Whenever certain timeless elements of Amador County feel threatened, it’s a good idea to look to the comforting icons that still remain.
Several residents recently chatted with me about their concerns regarding the new Dollar General store that opened in Pine Grove. Their trepidation has to do with research suggesting Dollar General focuses on moving into “blighted” parts of rural areas. The residents told me that Dollar General’s arrival in Pine Grove was disturbing enough, but its plan to erect more locations in the Pioneer area is even more jarring – and perhaps telling when it comes to the advance of webbed, shuttered commercial properties in Amador’s upcountry neighborhoods.
I had to admit to these folks that, given my travels to rural towns across the U.S., Dollar General’s presence tends to be a pretty bad sign for the overall health of a ranching or farming community. So, is the store a kind of harbinger of rural poverty? Based on my travels, I believe a case can be made it is.
I decided to drive up to Pine Grove and take a look at the site myself. Dollar General arguably picked the most blighted section of Pine Grove to throw its bricks and mortar down, which could be a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it.
I was on the verge of getting a little depressed as my car rolled east on Highway 88. But then I noticed a sign for a different business – a vision that looked not one bit changed from my entire collective experience growing up near Pine Grove. It was the old “American Graffiti”-style marque for Giant 88 Burgers to Go. It had the same Coca Cola red and white, 1950s-era sign over the highway that it’s always had, striking out against the maroon boards and tin roof of Giannini’s Italian Restaurant. With Christmas approaching, I was bound to notice Giant 88 continues to look out at the same plastic Nativity scene fastened to the same spot on the fire station’s roof that infused the season with spirit when I was a kid. I suppose the only difference in that Nativity collection is that the kneeling wise men and shepherds are today almost white from their colors washed away by rain and snow over the decades.
My grandparents had taken me to Giant 88 since I was old enough to appreciate a good burger. Later, when I was in high school, I worked at Giannini’s restaurant. In addition to our pay, the reward for a hot summer afternoon spent pressure-washing kitchen mats and cooking gear was a filling lunch at Giant 88. Last week, as I remembered those mouth-watering moments, I suddenly had the urge to pull over and see how the place was doing. Strolling through the door, I was instantly at comfort with the familiar sight of the cherry-red and alabaster countertop I always remembered. The image of men and women filling all of the bar stools as they lazily rested their elbows on a crimson, glittered cushion across the counter was also intact.
I managed to grab the last open stool as I placed my order. I was delighted to be reminded that, at Giant 88, if you ask for a large fries, the staff immediately warns you, “Large fry feeds four.”
I was even happier when my food arrived. I could see that at Giant 88 cheeseburger is still a big beef patty literally slathered in melted cheese, and the fries are still fat, hot and gloriously salted – dropping in front of you golden crisp out of the fryer with a slight crunch on their auburn edges.
Pine Grove may be changing, but its most humble yet emblematic symbols – Sierra House, Giannini’s and Giant 88 Burgers – still survive and still remind us that our favorite nuances of upcountry life need to be appreciated over developments we may not like.
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