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The Supermarket of Struggling Artists

Trader Joe’s figured out something that most city retailers have long taken for granted: A good way to keep the customers coming back is to hire a staff as alluring as the products on the shelves.

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Current and former Trader Joe's staffers. Clockwise from top left, Ahmed Alabaca, Konny Lopez, Josh LaFaze, Karen Shueh.   

Captain Lance is angry at crew member Karen.

Karen Shueh, a cherubic store clerk, has arrived with the words everything will be taken away written backward on her forehead in black ink. She’s participating in a public-art project. “The artist is Adrian Piper! She deals with the politics of viewing and the power of looking at people.”

Lance frowns and grunts out the closest thing to a Trader Joe’s reprimand: “I can’t have people with words on their forehead working here!” Karen scowls and trudges toward the bread aisle.

It’s early summer and I’m elbow-deep in the rye-bread drawer, midway through a 6 p.m.–to–2 a.m. shift on my new job, crew member at Trader Joe’s on 14th Street, the first city outpost of the West Coast foodie retailer, which has been gridlocked with shoppers since its opening in March 2006. It serves up Tofutti bars, pappadam chips, and reams of gluten-free, dairy-free, and sodium-free organic grub on the cheap. The 14th Street store grosses over $1 million weekly; it’s apparently one of the highest-grossing locations of the 285 nationwide. It is, in a sense, the poor man’s Union Square Whole Foods, one fifth the size and in the armpit of the square. A second city location opened in Forest Hills on October 26; next up, one on Court Street in Cobble Hill.

But those customers don’t come in for the hummus and low prices alone. Supermarket employees have never looked so appetizing, or so poignantly arty—remember Jake Gyllenhaal cast implausibly as a stock boy who thought he was Holden Caulfield in The Good Girl? That’s the sort of person Trader Joe’s seems to recruit. The store uses cute, clean-looking, multiethnic twentysomethings in the same way as other hip retailers (say, Urban Outfitters): It’s part of the shopping experience. To see what it’s like, I decided to work there. It turned out to be frustratingly difficult to get hired. The Joe’s employees are less-established versions of the typical Trader Joe’s shopper: Our customers “read The New Yorker, not People magazine,” explains an employee handout. So does the floor staff. (It’s not surprising that there are non-Gyllenhaalian workers unloading pallets after-hours.)

Today’s crew includes a filmmaker, an actor, two fashion students, two painters, a film-production intern, and a martial artist. They’re mostly college graduates—University of Washington, New York University, the University of Maine—here with dreams of making it in the city’s bourgeois bohemia, but currently stuck serving it hummus. Most are from comfortable backgrounds. The young workers are attracted to Trader Joe’s for its groovy, noncorporate aura and also because it, unlike most of the sorts of jobs arty kids do while waiting for their big break, offers health insurance.

Karen, a peppy Northwestern graduate, hurls expired breads at a cart while happily talking to me at full volume—her only volume—and pulling at her red Raggedy-Ann skirt. She falls silent only during our involuntary gagging at wet moldy bread. She wants to be a studio assistant or perhaps work at a public-art organization like Creative Time, and works at three galleries and sneaks into art lectures at Barnard. Trader Joe’s serves as her art supply: “I take unused receipts and dried onions and corn husks. The utility knife they give us has been very useful. And those huge Saran wraps that the grocery pallets come in—I love those! I take those home.” Some of her work has been shown at P.S. 122.

But for now, she’s mired in the bread aisle—“Breadway.” For her efforts, Karen, 23, makes $11.25 an hour, in the middle of the $9.50-to-$12.50 crew range, minus $92 per month for health insurance. She also spends hundreds on food at a 10 percent discount.

Shanice, a 21-year-old CUNY student carrying a clipboard, hollers over. “Hey, Karen, ain’t you supposed to be on register? They lookin’ for you.” Karen hates register. She whimpers to Shanice about how occupied she is in Breadway. Shanice raises her eyebrows.

I’m left alone, squatting to reach the bottom-shelf pitas near the doorway. Two black stiletto boots appear an inch from my nose. A woman in a bright-orange blouse asks me for a product that sounds like “oloveria juice.” I check the shelf and ask her to spell the name. She sneers: “You should know how to spell aloe.


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