that I’m connecting with growers and seed libraries and markets with the same spirit I found in Denver, Mendocino, and Santa Fe.
Of course. It’s the way that the best work is always done. Person to person, face to face. I need something, I know you provide it, and we agree to an exchange. Trust runs through the entire experience, and our values complement each other. It is apparent—obvious—that we care for each other’s well-being. It is important to us that both parties thrive.
So it is when I shop at Kingston Natural Foods. It was clear from the moment I stepped in the door that it was a place where I’d be happy to trade. You know how it is: once you’ve been in love, you learn to recognize all the signs.
It’s in the first hello, the engaging introductory chatter, the subtle but strong affinity. She (the market, as represented by its proprietor, Jennifer) and I (um, represented by me) find this initial exchange to be beneficial. There will be more.
The same characteristics run through all these establishments: attention to products and clients; focus on doing something well; commitment to clearly-defined core values. Demonstrating—by doing—that every choice makes a difference, and that every dollar spent is significant. Every transaction has a strong identity—I know when I hand over a 20 that it will go through the market to the farm that grew the produce. I know the farm’s name, because Jennifer has posted it with the produce. On any given visit, I might meet the baker who brings that wonderful artisan bread, or the person who made the day’s hot soup, or perhaps the guy who drives the delivery truck.
As I meet these people, I build a social circle. I become an integral part of their lives, just as they are part of mine. I can thank the baker, looking her in the eye, for what she does. She can thank me for buying it. We both can turn and thank the proprietor. We are all thankful for the relationship.
So yeah, it’s easy to call this love. At the very least, friendship—and that is another great thing about trading this way. Every time I go to the market, I get to catch up with a friend.
In writing this piece, I looked to see what Michelle and Ethan are doing these days. It is no surprise that they have transformed their shop into another unique retail experience: Best Tea Time in a Bike Shop
Check out their blog, too.