Campbell’s Grocery can’t be beat yet–
been here 80 years and more.
-lyric from “In Des Moines” by Origami Animals
Austin Barnhill is soft-spoken, but a presence. The Des Moines area native has served as a cashier and customer service leader at Campbell’s Nutrition since 2014. Tall and cheery, he is a staple in the store, as much as the fresh wheat grass or the soup. Campbell’s regulars know him by name, like a local bartender but in the opposite vein – a cashier at the oldest health food store in Iowa, the third oldest in the nation.
Few Campbell’s customers know that Austin is a lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter in local rock ensemble, Origami Animals, playing this weekend at Wooly’s in Des Moines.
Barnhill tells me he took interest in music during choir. Later, at Ankeny High School, he took interest in British Rock and early 1960’s garage rock. He mentions The Who and the British Invasion as deeply influential in his work. “I’m a writer first. I grew up wanting to write and was interested by that. Writing isn’t boring.” Austin tells me that by writing music, it makes it more accessible, that he picked up music to make poetry. “Like Lou Reed,” he tells me. He feels that music and lyrics are equally important and neither comes first, it’s both. He doesn’t call himself a singer/songwriter – he considers himself a musician.
Austin wasn’t always the thin and health conscious young man he is today. He shares with me that he, at his most, weighed 260 lbs. He took interest in diet and exercise and lost 100 lbs. He didn’t attain a college degree, he shares, but worked for his dad doing telephone installation until he found the health food industry about six years ago. He was interested in how progressive and unique the field of supplements and the organic market is — which, in my biased opinion, is very much a reflection of Austin’s persona.
The song “In Des Moines,” is in the process of recording, and is the result of Barnhill’s meditations while walking through this little big city. “Everything is material,” he tells me. Why he included a lyric about Campbell’s is very personal to him. “Campbell’s has contributed to a sense of community – it’s Des Moines’ inside culture.” He tells me that Campbell’s Nutrition has helped him as a musician, providing both meaningful employment and community. He can promote his shows, network with other musicians. He tells me that the current record label he is working with is due to a connection with former employee Matt Dake, an audiophile who stationed the same registers as Austin. Campbell’s has a long history of musical and artistic staff members. A place this unique – it takes a special sort of crowd to fill the heart of this Des Moines institution.
Barnhill notes that Campbell’s is from another time, 1937, he says. “It’s been here since World War II. Disney was coming out with films- it was a booming time.” There’s a nostalgia for that period, Austin once told me a story of his grandfather’s army tent that was decades old, but still waterproof, heavy, and impenetrable. Campbell’s was established in that same time of change, of innovation, modernity. Health food was a new concept, and today it is now more important than ever. The relationship we have with food, the land, the soil, the environment as a whole, is imperative to the health of people and planet. Every day new reports are coming out about the long-term effects of pesticides, insecticides, farm run offs, chemicals, water welfare – one only has to seek out a few internet searches to help understand the importance of organic farming, the benefit of the Non-GMO project and other organizations that third-party verify food and supplement matter. Campbell’s Nutrition takes all of this into account through the products and companies they back, through their donation programs, through accountability as a community center where people can come to get support for their health concerns, find the food and nourishment they need if they have food allergies or health challenges, and a hub where like-minded people can get together and talk food, or music, or voice concern about our environment while supporting a local, independently owned business that’s been open in Des Moines since 1937.
Austin’s band Origami Animals is opening for Hazer’s album release this Saturday, September 22nd at Wooly’s in downtown Des Moines. Doors open at 6pm and the show starts at 7pm. Tickets are available at the door or in advance.
Austin’s band Origami Animals can be heard on NPR 90.1 in Des Moines or on Band Camp.