A steady stream of customers greeted the Trader Joe's grocery store that opened today in Cambridge's Fresh Pond area. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A steady stream of customers greeted the Trader Joe's grocery store that opened today in Cambridge's Fresh Pond area. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The opening of Trader Joe’s in Fresh Pond — it closes at 9 p.m., in case you need a free balloon — packed the shared parking lot solid, with drivers circling to find spaces, and drew a steady stream of shoppers.

The 14,000-square-foot store takes over what was Kappy’s Liquors, part of wholesale change at the rotary that saw Newbury Comics move across the street to smaller quarters, CVS expand to ridiculous size and the Ground Round be replaced by several retail stores and a Chipotle. (When a Ground Round is demolished, your heart surges with hope; when it is replaced by a TD Bank, Sav-Mor Spirits, Sleepy’s, Chipotle and T-Mobile, your heart wonders what’s keeping the nail salon and check-cashing store. This line-up isn’t exactly aspirational, and let’s just say the city zoning people were in a generous mood, or perhaps nostalgic for Saugus, when it came to the stores’ signs. Whatever — the Trader Joe’s is the only new store here with an aura of cool about it.)

The Trader Joe’s chain, started in Southern California in 1958 and now up to 325 stores in 25 states, specializes in mostly healthy gourmet items bought straight from makers and sold cheaply under store names — for instance, Trader José’s salsas or Trader Giotto’s marinara sauces. While the company may mistake cute for irreverent, there’s no question the store is generally beloved. An opening generates excitement.

Whole Foods, the Texas chain with 270 stores in the United States and United Kingdom, generates ambivalence. The chains are not direct competitors in every way — Whole Foods has more brands at higher prices and specializes in prepared foods — but Fresh Pond is now set up that way, with a Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods staring at each other from across the Alewife Brook Parkway.

Visitors to Trader Joe’s tonight were largely already customers forced to go to the Arlington or Memorial Drive stores who now had one closer to home. While one pair was headed across to Whole Foods as soon as they checked out, some shoppers referred to Whole Foods as “Whole Paycheck.”

None said the politics of Whole Foods Chief Executive John Mackey — who famously drifted off  his liberal base of customers this summer in expressing skepticism about health insurance reform — had influenced a decision to shop at Trader Joe’s or not to shop at Whole Foods.

(A manager at Whole Foods said there had been no discernible drop in business after Mackey’s essay in an August issue of the Wall Street Journal, despite reports of a liberal boycott; one Trader Joe’s shopper tonight said she already knew she didn’t like Whole Foods and, in reference to Mackey’s comments, “It was depressing to have it confirmed.”)

The Fresh Pond Trader Joe’s is at 321 Alewife Brook Parkway.  The store is scheduled to be open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily and can be reached at (617) 498-3201.

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