Hunter Muirhead, Russia, 2019

What led you to select New York International as the location featured in your paper?

I selected this location because of my own personal interest in exploring the topic of how contemporary identities manifest into physical spaces, especially that of the contemporary Russian identity. Russia, being a multinational country, intrigues me into knowing how such an identity, composed of many nationalities, is manifested into a singular physical space abroad. New York International was the ideal space to explore this topic given its “cultural” representation and external surrounding Midwestern American urban environment.

What was your favorite thing about this space?

My favorite aspect of this space was that this space captured more than just an ethnic Russian identity in its material items. For example, one can find the snack Chak-Chak in the store, which comes from Tatar cuisine. Tatars are one of the many native nationalities or ethnic groups of the Russian Federation.

Did anything about your observations surprise you?

What surprised me the most about this store was how well it created a space cut off from the outside environment. It felt like a space servicing a solid “Russian” experience to its community. I should add that the store wasn’t trying to replicate an actual Russian grocery store in Russia but provide a type of “Russian” experience expected by its customers.

Did you purchase any “Russian” goods? If so, how was it?

Yes, of course! There are several goods that I miss in America from Russia that I can only find at this store. They were great and well missed!

New York International – Experiencing Community through the Grocery Store

Paper by Hunter Muirhead 
Instructor: Krisztina Fehervary, Associate Professor of Anthropology

Opened nearly 20 years ago in West Bloomfield, New York International is one of two “Russian” markets of the same name that offer its community a unique cultural experience secluded from the surrounding “American” world. It offers wide range of goods acquired from Russian and Eastern European food companies that produce goods that are distributed in Russia, are copies of goods that are found in Russia, or are replications of past Soviet food items. The store arranges its space and orchestrates it in a way that presents itself as a “Russian” sensorial grocery experience that caters towards a specific immigrant community. Externally, the store makes no overt exclamations to the public about its “Russianness”, but internally the store distinguishes itself in almost every way from a “traditional” American grocery store through its commodities and environment to embody a “Russian” experience.

New York International in West Bloomfield is arranged so that every corner of the store is visible from all angles. Once upon entering the store, the center is dominated by the store’s deli, where all the employees often relax unless they are needed for restocking or working at the cash register. Only from the back of the store are the assorted cheeses, meats, and baked goods displayed in the deli’s glass counter not visible. The first goods that will be visible to anyone walking inside are the numerous, traditionally decorated Russian cakes, displayed in the front glass counter of the deli. These handmade cakes, almost sparkling from the fluorescent lights in the glass counter, provide a nice pull factor to draw individuals further into the store. It would be no mistake on the part of the store to display one of their sweetest, celebratory, and most home-warming products in the front, “handmade” traditionally decorated Russian cakes.

To the left in relation to the store’s entrance, lies the freezer section. The freezer section is slightly tucked away into a corner and contains various Russian but also Eastern European goods like frozen Russian pelmeni and Polish pierogies. Also, almost hidden out of sight in this section are frozen sweets like ice cream and frozen pastries. All the goods here are items that would never be found in a Walmart or Target, like “CCCP” branded ice cream. Walking to the back of the store from this point, the refrigerated section will be on the left with a plethora of varied goods starting with drinks and leading to the frozen fish section. Along this wall lined with goods on display in clear glass refrigerators, common in almost any modern American grocery store, one will find “Baltika” beer, the traditional Russian drink, kvas, available in both cans and liter containers, a whole refrigerator dedicated to pickled goods, and a section at the end of fish frozen and air-tight packaged. While walking to the back of the refrigerated section, the cheese section of the deli is on the right. On display are varieties of cheeses that are largely from the brand “Slavya”, some of which are appropriately named “Russian cheese” or “Lithuanian cheese”. They are mostly displayed in the branded packaging decorated in various shades of red and green.

At the back-left corner of the store is the dairy section, where milk, kefir, farmer’s cheese, deli sour cream, and smoked korbachik cheese are available. Also located in the back-left corner of the store are two small aisles of goods displayed on metal racks. Browsing through this section, various snacks like sushki and Russian tea cookies are available as well as buckwheat, all of which are packaged in various branded bags. The racks lining the back of the deli are stocked with various instant microwavable goods. Most of these goods are various Russian or East Slavic kinds of soups, for example borscht and schi.

