At 7:59 p.m. on a Monday night in September, a nondescript girl with black leggings and a striped gray top walks into Durfee’s Sweet Shoppe. She starts left, turns right and drifts across the dusty black tiles to the refrigerated foods. Her hand reaches for a bottle of Brain Toniq — the bottle’s “q” highlighted a bright orange — before stopping, hand dangling in midair. It changes course and extends downward to grab a can off a pyramid of horizontally stacked Red Bulls. As she’s waiting for an open register, her eyes catch a new attraction, the Moo Bella machine. She reads the main label: “Make your own ice cream! 96 Varieties.” She looks pleasantly transfixed; then the cashier yells, “Next!” With a swipe and a “Thank you,” she leaves through the entrance.
In the world of Yale-owned convenience stores, Thain Café, in Bass library, is the socially conscious son; The Lobby, in Klein Biology Tower, the bookish, occasionally impolite second cousin; uncommon, at Commons, the haute upstart; and Durfee’s the well-to-do Dad who purchases a Mercedes every three years to ward off impending midlife crises. Its contradictions tell the story well: The Durfee’s font is Old English facing Elm Street, but Comic Sans inside. The walls are draped with lime-green hues, but the floor betrays cracking paint. The entrance is exclusive — except that it’s juxtaposed with an identical-looking door leading to the Yale Women’s Center. Durfee’s is at the heart of Yale, straddling freshman and upperclassman housing, in a location so prime the store’s conscience almost realizes that, because it’s not, say, a student center, a dance studio or an art gallery, it has to overcompensate by providing as many different goods as possible.
Durfee’s opened in the late 1970s. Its original goal was to be the University sweet shop, à la Roald Dahl, with jars of taffy and gumballs and licorice behind the main counter. Now, after numerous renovations — “Oh, it goes through one every few years,” exclaims current manager Lauren Peerless — the Durfee’s we know has a new philosophy: Supply whatever the heck students want. The process of inventory renewal, according to Peerless, is like a call-and-response game. A student asks for an item and it pops onto the shelf. It is kept in stock if it moves well. On paper, the consumer-driven content model is cute — but the potpourri of incongruous items, when viewed holistically, is unnerving.
For the inexperienced, Durfee’s has become a “Where’s Waldo” backdrop. Socially responsible Smart Water? Next to the fudge-sandwich creme. Solo cups? To the right of the seltzer water. Whole avocados? Lying prostrate, across from the doughnut holes. The walls are lined with 16 brands of cookies, eight brands of cereal, and resealable goji berries, which come dipped in either dark chocolate or yogurt. Ethnically diverse flavors sit chummily together: Annie Chun’s miso soup and Thai Kitchen’s garlic and roasted chicken. (Notice, also, the 12-grain bread loaf sitting sadly on the lowest shelf.) And let’s not forget why Durfee’s was remodeled this year: to provide hot food. Personal pizzas and chicken wings anyone?
Durfee’s has variety. But maybe too much. The paradox of choice, elucidated by psychologist Barry Schwartz, is that we are happier with fewer options, not more. Having 40 bottled drinks to choose from creates opportunity-cost angst, especially when every choice not chosen is as chic as the one purchased. And 96 ice cream flavors for the Moo Bella machine? That’s not satiation. That’s overkill, made worse if you’ve seen the machine’s intestines: a Rube Goldberg machine of circuitry, plastic handles, bags of desiccated goo and funnels of M&Ms.
Today, the Moo Bella machine (and Brain Toniq) is gone, a casualty of the inventory cycle. “Thank God,” says an employee. “It was no good.” Durfee’s still has no coherence, and as a result, there’s no soul. The expectation is Roald Dahl’s “Sweet Shoppe”; the reality is one gangly rack of Starburst, Skittles and Reese’s Pieces. While Yale Dining is moving toward centrally planned defaults, dictating salad selection and prioritizing local produce, Durfee’s is the outlier. Sycophantic in order to be trendy, Durfee’s undermines its own significance.
With its built-in advantages — the lunch transfer swipe, the late hours, the location — the store should aspire to be more than the reluctant stopgap shopping center for meal-plan Yalies. While it’s too late change the experience for the class of 2011, Durfee’s can still redefine dining for the underclassman. The first step? Create a worthy adversary to the G-Heav egg sandwich and Alpha Delta Wenzel. Maybe then we Yalies can finally start using our dining points without remorse.
Peter Lu is a senior in Berkeley College.
Correction: April 1, 2011
The opinion column “A Not-so-sweet shoppe” inaccurately quoted and paraphrased remarks by Lauren Peerless, an employee at Durfee’s Sweet Shoppe, regarding the store’s renovation schedule. The News regrets the error.