Nostalgia is a tricky thing. It can feel good to look back at the way things were, but that warm feeling can turn to sadness as the realization that you can never return sets in. What I wouldn’t give to watch cartoons on the couch in my childhood home, to eat my grandmother’s mostaccioli and meatballs, to feel what it was like to be back in 1993, when I was wild and free, with no bills to pay, no aches and pains, no job, no worries.

Your magic year may not be 1993. Whatever it is—the year when you had no cares, when your loved ones were all still here—I can’t transport you back there. I wish I could. But what I can do is offer you a portal of sorts, a special place where you can time travel, if only for a few minutes. And the best part is you can do your grocery shopping there too.

That special place is John Brooks Supermarket, a New Mexico chain that operates four stores throughout the state. I first discovered John Brooks while on a road trip that took me through Socorro several years ago. Visiting the location on California Street, Socorro’s main drag, I instantly fell in love with the vintage vibe—the totally 1980s teal-and-burgundy logo, the coin-operated kids’ rides outside, the classic brands inside, the unusually personal name of the store itself.

My appreciation for John Brooks has only deepened in the past year, as I discovered that its Albuquerque location has been hiding from me in plain sight, literally on my street, a perfect midpoint on my daily route. Vintage brand logos frame the John Brooks name on its storefront, and a weathered carousel ride greets customers as they approach the sliding doors. In the entryway, an old Pac-Man video game beckons with dim lights, and coin-operated vending machines spit out plastic eggs filled with surprises. Even the shopping carts, whose gray metal baskets are placed strangely high, seem to be from another era.

In this surreal space, I feel transported back to my childhood, when grocery stores were friendlier to families, rightly understanding that a twenty-five-cent Li’l Homies toy could make everyone’s shopping experience more bearable.

Within the store, the vintage vibes continue. A beautiful, older cashier sports a Farrah Fawcett–style feathered shag straight out of 1978, the year John Brooks, the company’s founder and namesake, opened his first grocery store.

Though the carpeting on the floors is actually new (there was tile before the carpet was installed around five years ago), it supports the old-school ambience, as do the classic brands on the shelves. While John Brooks may not be the place one turns to for the trendiest flavors, it’s a solid spot for traditional American staples—Campbell’s soups, frozen vegetables, the sugary cereals we all still crave sometimes. Colorful piñatas and a wide selection of tortillas, chile sauces, and salsas ground the store in its New Mexican identity.

Neighborhood regular Joy Montgomery notes that the store “definitely gives the nostalgic experience with the selection of toy and sticker vending machines. . . . The carpet floors, small square footage, and early 2000s adult contemporary jams make it a mellow shopping experience.”

John Brooks’s Milan location is similarly nostalgic and chill. On a recent visit, I initially mistook the metal-sided building for a barn, but that classic logo and the set of kiddie horse rides outside made it clear that I’d come to the right place.

Though Brooks, the founder, died in 2022, the supermarket appears to have no plans to change, and customers (including me) are fine with that. “We’re still operating the way we were ten years ago, twenty years ago, and that’s what’s great about it,” says twenty-four-year John Brooks veteran Gabe Michel, whom I interview in the Albuquerque store’s café while the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” plays in the background.

As the slick new Whole Foods Market beckons with its sleek neon lights, hot new products, and cavernous space, John Brooks soothes with its nostalgia. Michel says, “We have a different niche than they do, even though we do carry a lot of natural and organic food also. We really don’t compete with each other.”

That differentiation is what keeps John Brooks alive in an era where larger grocery chains are racing to adopt the latest technology. They were one of the last holdouts against automation, only recently installing self-checkout terminals at their Albuquerque location, as I discovered when I stopped in last month to pick up all the ingredients for Sonoran dogs: classic Nathan’s hot dogs, bacon, pinto beans, shredded cheese, and Mexican-style crema. Traffic at John Brooks is always steady, if a little slow, and the cashiers speak to regulars like friends.

Musing on John Brooks’s next forty years, Michel says, “I think our future is actually pretty bright. We have our individual niche here; we have a lot of loyal customers, which is the biggest thing. This is a neighborhood store. Sure, [the customers] go to Costco and buy a lot of the bulk stuff that they need. They’re not exclusive to us, but most everybody who shops here has grown up in this area, so that’s the loyalty that we keep.”

Joanna Manganaro Toto

Joanna Manganaro Toto is a freelance writer, jewelry designer, and personal stylist based in Albuquerque. Born and raised in New Mexico, Joanna spent years in New York City, Dallas, Phoenix, and the LA area before gratefully returning to her home state, where she lives with her husband, son, and senior pets.