I don't recall Trader Joe's opening with much fanfare, it just started existing in Portland sometime in the mid-'90s and has continued ever since. At the time there was only one location, over in that out-of-the-way S.E. Portland pocket near Holgate and 39th streets (actually, I'm embarrassingly over familiar with that area since it was where my teenage stalkee lived). I'm pretty sure they've multiplied since I left in '98.
Though I only spent a few brief years getting to know Trader Joe's, it made an impression on me, and I've discovered I'm not alone. It's one of the few stores I can get staunch New Yorkers worked up over. None of these everything's-better-in-the-city types get my fascination with Wal-Mart, strip malls, or even Target (which I'd mistakenly thought was the new Manhattanite darling since opening in downtown Brooklyn). But when Trader Joe's is mentioned, eyes brighten, heads nod, I've made a breakthrough. It seems that practically everyone has had the opportunity to visit the store somewhere in the U.S. and with this little taste, know they're missing out.
I've always viewed Trader Joe's as a source of cheap, semi-healthy and passably gourmet/specialty items. Honestly, that's not a huge deal in Portland since the city's bursting at the seams with organic crap, but in NYC, inexpensive quality food is a rare species, indeed. But TJ's (ew, that sounds gross, but I've heard people refer to it as such) ain't what it used to be, at least not in my nearby travels.
So far, I've tested Scarsdale and Hewlett (the only one really accessible to New Yorkers via LIRR) in New York and Westwood and Westfield in New Jersey (why the two wests, who knows'). Westfield has become the Trader Joe's of choice, if not because they're the only branch that sells alcohol, but also due to their proximity to the most kickass Hong Kong Supermarket I've ever seen (to be written about soon).
I'm not sure if it's Westfield that's been clouding my Trader Joe's nostalgia or if the store itself is just changing. On my most recent visit I felt like they'd hired character actors to populate the store. The nasal New York accent (or is that New Jersey' I can't tell. Think what's-her-name, that girlfriend of Chandler's on Friends–not that I ever watch lame sitcoms, of course) was rampant. I guess it's my own fault for doing the NJ trek on weekends, but in typical tri-state fashion the aisles are always so jammed you'd think they were giving away free Trader Giotto's marinara or some shit.
Level-headed shoppers have been replaced with zombies mobbing the back corner for cases of 'Two-buck Chuck,' geriatric couples with wives who loudly lecture their hubbies on what the doctor said they can and can't eat, the ladies who low carb, fervently checking labels and creating cart jams in the bagged nuts section, and the fresh off the turnip truck crowd (do they even have turnips in NJ'it is the Garden State, right') who act like they've never been in a store that sells faux health food before, "would ya look at this–chocolate-covered soybeans."
I never thought I'd miss those free trade coffee swilling, Tom's of Maine using, soyrizo-scarffing Oregonians, but they're benign in comparison. Quaint. I used to pine for an NYC Trader Joe's, but visions of Park Slope 40-year-old first time mommies, or worse, Williamsburg parents who think it's cute to dress their babies in deconstructed rock tees from the '80s, snatching up lunch box-sized chocolate soymilk with glee keep my dream in check. I'll suffer sans Trader Joe's if it means keeping precious NYC riff raff at bay.
Trader Joe's * 155 Elm St., Westfield, NJ