In the back-right corner, the store has arranged a center display piece in this corner displaying a variety of different Russian candies all of which are brightly packaged. Surrounding his centerpiece are display racks against the wall offering expensive packaged assorted chocolates with brands like “St. Petersburg Chocolates” and a variety of jams packaged to look like they have come straight from the garden with traditional Russian designs decorating the jars. In addition, positioned against the wall is another but smaller display of an entirely separate variety of Russian packaged candies and chocolates. At this display, one can find the foremost recognizable Russian chocolate brand known as “Alyonka”.

On the right side of the store in relation to entering in through the front door, the section for cashing out at the cashier’s register is there and is positioned along the right wall. On top of the cash register are more assorted candies, not all Russian or foreign, and various magazines or newspapers, some of which are only in Russian and others that are in English. Behind the counter where the cash register and checkout computer system is located at is a wall displaying a large variety of liquor available for purchase, some of which are foreign brands and most of which are common brands seen throughout grocery stores in America. It is interesting to note the separation of Russian beer from the liquor, both of which are on opposing sides of one another. While the various different kinds of “Baltika” beer are grouped in the same section as kvas and other assorted refrigerated Russian goods, the assorted foreign and domestic brands of liquor are positioned opposite of the “Baltika” beer and kvas section.

This juxtaposition of “foreign” and domestic goods continues when observing the space in-between the back-right corner and the front-right corner where the cashier’s counter is located. A slight wall separates the space of the middle zone from the back-right corner. In this space, there are a variety of teas, instant coffees, and over-the-counter medical supplies. The goods here are all displayed on metal racks similar to the racks in front of the dairy section. Overall, there are three racks in the middle-right section: a rack against the small dividing wall, a rack against the right wall, and a rack against the cashier’s counter. The rack against the cashier’s counter displays a small selection of over-the-counter medical supplies, some of which are Russian products and others American and British. The two other racks not aligned against the cashier’s counter feature a large selection of tea with other products like coffee and honey as well. Different from all other sections in the store besides the liquor display is that most products here are in English and a fair amount do not necessarily relate to Russian or Eastern Europe. However, some products do reference Russia and do so significantly. Three brands of tea dominate this space more so than any other product: Ahmad Tea, Akbar Tea, and Tsar Nikolas II Tea. With the Tsar Nikolas II branded tea, tea flavors like premium nostalgia and premium renaissance are available. In addition, brands of honey available in this section include Bashkirian Meadows honey, which references the Republic of Bashkortostan in Russia.
References like this throughout the store exist but are not always as direct. For example, on the right side of the deli that is visible in relation to the entrance, a row of short wooden tables line the deli glass counters and display a plethora of various baked goods like black and white bread as well as cereals. In this section of baked goods, an indirect reference to the Russian region of Tatarstan exists, which is the display of the national sweet of Tatarstan, chak-chak, which is best described as a fried honey cake. In addition, the bread displayed here is all mostly traditional Russian bread, mostly various brands of the sourdough rye bread known as borodinsky bread. Important to note is that borodinsky bread is traditional Russian bread that originates during the early Soviet Union. While some items in the section refer to specific times or places in relation to Russia, some non-Russian bread products are arranged amongst the Russian products, like “Dimpflmeier” and “Viking” bread.

In the deli glass counters lined with short wooden tables, a variety of deli meats is displayed. This section contains a significant amount of salami meat, which is usually tagged in Russian with a few exceptions. Some English-listed meat products mixed amongst the Russian-tagged meat products include veal bologna, chicken bologna, hot dogs, and liverwurst spread. Apart from the meat products in this section, the deli glass counters on the right side closest to the entrance/exit feature a variety of already prepared Russian dishes and salads like vinegret, a Russian beet-potato salad, and olivier. Apart from listing the name and price of these available dishes at the deli, they are not branded with any coloring or iconography on the item tags nor does the store’s name appear anywhere on these item tags.

