My beautiful, pointless claim to boutique grocery store fame

You know how everyone has that go-to story about something that is clearly more interesting and important to them than it is to anyone else? It starts, "Have I ever told you about the time ..." and the answer to that question is almost always "Yes. You have."

So. Have I ever told you about the time I was the first customer of the new Trader Joe's? Because I was. That happened. And now anytime anyone mentions Trader Joe's, Commercial Street, grocery stores, being the first at something or just commerce in general, I will trot out this story.

The plan started as kind of a joke between my friend Molly and I. We would camp out, à la the "Harry Potter" or "Twilight" kids, dressed up as frozen burritos and wontons. But then as the date got closer, it felt like maybe I should actually get up real early and be first to shop at the Trader Joe's. Why not? I don't have any claims to fame. I could grab this ridiculous one. It wouldn't be that hard because no one else waits in line for a grocery store's opening.

Back in Mississippi, I covered the opening of an Olive Garden that the people of Hattiesburg were very excited about, particularly since the closest Olive Garden in Biloxi had been washed away during Katrina.

As a restaurant-snob city girl, I spent hours and hours snickering about this with my fellow city-girl reporter friends. Snide blog posts were written. It was hard for me to hide my scorn when I interviewed the man first in line, who had taken the day off work to get there at noon for the 4 p.m. opening.

But now, I am that people. Cheap goat cheese is my bottomless salad, Three-Buck Chuck my unlimited breadsticks. I even had a Trader Joe's gift card that my uncle gave me for Christmas that I'd saved for this special day, though I accidentally left it at home. How quickly the mocking become the mocked.

And so at 5 a.m. Friday, I sat alone in cold parking lot on a yoga mat with three long hours until the 8 a.m. opening. My friends Elizabeth and Caitlin had agreed to come along, but the first 45 minutes was spent in solitude except for the occasional store employee.

Friendly manager Tim introduced himself, then headed inside the store and shouted "OUR FIRST CAMPER IS HERE!!" which made me feel extra aware of my life choices. Tim and the other equally friendly employees proceeded to call me by my first name many, many times.

"You doin' OK, Kelly?" "Keeping warm, Kelly?" "You ready, Kelly?" "What time did you get here, Kelly?"

Jim was the second shopper to show up — around 5:45 a.m. He arrived with two slices of peanut butter toast, a tall glass of milk and tales of all the Trader Joe's he's loved before. His first question to me was how often I shop at Trader Joe's, then he ran through the list of stores he's been to — his favorite is in Eugene, where his mom lives.

Throughout the morning, Jim shared many tales of times he'd stood in line for things, including the time he camped out, in a tent, for four days prior to "Star Wars," which prompted Elizabeth to ask him if he was "some kind of professional line waiter, or something.

‘You doin’ OK, Kelly?” “Keeping warm, Kelly?” “You ready, Kelly?” “What time did you get here, Kelly?’

Later, at 7:42 a.m. (18 minutes to opening), Jim noted that it was "8 a.m. somewhere."

"That's what I say when I'm waiting in line for garage sales," he said. "It's 9 a.m. somewhere."


Elizabeth and I were in high, caffeinated spirits, but the other bit of our triumvirate was lagging. Caitlin claimed to have Legionnaire's disease, or maybe ate a tainted Crunchwrap, and spent much of the morning lying on the sidewalk looking unhappy.

For a long time, there were seven of us obsessively discussing our favorite products (plus Caitlin, slumped and quiet). But by 7:40 a.m., the sidewalk was full of people and cars inched through the parking lot. About 14 million employees stopped to ask us, "Are you ready?," in this conspiratorial voice, like they were our senior prom date or something.

And then, it was time. The automatic doors slid open, a red lei was strung across then cut with giant scissors, and the Salem Trader Joe's came to life. Glorious, shu mai-selling life.

I ran into the store, adrenaline pumping. It felt like I was on "The Price Is Right." Everyone was cheering and clapping, and I was excited and confused.

I headed straight to the register and grabbed randomly. Officially, the first items purchased from that Trader Joe's is Fiberful handmade dried fruit bar in mixed berry and apple-blueberry flavors, in case you were wondering. My hand shook as I swiped my debit card.

"This is Kelly, and she is our first customer, and she's been here since 5 a.m.!" one of the managers shouted, then rang a bell enthusiastically. I threw the crowd a dazed wave, though, of course, no one was looking at me because no one else cared that I was the first customer.

But I did. And now, I have my Fiberful fruit leathers tacked up on my cubicle, the most lovely cellophaned souvenir I can imagine, testament to an accomplishment no one but me cares about.

K. Williams Brown is the entertainment reporter for the Statesman Journal. Did she ever tell you she was the first person ever to buy something from the Salem Trader Joe's?

Originally published June 2011