BY ABIGAIL HICKMAN
Recently, I walked into the Ingles on New Leicester Highway innocently enough. I had no idea the portent that awaited me. I needed a healthy pick-me-up and knew that the store had its chocolate peppermint Christmas bark for sale. And, yes, maybe the chocolate and peppermint contain a bit of sugar, but you can’t fault me on the bark. Bark grows on trees, and everybody knows that tree products are whole foods.
I focused on my goal, a crucial skill for engaging with any large box store lest you be tempted by the rows of treats placed around the establishment to keep you in a confused stupor of desire. It’s the same basic principle the wicked witch used to lure poor Hansel and Gretel into the gingerbread house. And you might well remember how that story ended with a murder.
At this point, if you happen to have a mastiff lounging on your lap while you enjoy the parts of your Mountain Xpress not yet drooled over, it would be best to cover his soft, floppy ears so the word won’t get around through the Doggy Xpress. You may remember the dogs that barked from city street to country lane informing each other about Cruella de Vil’s pup-napping of those adorable Dalmatian puppies. Is Boomer or Brawler or Thunder (I looked up the most popular names for mastiffs) all sorted out? OK, let’s get back to the story.
Before I even got through the cart-holding vestibule, I noticed something odd. I backed myself up and saw it, a sign on the door reading: “Therapy Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs and Pets, not allowed inside per Federal/NC State Law. Thank you for your cooperation.” Uh-oh. I don’t think this is going to go well for Ingles. And this has nothing to do with the appalling grammar choices. (Where did they hide that linking verb? Why is that comma hanging after “Pets” like a slow-motion pant?)
I ran into the store searching for the manager. They are very easy to find; they are the guys in white shirts and ties who are breaking down boxes while simultaneously holding clipboards. And they will be smiling. Are they human? I found one such creature right away, and he explained that the corporate office set the rule, or rather, enforced the existing rule, and there you have it.
So, what will this mean for Asheville? Ingles has always been our folksy go-to grocery store. Ingles, born and raised in Asheville, is the fuss-free grocer that serves locals with its plucky mountain attitude. It is our talisman in a city full of frantic growth.
Did you know that the Census Bureau estimates that 89,000 people lived here in 2016? That’s not a giant number on its own, but it feels a bit scratchier when placed in the larger narrative of about 74,000 living here in 2000. And since national statistics indicate that more than one in three households own a dog, you’ll get the idea that Asheville’s culture is about to change.
But you can bet your organic doggie biscuits that Ashevilleans will not take this sitting on their haunches. Up until now, dogs were able to enjoy the fruits of our city’s bounty with impunity. I searched “dog-friendly restaurants and pubs” on Yelp and was treated to a list 250 entries long. Dogs can browse the animal section at Malaprop’s while mocking the cat books with their up-until-now unfettered freedom.
One way that dogs slip into local establishments is by wearing those $33.99 Amazon “service dog” vests people are buying. I’ve seen these vested animals in Ingles and Lowe’s before, and of course these dogs are seen at all the trendy restaurants, sitting on their owners’ laps, licking the remnants of caramelized Brussels sprouts sautéed in maple cayenne from delicate china bowls. I should have seen this coming. I talked to one Lowe’s employee, who said he didn’t mind the growling or the drool. It was the pee that got to him. Apparently, some owners are thoughtful enough to buy an Amazon service vest for Bella Boo Boo, but their interest stops just shy of cleaning up the puddle of urine Boo leaves in front of the paint samples. Maybe the darling was inspired by the pastels and offered a pale lemon of her own.
However, Boo Boo’s owner may need to reconsider masquerading Bella as a service dog. The N.C. General Statutes (Chapter 168-4.5) state that “it is unlawful to disguise an animal as a service animal or a service animal in training.” Yikes. I feel confident dog owners found in violation will have to wear those “prisoners at work” vests logging community service hours by mopping the floors at Lowe’s.
For further insight, I spoke with Alex Henderson from Ingles’ corporate office, who said the company decided to enforce its rules based on safety issues, cleanliness and customers who have animal allergies. He was quick to make the distinction between emotional support animals and those that have been trained to work as disability service animals. They do allow the latter (and are, in fact, required to do so under federal law). They are sticky about it, so merely having a “service animal” vest could get her bounced.
Of course, Asheville is a dog town; we love our canines as members of our own families. I know one family who likes their dog better than their live-in mother-in-law. She is mostly kept at home, but Maisy, a mixed breed, gets to tag along to all their city outings, including one trip to church. If our population expands to such a degree that our homegrown grocer won’t allow our four-legged fellows to shop freely, I fear we will see the doggy water bowls that are left outside the coolest downtown establishments taken in. No longer will our barking balls of fur be allowed to join the tourists at all the hip Asheville eateries.
What’s to become of our quaint little town when it is no longer quaint because it is no longer a town? Ingles’ dog restrictions are a presentiment of more impactful changes afoot in our beloved Asheville. Soon, dogs like Maisy will be banned in the city and mothers-in-law will be allowed to roam freely in their place. Until then, friends, lap up the beer and do your best to avoid the vest.
Abigail Hickman teaches at Mars Hill University as an adjunct faculty member, plus writes and produces a weekly podcast (www.crimecloset.com) for Madison County community radio station WART, 95.5 FM.