In general, the quality of the products is average, nothing is high quality but the prices are slightly expensive, and occasionally an expired item will still be found on sale. The kinds of foods available here invoke national and ethnic feelings of being Russian or part of a post-Soviet nationality. The purity of the food can often be questionable but there does not seem to be a concern to hide these particular items, which may no longer be healthy to consume. The food products are generally presented in visible containers or wrappings, even branded goods. Goods from the deli are presented with nothing more than the name of the produce and its cost. The phrase “garden fresh” is used often on their pickled goods potentially invoking references to the various vegetables pickled from one’s dacha garden. Other branded goods typically come from Russian companies like “Red October” and “Rusholod”. However, the goods are generally not imported but rather come from factories of these companies located in states like New York and New Jersey. Many of their own New York International “garden fresh” goods and containers of sour cream come from factories in New York. Overall, these goods invoke a Russian or post-Soviet identity given their qualities signaled through their packaging, physical appearance, and taste.

The store makes little use of signs inside and outside. Only the candy sections in the back of the store make use of branding signs by displaying the “Red October” company logo on the two display pieces for candy. However, there exists a very small entrance room before fully entering the store, which displays signs not for advertising brands but for local Jewish community events and has a stand for Russian Jewish newspapers. These signs are all displayed in entirely in Russian and are only visible inside this small room before entering the store or at the cashier’s counter next to the magazines lying on top of the counter. The only sign outside of the store is the “New York International Food-Liquor” sign above the entrance, which does not refer to the Russian nature of the store. In addition to the modest use of signs, the store also does little to no advertising, which might reflect the store’s potentially tight community-based clientele. The store has no website. One can only find it online on store-review websites like “Yelp”. Even the sign that list the various stores at the strip mall lacks listing New York International.

The lack of advertising and use of signs for advertising the store might indicate that the store’s clientele is based in a small local community, probably of Russian immigrants. This is also indicated by the behavior of the workers at the store. All of which are women who are Russian immigrants or immigrants from post-soviet countries like Ukraine. They all wear casual clothing, no uniform, and only adorn an apron when working with deli food for customers. The store clerks to all know each other fairly well. In addition, regardless of the day and time, it is usually the same workers as any other day. They address their customers very casually and often times they seem to known many of their customers personally. The customers usually stay for short periods, around 5 to 10 minutes, unless they begin a conversation with the store clerks, which seems to happen often. In addition, the only language used in the store is Russian between the store clerks and the customers. English is only used when a customer, usually new, enters and lacks the knowledge of the Russian language. However, the demeanor of the store clerks is relaxed when dealing with usual customers and is considerably more cold and reserved when dealing with new and unfamiliar customers. This may indicate the closeness of the store to their community.
In general, the atmosphere of the store is best described as Russian and more accurately by the Russian adjective for the Russian nationality “Rossickaya”. The atmosphere is not necessarily conveying ethnicity but rather a nationality, that of the Russian nationality. The culmination of brands and products from various regions and ethnicities within Russia or neighboring the country, for example the Lithuanian cheese and Bashkir Meadows brand, would indicate a referencing towards the Russian nationality and not purely the Russian ethnicity. Visually, the store is not bombarding its customers with any particular visuals and looks modest inside with few bright colors from branded goods. Concerning lighting, the store is slightly dimmer than a larger franchised grocery store like Meijer. However, the store is still lit using fluorescent tubes. Auditorily, the store is filled with sounds of pop music on the radio from both Russia and America as well as the sounds of conversations in Russian. New York International in West Bloomfield feels like a “Russian” enclave in Michigan. The store emphasizes its “Rossickaya” atmosphere even more by covering its windows so that the store is not visible from the outside. In addition, this has the effect of making the outside world not visible from the inside. Essentially, this shuts its customers off from the outside “American” world, thereby creating an isolated Russian environment for its customers to experience. Compared to other similar stores like Euro Market in Ann Arbor, New York International creates a more targeted atmosphere serviced to a Russian immigrant clientele rather than a broader clientele. Whereas New York International hones in its targeted customer base, Euro Market is attempting to appeal to a broader Eastern European clientele with its selection of goods.

