This article is part of The Diamondback’s 2021 Senior Edition. Click here for the rest.

It’s the first day of 2021 that feels like spring, and a group of freshmen are clustered around the picnic table outside the Commons Shop at the University of Maryland. 

One girl, dressed almost entirely in powder blue, is wearing a pair of her mother’s old capris. She’s eaten half of a strawberry popsicle. A boy is sporting the Maryland state flag on his mask. Around them, cherry blossom petals whisk the air, filling it with sweetness. 

Four years ago, I was on the other side of this vignette: candy or chips in hand, a group of people I didn’t yet know standing around me.

And yet, inexplicably, one constant has remained with me: the Commons Shop. I’ve lived near the shop for four years, and it feels as close to home as a convenience store can. It’s located down the stairs next to the South Campus Dining Hall. Inside, a menagerie of items, both trivial and essential, awaits.

I’m biased, but I’ve always thought a particular warmth infuses the shop — the kind specific to late-night establishments.

And I’m not the only one who feels sentimental.

For Halle Parigian, who graduated in December as an English major, the shop was more than a convenience — it was a ritual. During her sophomore year, Parigian lived in Prince Frederick Hall, minutes away from the quaint shop. After her class ended at 4:45 p.m., Parigian and about seven friends would meet at the dining hall, sometimes for as long as three hours. Afterward, they’d hit the Commons Shop. 

“We’d always do the same route, we’d start at the beginning, go all the way to the back, to the frozen, vegan food,” Parigian said. “And then we’d loop back around, acting as if we didn’t know what we were gonna get.”

This is what they got: a bag of salt and vinegar chips or the occasional spicy pickle for Parigian, and vegan chicken nuggets for her roommate. They spent so much time in the shop that Parigian felt the people at the counter recognized her.

Earlier this month, I caught Taylor Gallihue, a senior sociology and women’s studies major, on her way out of the shop. She’d just bought popcorn and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in anticipation of a movie night. Her usual, she said, was a caffeine-free mango iced tea.

When Gallihue lived in Anne Arundel Hall, she would frequent the shop after dinner or late at night. That’s when she and her friends discovered the iced tea.

“Now it’s like a meme, we kind of drink it all the time,” Gallihue said. 

And it’s not just people who are graduating or graduated who hold the shop in high regard.

Celia Cook is a junior English and psychology major living in Queen Anne’s Hall this year. A self-identified picky eater, Cook said trips to the dining hall have become stressful. But at the Commons Shop, Cook’s stresses melt away. She likes the sparkling apple juice at the back of the store.

For Cook, the Commons Shop is a spot for comfort — and, sometimes, romance. 

Last November, right before Thanksgiving, Cook met another student on Tinder, and asked if he wanted to go on a walk. He agreed. They met up on a chilly evening and did a “Tour de France” of campus. As the date stretched past midnight, neither Cook nor her date quite felt like ending it. So Cook suggested they stop at the shop for some hot chocolate. They ended up getting Pop-Tarts instead. 

The shop also has food for heartbreak. During Cook’s sophomore year, she and her then-boyfriend broke up at the North Campus Dining Hall. After, they took a somber walk and officially split ways at McKeldin Library. Cook continued alone and found herself back at the Commons Shop. There, she purchased “as much ice cream as possible,” continued to a friend’s place and “dissolved into tears.”

As a close observer of the Commons Shop’s fare, I’ve often wondered at the logic behind which items stay and which items go. The shop has a wide variety of both ordinary and esoteric products. In the past year, the selection of ramen and flavored Pocky has exploded.

Clarence Patterson, the general manager of convenience shops on the campus, said the items in the stores are chosen intentionally — and there are, indeed, more variations of ramen than in years past. The old flavors, Patterson said, felt “tired.” He wanted to branch out — and he encourages the people who work at the shops to get creative with the products they choose.

As for his personal preferences, Patterson’s a fan of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. 

The Commons Shop is, as my friend and fellow senior history major, Oscar Saywell, puts it, “an oasis.” When Saywell was a junior, he switched from a full meal plan to a subsidized one. With fewer opportunities to go to the dining hall, Saywell refocused his energy on the shop around the corner. 

“I would just frequent it when I was snacky at night… Pringles, something like that. And it fills a hole, you know?” Saywell said. He soon became “obsessed.”

But it’s not just the brief dopamine hit generated by specialty items at the Commons Shop that does the job — for students, it’s mostly about who they’re with. On late nights, the people are the most compelling part: the employees, huddled in conversation or solitude behind the counter; the groups of students clustered around snack kiosks, whispering and wasting time until their responsibilities call them back home.

“Whether it’s hanging out at the dining hall or going to the Commons Shop,” Parigian said, “all of that is centered around the friends that I have.”