I’VE ALWAYS had a negative impression of superstores: cold, impersonal, dull. Everywhere I’ve lived, (San Francisco, London, Seattle, now New York City) I’ve mostly shopped local and tried to support small businesses. Overall, I’ve led a very sheltered, urban retail life.

Before relocating in mid-March to our COVID-escape-NYC house in rural New Hampshire, I had never set foot in a Walmart. Much to my surprise, I discovered that a superstore could be both human and comforting.

Up here in the White Mountains, Walmart is king — with the state-run New Hampshire Liquor, Dollar and Gun & Tackle stores a close second.

I am aware that Walmart is the biggest retailer in the U.S. and that 90% of the population live within 10 miles of one. Walmart has crushed thousands of mom and pop outfits. But in this new normal, I see Walmart as a sanctuary — a shrine to civilization and normalcy that is thankfully permitted only because buying food and disinfectant is still considered a necessary activity.

It’s been a respite from the self-isolation we commenced Friday, March 13, when we packed our kids into rental cars and fled north with our friends. Though fortunate to have this safe refuge away from the chaos of NYC shelter-in-place, life has become a little confining in close quarters with 13 people (seven kids and six adults) in a six-bedroom cabin our friend’s family owns. It feels more like a congenial commune of necessity than a relaxing mountain vacation.

In the first few days up here, where the state motto is “Live Free or Die”, we were making the 45-minute drives to the two closest Walmarts daily, switching off two people at a time.

On my first trip, my tough, Manhattanite-self was shocked by how comfortable I felt in the rural New Hampshire Walmart. It was easy to stay six feet away from everyone. My fellow shoppers and I exchanged polite smiles and congenial “excuse me’s” if we got too close with our industrial-sized shopping carts. I found myself compelled to explore every aisle, marveling at the diversity of things all under one huge roof.

I even coordinated my Walmart shopping outfit to best “fit in” and conceal the fact that I’m an intruder — what I feared the locals would see as the liberal, New Yorker who’s come in their midst to possibly be a silent “spreader.” I wore old black hiking boots, Levis, a U.S. Navy baseball cap and a red flannel plaid shirt.

A helpful staff member treated me like her favorite cousin when I asked where potholders would be. “Sure! Follow me hon. Have a great day!” This friendly encounter felt odd at first. It was so different from my impersonal, urban shopping experiences.

Visits in late March and early April to the temple (Walmart), revealed more empty shelves. One trip lots of milk but no eggs. Another no meat but lots of paper towels. Still, the friendly stocking associates stocked eagerly.

By early April, virus cases mushroomed in NYC and spread across the country. Though we’d all passed the first 14 days without a single symptom, we now realized that new exposure even here in rural New Hampshire was possible. Walmart runs suddenly took on a more serious tone. We agreed to cut back. Visits were no longer recreational but purely based on need — once or twice a week, two people at a time.

I noticed fewer customers and half were wearing masks. Heeding the CDC recommendation, I made all of us masks out of paper clips, rubber bands and blue shop towels following a pattern I found on YouTube.

Alas, those halcyon days of our spur-of-the-moment trips to Walmart are over.

I feel so grateful to have our friend’s hospitality, our health and yes, Walmart and all the real people I’ve interacted with there — all who now are mandated by corporate to wear masks.

After six weeks, (aside from food) I’ve bought a pair of cut-off shorts, new socks, a box of Clairol root cover and a bike.

Now, every week, I look forward to the thrill of walking through those automatic doors and pushing my cart through the cavernous aisles, wishing fellow shoppers a good day with my eyes … even though we know it’s not the best of times. I look forward to being greeted by the greeters, nodding to the industrious shelf stockers and sharing a “Take care now!” with the friendly checkers.

When I get back to the city and resume my new normal life, I wonder if I’ll miss shopping at Walmart? Probably only in flashes — when I’m carrying heavy grocery bags, schlepping to six different stores to get everything on my list and paying a king’s ransom for a dozen eggs.

Bridget Baiss-Howard, an author, voiceover artist, journalist, and mom, lives in Warren.

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