When the old Trader Joe’s closed its doors on August 28, there was a chance that things could get better. Alas, they have not. When I visited the new store on Saturday, what I found—apart from mini cookies and pineapple salsa—was unrealized potential. There is more stuff and space, to be sure, but the sole manifestation of Trader Joe’s in Santa Clarita has undergone a slight but unwelcome change in character.
As I strolled the new, expansive aisles of concrete stained a hideous shade of terra cotta, I found myself longing for the familiar embrace of the Cinema Park store with its maze-like aisles barely wide enough for two carts, oppressively low ceilings, and harshly industrial lighting. The comforting sense of claustrophilia I once experienced at TJ’s has given way to an uncomfortable sensation of agoraphobia. The slightly longer and wider aisles of the new store are entirely too accommodating. It’s as if they no longer have enough delicious things to fill the space, so a store that once spoke of overwhelming abundance has given way to one where emptiness plays a much larger role. It’s like moving into a newer, larger house without buying very many new things. Worse, this open space makes more room for people, the least enjoyable component of the Trader Joe's shopping experience.
While the character of the store has changed, the basic layout is the same. Frozen victuals reside in the middle aisle, freshly harvested chunks of plants and animals are stacked on the right wall, and live and shorn flowers decorate the entrance. The wine section and selection are larger, doubtless to accommodate those who will be mourning the loss of the old store with a drink.
The clientele, like the store itself, is unimproved. Most of the shoppers were middle-aged mothers from Valencia. Their sun-damaged, freckled cleavage peeked out of summer dresses while they toted the two bratty kids who had suckled at said bosom. These mothers competed for free samples, the better hummus flavors, and pink-and-white-striped bags of Kettle Corn with fierce and unapologetic intent, seeing other shoppers as mere obstacles to the fulfillment of their instincts to gather. It's comforting that despite the changes, there are some things you can count on.
If the dress code and complete obliviousness to the people and world around them weren’t enough indication that these shoppers were from Valencia, suspicions were confirmed as nearly all of them handed in a coupon for a free reuseable bag at check-out. Obviously, these promotional mailers had not found their way to the barrios of Newhall nor the trailer parks of Canyon Country.
It was at check-out that my dissatisfaction with the new store crystallized. On one of the street signs that mark the various stations were written three poignant words: San Fernando Road. At first, I tried to convince myself that this anachronism was a harkening back to an older, better era of SCV. Of course, I realized it was really nothing more than ignorance of the valley TJ’s calls home. As the checker passed my pretzels and salad greens over a laser beeping in recognition of familiar bar codes, I resigned myself to staring at the uninspiring murals on the opposite wall and sighed.
When I left with my groceries, I entered a parking lot that is just one nightmare traded for another. Though there are now many more parking spots than there were at the old location, there’s also the behemoth Best Buy next door. This means that Christmas Eve will be a perfect storm of people running to Trader Joe’s for wine/cheese/appetizers while others run to Best Buy for over-priced electronica. I can’t say with absolute certainty how it’s all going to work out, but I’m fairly sure that at least one Claritan will be hit by a car in the parking lot. Odds are pretty good that it will be someone who deserves it.