I have an intense affinity for Fleet Farm.
Every trip begins in its huge parking lot, located just beyond the rush of a Midwest interstate. The Fleet Farm I frequent is off of Highway 169, and sits in a vast lot next to Mister Car Wash and Burger King. Nearby, there are car dealerships and auto shops. Five miles down the interstate, you’ll find plots of suburbs, antique malls, and corn fields.
On most visits, I’m not here to pick up one item. I’m here to wander. The warehouse is built on the premise that a new adventure awaits in every single aisle. I expect to find unexpected pairings. An aisle of shears, for example, might also have an orange cart full of Hot Cheetos. I revel in the possibility that I could buy Pine Sol, camo lingerie, and horse dewormer, all at the same time.
Not that I’m going to purchase any of those items, mind you, but the option is there. And that, to me, becomes something.
The first time I stopped in at the Fleet Farm in Brooklyn Park, I hadn’t walked through one since I was a teenager. But when I entered the store, I realized that, even in 2019, all of the sensorial components remained the same. Exactly the same. As Shania Twain’s “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” played softly on the loudspeaker, I noticed that the packaging for PikNik shoestring potatoes, propped up next to a full bin of dusty pretzels and Turkey Fixins Mesquite Marinade, hadn’t changed at all.
Not too far away, a corner aisle offered poly-cotton American flags next to an aisle of wood engraved with words: Relax, Dream, Angel, Live, Peace, Smile, Laugh. On the other side of the aisle I saw kiln-dried bamboo, an eco-friendly alternative to all the hardwood that filled up the adjacent aisle.
Fleet Farm hasn’t traveled past 1996. Items that aren’t normally relevant are relevant here: wall clocks and clock radios, DVDs, walkie talkies. The giant toy section for kids offers ’80s/’90s catalog favorites: Tonka cars, Nerf guns, Breyer horses, plastic animals.
Admittedly, not every inch of Fleet Farm is dedicated to nostalgia. The dusty clearance section in the back of the store hosts the darker, more bitter side of America. Second Amendment coffee mugs pose next to weighted blankets. MyPillows are stacked with shame on what’s labeled an “extreme” sales rack, right next to bullet hat clips, bullet key chains, and a 25mm Bushmaster bullet opener. Kids’ swim noodles lean disconcertingly close to the “Gun Control Means Both Hands” signs.
Suddenly, the blazing orange clearance section feels political. Children’s toys right next to gun-related items is the reality of the America we live in right now.
Despite the vibe in the back of the store, Fleet Farm is still a guilty pleasure that ushers in a rush of nostalgia for me. It’s where my grandpas always went, and that’s where I remember going on Sundays. It’s a store that prides itself on Midwestern values (even while it sleeps on the Second Amendment and the places Americans hurt the most).
Still, I never have to guess what I’m walking into as I enter its warehouse full of rubber smells and cashews packaged in bulk. Fleet Farm acts as if we live in a dome of permanent ’90s suburbia. When those automatic doors usher me in, I can walk right through time and feel nostalgic for how things used to be, even if they weren’t (and aren’t!) always right.
And then I end up leaving with a crockpot and cat nail clippers under my arm.