In the contemporary consumer world, advertising images are increasingly taking up public and product spaces and bombarding potential consumers with “information” on commodities (Jhally 2002: 328). These images require a sort of literacy to be read and decoded by consumers to explain what the visual images are conveying and attempt to convince them of doing (Jhally 2002: 328). Regimented branded grocers or markets, like Target or Meijer, attempt to take the values of a larger target audience and channel them through visual images that are more easily understood by the wider American populace (Jhally 2002: 329). However, New York International participates in little outward advertising, i.e. using public spaces to attract their target consumer base. New York International interacts with our image-based consumer culture by channeling the inclusivity of their community through images that indirectly dissuades a larger audience from shopping at their store, while at the same time servicing a particular image-based advertising that is understood by members of their Russian immigrant community. Through their storefront and commodities provided, New York International allows their targeted consumer base to feel secure in their constructed community around the images presented in the advertising and commodities of the store (Jhally 2002: 329-330). The store establishes the image of a storefront that weakly relates to the larger American community surrounding them but is understood easily enough by the Russian immigrant community to maintain the exclusivity of the store’s community. The wording on the front of the store reading “New York International Food-Liquor” is ambiguous and does not identify the consumer base of the store to anyone who is lacking in the specific image-based literacy to solve this visual “puzzle”. In addition, the covering of the store’s windows and visible bars on the windows generally would create uncertainty and confusion in consumers lacking any previous knowledge of the store, further reinforcing the community of the store who are able to visually “decode” the storefront’s imagery and the messages it’s trying to convey.

Inside, the store creates an ensemble of images through branded commodities so that consumers are able to construct and reinforce their identity within their community and socio-political environment, likely that of an immigrant from a post-Soviet country (Jhally 2002: 330). As the consumers interact with the commodity world of New York International, they are “entrancing” themselves in a world of commodity-based relationships relating to a post-Soviet existence that allows them to self-validate themselves in their current community and surrounding environment (Jhally 2002: 330). Accessing this world of commodity-based relationships to a post-Soviet existence through the images imprinted on the store’s commodities is only available to those consumers with the specific visual literacy to access it (Jhally 2002: 329-330). The consumption of these products creates an imaging of a sub-national identity within the context of America (Foster 1999: 279). This identity is likely described as a Russian-American identity or a mixture of any post-Soviet nationality with American. Generally, the store is creating a community in reference to a post-Soviet history particularly with the sale of goods like “CCCP” branded ice cream and borodinsky bread. The collective identity of this sub-national community is not forming around any territorial spaces but rather finding its “territory” in the global marketplace by the consumption of goods produced largely in New York by Russian or Eastern European companies and sold at New York International in West Bloomfield, Michigan (Foster 1999: 279-280). Through a combination of external and internal branding images as well as consumption practices, New York International allows Russian and other post-Soviet immigrants to mediate their former and current nationalities to construct a distinctly new sub-national identity for themselves (Foster 1999: 279-281).

Similar concepts found in Indian grocery stores discussed in “India Shipping” by Purnima Manekar are invoked at New York International (Mankekar 2002: 93). Particularly, the store creates strong discourses and feelings of the family, home, and community left behind by immigrant consumers and the community present in Michigan where the store is located (Mankekar 2002: 93). The products featured in the store play on many emotional attachments that the consumers may have by invoking feelings of nostalgia (Mankekar 2002: 93). While may commodities in the store play on this indirectly, for example the “Alyonka” chocolate or Bashkirian Meadows honey, other commodities directly play on creating strong feelings of nostalgia, for example the Tsar Nikolas II tea with the flavor of “premium nostalgia”. In addition, the imagery of handmade cakes being displayed at front of the entrance of the store immediately bombards customers with potential references to ceremonial memories that may have involved family and friends. To the consumers of this market, these cakes may invoke feelings and memories of the home and all the community that may surround domestic life here in America and back in the “homeland”. The social space created by New York International arranges and displays commodities in ways that would manipulate its customers emotions related to their family, home, and community to allow these subjects of diaspora to consume the values and memories of their “homeland” inside their new environment (Manekar 2002: 92-93). The familiar sensorial experiences of shopping in a Russian marketplace can be found inside New York International through the spoken Russian, visual experience of Russian brands and foods, and general feeling of the store’s atmosphere. These sensorial stimuli allow the consumers with the right sensorial literacy and systems of environmental categorization to interact with this environment to allow for the creation and validation of the “ethnic” or “national” mind and body of their respective “homeland” (Mankekar 2002: 89-91).

