Today, of course, the stand-alone supermarket with its ample open-air parking lot is itself in danger of becoming a nostalgic relic. Its stripped-down, conceptually focused space is increasingly contaminated by in-store sushi and cappuccino bars, cash machines, decorative themes and non-linear deli sections where the regimental grid structure breaks down into a casual archipelago of crescent-shaped baker counters and randomly sited cheese-of-the-week tables. And, worst of all, the whole package is now frequently built into mega-malls, where claustrophobic parking structures replace the classic open lots which, as Longstreth notes with his usual bare-bones eloquence, are "carefully calculated to accommodate the motor vehicles of customers, staff and delivery personnel alike — while moving and while stationary — with efficiency and convenience."
Likewise efficient and convenient, The Drive-In, the Supermarket and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914–1941 deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone who’s ever struggled to defend, either while moving or while stationary, Los Angeles’ unique cultural contributions.
A note of personal disappointment, however: Ralphs Supermarkets, to which a 14-page section of this book is devoted (adding to its unique literary merits), is celebrated by Longstreth as an important innovator for introducing lavish, air-conditioned stores in the 1930s; unfortunately, this account also disabused me of a long-held illusion about the store’s name. Its spelling, I’d always assumed, indicated not the possessive which one might expect ("Ralph’s") but a group of similarly named individuals, a brotherhood of Ralphs brought together by a common interest in food emporiums, and perhaps as well by a shared sense of adversity engendered by the unfortunate slang uses of this name. Would it be too unseemly a confession to admit this was a brotherhood to which I have often aspired — not knowing, as I do now, that the s in Ralphsis singular, as this is merely the last name of Walter Ralphs, the store’s founder?
Such are the perils of shopping in the aisles of scholarship . . .