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Grocery store at the top of the world

How those living near the Arctic Circle stay supplied.

Icelans shop 09 19 2013Enlarge
Arms and underwear for sale. (Corinne Purtill/GlobalPost)

TASIILAQ, Greenland — You can buy almost anything in Pilersuisoq, a modern two-story supermarket in this town of 2,000 people on the rugged east coast of the world's largest island.

Past the glass doors plastered with posters advertising the week’s specials, fluorescent lights and linoleum floors showcase a selection that rivals any suburban Walmart.

Rifles, scented candles and Hello Kitty children’s backpacks greet visitors near the main entrance. The grocer stocks bread, Oreos and at least a dozen different types of pickled fish. Upstairs, a bin of souvenir seal pelts sits between yarn skeins in the haberdashery section and Casio keyboards in home electronics.

It’s not the northernmost supermarket in the world, or even in Greenland. That honor belongs to the Pilersuisoq outpost in Siorapaluk, about 850 miles south of the North Pole.

But Tasiilaq’s branch of the government-owned retail chain is a microcosm of the quirks and challenges of modern life at the top of the world.

Located 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the town isn’t linked by road to any other settlement. For six months each year, its harbor is sealed with ice and impassable to supply ships.

Some goods can be flown in by helicopter when the weather allows. For the most part, however, if it isn’t in stores or the big red warehouse in the harbor by November, residents must do without it until spring.

That necessitates advance planning.

“Beer is the most important thing. The town never runs out of beer,” says Gerda Vilholm, owner of the nearby Neriusaaq Bookstore and café. “Toilet paper — we sometimes run out.”

A semi-autonomous country within Denmark, Greenland is mostly covered with ice. Three times the size of Texas, it’s home to a mere 57,000 people who live at the edges of the island where the ice gives way to inhabitable land.

No two settlements are connected by road. The only way to get from one village or town to another is by boat, air or dogsled.

As a result, virtually every town must be self-sufficient. Tasiilaq has a school, hospital, ambulance, police station, dentist, orphanage, post office and court of justice serving about 3,000 people, including residents from five nearby villages. A hydroelectric power plant north of town provides electricity.

Local Inuit families supplement their diets with fish, seal, whale and polar bear meat hunted from the nearby fjords and butchered at home.

Drying fish hang from the eaves of the single-story wooden houses dotting the hillside town. The wooden frame of a dogsled stands on gravel in front of one home, waiting for winter.

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A hundred years after the Danish set up a trading post in Tasiilaq, however, European food has become as much a part of the local diet as the abundant seals. That’s where the town supermarket and two convenience stores come in.

Greenland has no manufacturing base of its own and very little agriculture apart from small-scale farming in the country’s south. Every single thing for sale in Tasiilaq must be shipped from Denmark.

That means that even in summer, when supply ships keep shelves full, prices are roughly double those in Europe. Six months from now, what little remains will be exorbitantly expensive. 

At the smaller of Tasiilaq’s two Pilersuisoq stores, a package of four toilet paper rolls costs $6.35. A 16.9-ounce bottle of water is $2. A single apple is $0.90.

The same piece of fruit will cost more $2.15 by winter’s end, locals said.

Groceries are a relative bargain compared to the personal electronics kept under lock and key in a glass display case at the post office across the road. Yes, you can buy a 64 GB iPhone 5 in Greenland — for a mere $1,270.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/130919/iceland-grocery-store