As food consumption is linking people in Russia, notably Muscovites, to practices of articulating national loyalties and explorations of contemporary identities, consumers interacting with the commodities in New York International are interacting with similar strategies of creating a consumer consciousness (Caldwell 2002: 313). By consuming commodities that are index a particular place and identity, customers of New York International who are equipped with the right visual literacy and collective post-Soviet historical experiences are able to articulate their loyalty to a particular Russian identity that separates themselves from other Americans as Russian-Americans. A common occurrence in New York International include immigrant parents taking their kids shopping with them in the store and having them help sort throughout the various Russian products on display. Parents involving children in their process of sorting through and observing the many Russian products available likely contributes to the creation of a consumer consciousness in their children in relating themselves to the larger community surrounding the store. Similar to the consumption of “nash” foods in Moscow, participating in the social space of New York International likely contributes to affirming membership into the community through a singular “homogenous” experience of shopping at the store in contrast to the surrounding outside American environment (Caldwell 2002: 313). Shopping at New York International may provide its consumer base with a means to prevent the disintegration of the community by creating a singular “Russian” experience in the surrounding American society. Similar to Muscovites and the creation of a nationalist cuisine, the consumption of products in New York International go beyond the need to achieve a stable biological health but also to create a stable social health where the “ethnic” or “national” body is satisfied (Caldwell 2002: 315). Products like the Tsar Nikolas II tea, chak-chak, borodinsky bread, and kvas allow for the social health to be satisfied and create a satisfied social body where relations with the Russian-American community and identity can be maintained successfully. Modern capitalist consumer culture allows for commodities like food produce and commercial spaces to be established so that they allow for the creation of unique cultural experiences that maintain the social cohesion mutual support in a communities like that which is surrounding New York International as well as the “nash” community in Moscow (Caldwell 2002: 314-315).

The links to the past at New York International in the commodities for sale like the borodinsky bread and handmade cakes present modes of remembering the past for consumers but also work to distance them from it because of their display in their current social space (Berdahl 1999: 206-207). Because these products are being presented in their own secluded social space within New York International separate from “American” grocery store spaces, they present their consumer community a chance to experience something unique to their collective historical experiences similar to that of “Ostalgie” practices in Easter Germany (Berdahl 1999: 206). The social space of New York International creates a unique “Russian” cultural experience that itself is distanced physically and timely from actually grocery shopping in Russia. It is an opportunity for its consumer community to participate in an environment that allows them to remember a past collective history in a secluded space and then return to the current American world outside the store (Berdahl 1999: 206). The qualities of the commodities and environment within the store allow for a revaluing of a space and time separated from the one that the consumers of New York International live in. The commodities are socially segmented from the produce one might purchase in a Target or Walmart and function more so as objects of memory and affirmations of distinctions from other American communities (Berdahl 1999: 204-206).

New York International serves its main consumer base by creating a social space where a Russian or post-Soviet immigrant community can enter and maintain their current identity by engaging in an environment representing a collective history of their community. Similar to many iconic brands like Jack Daniels that allow for the American political imagination to propagate an imagined cultural myth, New York International does the same by allowing its consumers to engage in expressing their collective story of immigration to America from the Soviet Union or post-Soviet country with the consumption of the store’s produce (Holt 2006: 375). What memories or stories being told through interacting with the store’s environment are selected for and create a “truth” or modern myth about the past that can be shared by the entire community in maintaining the status quo of the store’s community, easing social strains, and retaining social cohesion (Holt 2006: 374-375). This is observable by the occasional political conversations between store clerks and the customers as well as the posters in the small room just before entering the store, where various community events are listed in Russian and Russian newspapers lay with headings like “10 things only Russians understand”. New York International serves to provide its community with a unique cultural experience in contrast to the surrounding “American” world, which is easily identifiable to those with the same collective historical background that allows for the social cohesion and identity of the community surrounding the store to exist and maintained.