Dade, the sensitive young narrator, recalls how he disappointed both of his parents for the first time the summer that he turned eighteen. Perhaps he has disappointed himself too, for throughout the story he slowly realizes that he does not know what direction his life should take. Dade has been told by his father that if he does not take his work seriously, he will end up poor. The father—who owns the grocery store of the title—is a practical man who works hard, runs a clean, thriving business, and maintains good relationships with the community. When he proposed marriage to Dade’s mother, he probably saw right to the end of his life, Dade thinks.
Dade works in the store and is sometimes industrious, but often he spends his time daydreaming on the store’s roof. He disappoints his father by not being earnest enough about his work in the store. Instead he gazes at clouds, stars, and the sky for hours, trying to make the discovery his mother has always thought he would make. She reminds him that he will someday inherit the store, yet she encourages him to think and dream because she is sure he will someday become a person of limited fame. It is her theory that men like Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison simply stared at regular objects until they saw new things.
Dade initially goes to the roof to clean the large, incandescent star that sits atop the store to advertise its presence. He sometimes stays there for hours to think about the clouds and their shapes. He has studied the names and properties of clouds and gives precise, detailed descriptions. Sometimes his father joins him on the roof. When Dade looks off the roof to the ground, he gazes west to the affluent parts of town where sparkling swimming pools may be seen among the trees and where the girls who drive their own convertibles to high school live. His father, however, forces him to look in the other direction to the neighborhoods populated by rusted old cars and men who sit on curbs all day. Dade, he says, will become one of these men if he does not take business more seriously. However, because Dade is so young, both parents want to give him some space to find himself and his own direction.
A shoplifter forces matters to a crisis. Dade has apprehended shoplifting children on several occasions. One day, however, a middle-aged woman in a gray plaid dress walks out of the store with a cut-rate loaf of rye bread. Dade feels powerless to act under her stare. Later she steals pineapple juice. The thief somehow inspires his pity. His mother explains that he must feel sorry for her. Understanding the son’s sensitive nature and reluctance, the father hires a guard. One day on the roof, Dade sees some Air Force jets in the sky. His response to them makes him feel he has seen a sign. Dade tells his dad he is ready to catch the shoplifter, and soon he does. While they are waiting for the father to come to the back room to deal with the shoplifter, Dade changes his mind and allows her to escape, as his mother had sometimes done with children before. In shame or guilt, Dade leaves too, walking with the woman for a while. They do not speak to each other. Later that night as he walks, he realizes that he has disappointed his father and his mother and that he feels alone in the world, like the shoplifter. Moreover, he still has no definite ideas about what direction his life should take.