I returned to one of my favorite places recently, Wilson’s Farm in Lexington Massachusetts. I remember going there as a child, when it really was more of a farm stand than the gourmet fresh food shopping experience it is today. It’s not quite a grocery store, but it’s way more than a farmstand. In season, products are local, but throughout the year (not unlike major grocery chains) Wilson’s sells produce from all over the world. But the store also has a homegrown, homemade vibe—selling prepared foods and baked goods from its own kitchen, often using recipes Lynne Wilson compiled into The Wilson Farm Country Cookbook in 1985.
Wilson’s is expensive—not surprising, given its location in a comfortable Boston suburb and its emphasis on local, organic, homemade goods. It is an aesthetic experience, from the arching wood ceilings to the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables in glowing colors. It is a sensory experience.
It is also an educational experience. On my most recent visit, I noticed all the signage intended to teach customers about the food. A note about “our tuna” describes different types of the fish, where it comes from, what it’s good for. Another card describes how swordfish is a “conservation success story.” The signs are hand-written, adding to the homey quality, suggesting we’ve just stepped into someone’s kitchen. With the fish, we can get a dose of knowledge and leave feeling assured we have both chosen good fish and contributed to environmental sustainability. Sustainability, here, is both a worthy cause and a marketing tool, honestly expressing the orientation of this gourmet farmstead and also tapping into contemporary food values.
The store also trades on authenticity. It is one-of-a-kind (not a chain, though with another seasonal location at its New Hampshire farms). It has a long history (back to 1884) with roots in an Irish immigrant family who started out trekking into Boston with their farm goods.
But above all, Wilson’s is a shopping experience.* Possibly if one goes there regularly, the sensory extravaganza begins to seem the norm. But the occasional visitor is entranced by the coherent aesthetic, the mix of rustic signage and design with product sophistication, and the appeal to taste and sight and smell.Even the imagination awakes.
*When I’m thinking about a “shopping experience,” I’m thinking about all the writers who talk about the rise of American consumerism as spectacle and experience, dating back to the late nineteenth century. See Gary Cross, An All-Consuming Century, James Farrell, One Nation Under Goods, William Leach, Land of Desire, to mention just a few.
**Authors including Gary Cross and Jack Santino (New Old-Fashioned Ways) have described how consumer culture intersects with seasonal events and how the products that arrive in stores herald the coming of a holiday or start of a new season.