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In a corner of Fiddleheads Food Co-op in New London, three people pull cafeteria chairs away from bistro tables to create a small circle on an aged rug that would feel more at home in front of a fireplace than across from the frozen foods. Carrying cases are set down, music stands set up and flutes assembled.
A flute trio, made up of Carol Menard of Norwich, Douglas Wray of Colchester and Shaughn Robinson of Westerly, begin a practice session.
The trio can trace its roots back to the 1990s when Menard and Robinson both worked for Pfizer Inc. and played in a company-supported flute group. Wray, a former civilian Naval mathematician, became involved with the group through friends at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
Over the years, other members have come and gone, as have jobs with Pfizer and with the Navy, but the trio still remains, meeting on Thursday evenings for a Fiddleheads jam session. They've been meeting for the last three years.
The presence of music extends farther back than the trio's first practice at Fiddleheads. When the co-op first started out, the addition of a piano to the grocery store seemed a natural fit, said grocery manager Sheila Herbert.
"That got us into providing the kind of environment that adds to the whole ambiance of shopping here," said Herbert, a friend of Wray's who initially helped connect the flute trio with the community space when the three were looking for a convenient location to practice. "We've always been a lot about music."
After practicing at Pfizer and All Souls, the trio settled into a regular practice schedule at Fiddleheads, where their presence is a welcome addition to the setting for shoppers who happen in on Thursday evenings.
Many shoppers - who may describe themselves as more selective grocery shoppers, and who others may describe as healthnuts or hippies - don't find it at all odd to hear the sound of live flute music echoing down the isles of almond milk and bulk grain offerings.
"This is what it's all about," said Robert Tompkins who comes in every week to buy organic food for his family and has caught the flute performance a couple of times. He and his family volunteer at Fiddleheads.
Tompkins says he occasionally comes in to enjoy a bagel and coffee while his kids play with the miniature wooden kitchen set in front of a large wall of windows next to the cafe area.
"Of course they sell groceries, but Fiddleheads is more than just a grocery store," said Tompkins. "We come here to hang out a little bit and enjoy the atmosphere."
While Menard, Wray and Robinson might not have the loyal followers that some hometown musical acts depend on to attend their local gigs, they benefit from and add to the atmosphere that makes Fiddleheads both a supermarket and a hangout.
"If you can play Fiddleheads, you can play anywhere," said Wray, citing the sometimes distracting background noises of humming coolers, squeaky grocery cart wheels and children run through the aisles.
"We've had a couple of people that come specifically on Thursday to hear us and to do their shopping," said Menard. "Others will just come and get a cup of coffee and sit."
"You'll see, occasionally, little kids dancing around," added Robinson.
The three don't mind their inconspicuous acceptance into the setting. They're not in it for flutist fame.
"We're doing this just because we love to make music. People seem to like it too," said Wray. "It's not like we're really performing. We're playing for ourselves, but other people get to listen."
Even though their mouths are more occupied with playing their instruments than with chatting, their weekly meetings do allow the three to maintain their connection, which goes back almost two decades.
"We've been doing this a long time," said Robinson. "It's nice to come and play flute with people you know."
While they used to book larger performances with some frequency as part of the Pfizer flute group, lately their performing schedule doesn't extend beyond the aisles of Fiddleheads.
"We keep it nice and relaxed," said Robinson. "We don't have to worry about practicing to the level you might want to be at for a professional performance."
The public practice session is a perfect fit for Fiddleheads, where the focus on community is shared by the store's shoppers and is augmented by the presence of a live, local music act, says Wray.
"For me, part of the pleasure of doing this is having this wonderful place that brings together discerning food shoppers, our music, and friends hanging out together, resulting in smiles on the faces of folks running errands, little kids sitting quietly listening or else dancing in the aisles," said Wray. "In such a setting, the ambient noises, in a strange way, add to our music."