California Historical SocietyCollection, USC
It’s a shame, but many people who consider themselves to be cultured individuals do not possess an exuberant interest in retail architecture. Ed Ruscha, of course, is a notable exception. Ruscha’s series of photo books, wry landmarks in the history of conceptual art, began with 1962’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, and reached a real estate climax five years later when he published Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles. With his keen eye for cultural space, Ruscha was onto overlooked types of architecture that had adapted to L.A.’s most revolutionary quality — its flatness and horizontal thrust, the way the city unspools like a film strip. The books’ repetitive and seemingly artless design neatly mimicked the no-fuss format of their subjects and the serial landscape they inhabited.
Ruscha, as far as I know, never got around to doing a book on supermarkets, but I’m sure he’d have a soft spot for Richard Longstreth’s The Drive-In, the Supermarket and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914–1941, which is amply illustrated with dozens of industrial-quality black-and-white photographs of early gasoline stations, drive-through stores and pioneering parking lots. Marred by none of the gushy thinking and gassy excess of the "cultural studies" industry, Longstreth’s concise account advances, with the clear, plain logic of a perfectly organized aisle at Lucky, a thesis that should make every Angeleno proud: Besides Hollywood, our city can claim to be the source of another worldwide cultural export, namely, the supermarket.
It wasn’t that long ago that American-style (or should that be Los Angeles–style?) supermarkets were hotly resisted by many of our fellow NATO members, but today their broad, navigable lanes, bounteous displays of goods, and generously apportioned store-side parking lots can be found in, or just outside of, practically every major city in Europe. (In London, in fact, they have become so popular that overcrowding has resulted in a recent spate of "trolley-rage" incidents.) Seemingly destined to spread into every corner of the globe, this triumphant institution now appears to be an unstoppable force of history, obeying some relentless logic we mistakenly take for granted.
Which is precisely why The Drive-In is such a valuable work, because its author does nothing of the kind. Instead he scrupulously traces the supermarket’s genealogy, tracking its development from humble service stations and auto laundries (as car washes were endearingly first known) to the more ambitious drive-in markets that began appearing around L.A. in the 1920s, and whose functionalist architecture attracted the interest of avant-garde architects such as Richard Neutra and Lloyd Wright, both of whom created influential store designs. Finally, he examines the eerily irresistible spread of the supermarket model into other retail areas, from drug and variety stores to indispensable venues of present-day life like Staples and Home Depot.
Longstreth, a professor of American Civilization at George Washington University, has done his homework, trolling through back issues of Chain Store Review, Progressive Grocer and Auto Laundry News, and layering his book with trenchant references to his primary sources. He is also a master of a compelling quasi-forensic prose style, and his descriptions of retail spaces convey a certain deadpan thrill. Writing on the supermarket layout, he notes its lack of hierarchy, and further observes that it is "nondirectional in that there is no single route of preference, but rather a series of similar aisles, most, if not all, running parallel to one another. Movement within this space is unencumbered; patrons may go anywhere in any sequence as often as they choose. Contact with store personnel is minimal, often nonexistent, and almost always at the customer’s initiative, until one finishes selecting one’s merchandise and approaches the checkout stands."
The tone is utterly neutral, but somehow when I reached the end of that paragraph I wanted to stand up and cheer. I am, I should confess, a supermarket aficionado, but my once-puzzling enthusiasm for well-stocked, capacious and impersonal food emporiums is no longer a mystery, thanks to Longstreth’s lucid account of their peculiar appeal. Low prices, he notes, are not the only, or even the principal, attraction of supermarkets; American consumers generally favor maximum selection and, perhaps most important, minimum intervention by salesclerks. We don’t like feeling pressure to select quickly or feeling embarrassed about rummaging through the goods on display, and at the same time we don’t like waiting for service. Supermarkets, like the mythic Wild West, offer a DIY haven from such petit-bourgeois constraints.
They may be big anonymous chains, in other words, but they give individual shoppers a radical sense of freedom, while their neatly ordered lateral spaces ensure that an escape route is always in sight. And when not overcrowded, they also conjure visions of speed, of rapid cart deployment down broad straight avenues like military-minded urban planners use to divide up cities. Longstreth’s most original insight is to link this seductive trait to the supermarket’s car-oriented ancestors — service stations that peddled automotive products as well as gasoline — and also to the impact of automobiles on the design of architectural interiors and exteriors alike. A single striking photograph in the book says it all: A gleaming 1937 Texaco station, streamlined, porous, efficiently organized for immediate entry and exit, stands in front of a gabled Victorian house, which, by comparison, looks like an ancient relic from a civilization of agoraphobes.
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 . . .