Anyone familiar with the economics of Lancaster or the summertime traffic patterns of Lincoln Highway East knows that, around here, tourism is a kind of a big deal. Millions of visitors filter through the Lancaster area each year, generating revenues approaching $2 billion annually. The primary draw has long been the Plain folk. The unassuming Amish communities sprinkled through the rolling hills are the heart of this economic wellspring simply because of, well, their simplicity. Whether it is the iconic horse and buggy, the abundance of unintentional Abe Lincoln impersonators, or the barefoot 6 year-old girl wearing a dusty, homemade dress selling vegetables along the side of the road, people come by the millions to observe and absorb some of this obviously unique culture.
As a non-Amish native growing up in Lancaster (I cannot speak for the Amish, though I suspect their opinions may in fact be stronger), the tourist industry in the area has always seemed silly. People paying to ride in a buggy? Ridiculous (ironically, the Amish pay to ride in cars). Scores of people lining up to take tours of a manicured barn? Lame. Thirty dollars a head for a simple cafeteria style buffet disguised as a “home-style smorgasbord”? Laughable. With such a significant number of the so called “tourist spots” reduced to obvious commercialized attempts to separate New Yorkers and Brits from their vacation funds, it is hard to imagine any real Amish “culture” is actually being disseminated; but I guess that is the fate suffered by all hidden-treasure-turned-tourist-destinations. When I was young, I distinctly remember not even understanding what was so remarkable about the Amish. They did not seem so different from the world surrounding me; after all, my family was just a few degrees further removed from that simple life on the farm.
I spent my childhood as a member of a family with a strong agrarian Mennonite background, surrounded by a community much the same. This environment fostered many experiences that I have come to find out were not as typical as they once seemed. Going to church with my grandparents meant a sitting on a hard wooden pew next to an old lady wearing an over-sized dress and bonnet and singing hymns written by people whose names I didn’t recognize as real English words (they weren’t). Visiting my uncle meant an opportunity to play in the hayloft or help milk cows. Not surprisingly, I preferred the hayloft. Every autumn, I looked forward to the spectacle of the town fair, a fantastic local tradition composed of all things agricultural. Once, I won a ribbon for a giant pumpkin I grew behind my house. Another year, in what may actually be the high water mark for my personal achievement, I caught the pig in the greased pig chase (if you were wondering, I elected to keep the pig instead of the cash prize). When it snowed Justin and I would go sledding on a hill near his house, often accompanied by the neighboring Amish boys and their old, steel runner sleds. These experiences, among myriad others, formed the basis for my understanding of community and local culture. The Lancaster represented by fake buggy rides and outlet malls never seemed real.
After living most of the past seven years elsewhere, I recently chose to move back to the Lancaster area with my wife and young son. I was a slightly nervous (aka scared shitless) about reuniting with the place of my birth and the latent memories lurking around every corner. As I’m sure everyone knows, memories can be oddly amorphous little bastards, and in light of that fact I was hesitant to march my new self through a minefield of subliminal triggers. I had bragged for years about how great and unique a place Lancaster was, and I was terrified of the possibility that I misremembered details or worse, repressed all the negatives.
The first few months went by without any major surprises. Since we moved into Lancaster City, the vast majority of my time is spent in places different from my earlier life. About two weeks ago however, the first “mindmine” detonated all over my consciousness. Incidentally I was at Justin’s house on a Sunday afternoon, and somehow in the course of conversation his wife casually referred to a grocery store named “BB’s”. Boom. Just like that an entire file of memories was reopened, and Ben Beiler’s discount grocery roared back to life in my mind.
When I was a boy and my brothers and I would accompany Mom to buy groceries, we would drive out to an Amish farm that had converted a barn into a consignment grocery store. We knew the place as Beiler’s, and it was a blast. The highlight was always a competition to see who could stay inside the walk-in freezer the longest without a coat. We also loved the place because it was the only place Mom would ever buy the good, sweet breakfast cereals. Beyond those two specifics, most of my memories of Beiler’s were physical in nature. I remember the road leading up to the farm and the shape of the driveway/parking area. I remember the cement floor, the loud fans, and the checkout lines. I remember feeling out of place in my modern clothing. I remember dented cans and broken boxes. I remember the Amish ladies working the register, and I remember the hot dusty smell in the summertime. To be honest, I was a bit shocked to have so many vivid, visceral memories come to the surface so quickly.
Naturally, a few days later I returned to the store. And naturally, much about the store had changed. The most obvious change is the location. No longer on the farm tucked inside a refurbished barn, the store is now proudly located in a much larger warehouse. There is signage with a catchy motto and a real parking lot. Inside? Well, inside is pretty much the same, just bigger. For those who aren’t familiar with BB’s, it is a bit of a marvel. It is a secondhand grocery store that specializes in “Bents, Bumps, and Bunches of Bargains”. Basically, they sell past date or damaged products at huge discounts. I don’t really know how profitable an enterprise it is, but based on the physical expansion, I would guess they are doing alright. And why not? Spend enough time trying to find extra dollars in your household budget and eventually the prospect of saving upwards of 50% off your grocery bill will have you second guessing things like “expiration dates” or “use by” labels.
I made the trip with my wife, brother, and son. For my brother and I, it was an old memory resurrected. For my son, it was boring. For my wife, it was a cultural experience the tourists 15 minutes up the road were looking for but probably wouldn’t find. Between the distinctive Amish body odor smell and the Pennsylvania Dutch-German dialect being spoken in most every aisle, it is not your average trip to Giant. The actual grocery shopping is something of a scavenger hunt. The key is to know what to avoid and what is safe. Your canned goods are generally fine. So what if the dry pasta is a few months past date, its probably alright. The same goes for the cornbread mix and the cereal. The box might look like hell, but the bag is still fine on the inside. That jar of jam? I’ll pass because the label looks really sticky, and I’m pretty sure it was opened at some point. The same goes for the fully separated jar of Baconnaise that expired in May of 2010. No thanks. The mystery products and the possibility that you might be buying something bad creates a level of intrigue that is actually quite fun. My wife had more fun than one person should have shopping for groceries. If I had not had to go to work, I don’t know that she would have left until the lights went out. Maybe not even then. In the short time we had, I believe the best deals we found were Planter’s Trail Mix packages priced 5 for $1, big cans of black beans for 30 cents, diapers 50% below retail prices, and Progresso soup cans for $1. By the end, we filled a shopping cart for roughly $60. In fine fashion, we totally forgot about the whole cash economy thing. After a quick trip to the ATM at the nearest Hess station, we were on our way.
As we drove back up Route 272 toward Lancaster City, my wife was beaming. Almost awed she reflected, “I can’t believe that exists. It was like a dream.”
I could not have said it better myself.