When my wife and I were searching for a house in 1996, we had a few basic requirements: We wanted an older home with a decent-sized yard for our children; we wanted to live in an actual neighborhood, not a new, vinyl-sided ranch development; we wanted to be relatively close to Chronicles’ office; and we wanted to be able to walk to a grocery store.

Whenever I mention that last desire, most people look puzzled.  They can understand wanting to be within walking distance of a school (though, because of the Rockford desegregation case, that was never a concern of ours), but of a grocery store?  After all, you cannot get “one-stop shopping” and “always low prices” at a small neighborhood grocery, and that is how you should decide where to shop—isn’t it?

The neighborhood grocery is an increasingly rare institution, and many (if not most) Americans view it as a slightly more extensive (though less expensive) version of the convenience store: You can pick up a gallon of milk in a pinch, or maybe even stock up on tomato soup when it is on sale, but real grocery shopping requires a Safeway or Kroger or Giant or Meijer or Shoppers’ Food Warehouse or, of course, the nearly ubiquitous 40-acre Super Wal-Mart.  Those who think otherwise may even be regarded as somewhat un-American.  (Toward the end of the Cold War, it seemed that every visiting Soviet Bloc dignitary had to tour an American supermarket and express awe at the vast quantities of goods.)

Ultimately, we bought a house about six blocks away from a Hilander, a locally owned (at that time) grocery-store chain, and considered ourselves lucky to be so close.  But over the past five-and-a-half years, out walking on summer evenings with the children, I have found a half-dozen houses within that six-block radius that clearly began life as grocery stores—square brick or frame buildings with flat roofs, large front windows, and central doors, usually (though not always) located on a corner lot.  (Similar buildings with much smaller windows and side or corner doors were neighborhood taverns, and we have a few of them as well—but that is a topic for another column.)  In other parts of the city, a few of these grocers have survived by transforming into specialty stores—an Italian grocer sits kitty-corner to St. Anthony’s Church on the southwest side and opens for a few hours after Sunday Mass, while Pinnon’s Market, on the northwest side, and Longwood Market, on the near east side, are known as two of Rockford’s finest butchers.  In my east-central neighborhood, however, the Rural Oaks Hilander was it.

Even though the store is still open, I write in the past tense because, in September 1998, the Castrogiovanni family of Rockford sold the Hilander chain to Kroger, the Cincinnati-based supermarket giant.  About six months earlier, one of the two other locally owned grocery chains, Logli, had been purchased by Schnucks of St. Louis.  (The third local chain, Dal Pra Pacemaker, is down to one store in Belvidere, east of Rockford, having closed its last Rockford store about a year ago.  A fourth chain, Gray’s, is an IGA franchise, although the stores are locally owned.)  Both Kroger and Schnucks have retained the local names, and for a while, the stores even looked the way they always had.  Gradually, however, the corporate identity has wiped out the local one—which is not surprising, since, at the time of its sale, Hilander had five stores, while Kroger had 2,300 in 31 states, employed 305,000 people, and raked in $45 billion in sales.  Logli had only three stores (although one was the largest supermarket in Illinois), while Schnucks had 89 stores in Missouri, Indiana, and Illinois, with sales in the millions.  Store brands have replaced local ones; floor plans have been changed to conform to the latest marketing studies; and the corporate names are becoming more prominent, both in the stores and in their advertising.  At Kroger/Hilander, many of the students and retirees who manned the cash registers have been replaced with automated checkout lanes that may be expensive but never call in sick.

“Who cares?” big-market conservatives respond.  “You should be grateful that Kroger and Schnucks—and Wal-Mart, too—took an interest in your town.  After all, the sheer size of these companies means that they are good for consumers, because they can cut better deals with suppliers and pass the savings on to shoppers.”  This is not the place to argue whether their facts are correct (though I suspect that the lack of local competition is bad for consumers, particularly in smaller towns where Wal-Mart or Kroger acts as a monopoly); the deeper problem is that man is more than a consumer.  He is a producer, a provider, a parent, a child, a neighbor, a citizen, and in many (or most, or all) of these roles, he is better served by economic institutions on a human scale.  Whatever Wal-Mart and Kroger might represent, they do not represent that.

Once upon a time, the grocery was, like the local school, a focal point of a neighborhood.  The shopkeeper acted as an informal sources of news; neighbors greeted one another in the aisles.  (I do not think I have ever run into anyone I know at the Charles Street or State Street Schnucks/Logli.)  The grocery was often, in its own way, a neighborhood bank and charity as well.  Today, we have replaced the decentralized credit extended by small proprietors (at little or no interest) with credit cards charging usurious rates, and the humane charity of the shopkeeper (offered through quiet discounts and the writing off of bills) with bondage to the welfare state.  “Always low prices” hides a multitude of social costs.

There are alternatives: Here in Rockford, we can buy local produce at the 320 Store; fresh and smoked meats at the Polish Deli and Penguin Foods; cheese and bread at Caravello’s and DiTullio’s Italian markets.  Because of competition from the chains, however, none of these can afford to stock everything that we need.  And so, reluctantly, we head off to the MegaLoMart, to become part of the problem, not the solution.