08/25/2010 03:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Praise of Fairway

By Nicolaus Mills

If you are an out-of-towner visiting New York, the place to shop is Zabar's. It has an authenticity Bloomingdale's lacks, and the food you bring back from Zabar's, especially from the deli counter, is sure to be different--or just plain better---than anything you have at home. It is no accident that in Nora Ephron's "You've Got Mail," a very long scene with Tom Hanks takes place in Zabar's.
But if you are a New Yorker and looking for a great place to shop, the place you'll head to more often than not is Fairway Market between 74th and 75th on Broadway. Fairway is a five-minute walk from Zabar's, and easy to get to. The Fairway deli counter is almost as good as Zabar's, and its prices are a lot cheaper. But there is also a difference in the clientele. Fairway customers are a diverse lot. At around dinner time, the store often filled with firefighters from a nearby hook-and ladder company shopping for their evening meal. At Zabar's it is hard to imagine anyone in uniform.
This summer Fairway has endeared itself to me by an unprecedented step. It has posted Fairway workers at strategic points throughout the store to help you find what you're looking for. The workers wear red aprons with a sign that reads:" NEED HELP? I'M FRIENDLY, AND I HAVE ANSWERS." Even more important, the helpers live up to the sign on their aprons. The other day, when I could not find Grape Nuts, the helper I spoke to didn't just point me in the right direction. She walked me to the Grape Nuts section of the cereal aisle, then waited while I decided between the big and little box.
I am sure the decision of the Fairway management to provide workers who do nothing but help customers reflects the store's popularity. But a lot of stores are doing well in the midst of this recession, and they are still doing everything they can to squeeze money out of employees scared of losing their jobs in a new round of downsizing.
Fairway helpers in their red aprons suggest ruthlessness isn't always the best policy. In the atmosphere the store has created, it is hard not to feel you're in a place where liberal values rule.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and co-author with Michael Walzer of "Getting Out: Historical Perspectives on Leaving Iraq."