I don’t think this country is any different from anywhere else in terms of the availability of small convenience shops, the ‘7-11’s, signifying their opening hours from 7am to 11pm. We have some 46 thousand of them, accounting for turnover of about £40billion, about one-fifth of all grocery sales. Such is their popularity we even had a British TV sitcom called ‘Open All Hours’ which was broadcast for 12 years, from 1973 to 1985. The owner, Arkwright, played by Ronnie Barker, was a middle-aged miser with a stammer and a knack for selling. David Jason played his nephew Granville, the put-upon errand boy, who blamed his work schedule for his lacklustre social life. The setting was a small grocer’s shop in Balby, a suburb of Doncaster in South Yorkshire.
I thought for this PC I could trawl through a few memories of the ubiquitous ‘corner shop’. You may have read my postcard about going to visit the house my parents had owned in Balcombe, 18 miles north of Brighton from 1956-1989 (PC 58 Going Home)? The house lay on the edge of the village, down Mill Lane. At the top of the lane was Mrs Malthouse’s corner shop; it was actually on the corner so deserves the moniker!!
To a teenager Mrs Malthouse was old but in all probability under 60! She sold fruit and vegetables, both openly displayed in wooded slated crates, dry earth from potatoes dusting the floor beneath, confectionery of every sort, the staples like white bread, full fat milk and eggs, newspapers and magazines and of course cigarettes and alcohol. Additionally there was a chest freezer containing, among the frozen peas and fish fingers, ice creams. But like everyone who runs a convenience store, the real gem that had no price was the gossip. A simple “Morning Mrs Malthouse. How are you?” pressed the imaginary start button to the flow of gentle local news items.
On operation in Londonderry in Northern Ireland, we had our own ‘convenience store’ within the regimental compound – see PC 196. Incongruously, between the Nissen huts that were used for accommodation was a caravan that sold everything you needed; they were run by a chap of Pakistani or Indian descent known as a Chogie Wallah.
Moving to south London in 1987, around the corner from my flat in Cavendish Road, SW12 was the glorious little ‘village’, Abbeville Road (note 1). Whilst the ‘convenience store’ was only some 150m away, further down was Treohans. This was a real emporium that sold everything you might want, right then ……. and if they didn’t have some food ingredient you needed for a particular recipe, they always promised to get it the next day. Three generations of a Pakistani family ran it, and ran it very well, although the patriarch did little more than sit on a stool, leaning on his stick, and let his sons and daughters and their children do the running around. (Note 2)
Moving across Clapham Common to a house just off Northcote Road gave me access to another convenience store, this one run by Raj. Daily chit-chat was amusing, repetitive and often of a sparing nature – but I will remember him particularly for his advice on where to go for a good curry. “Don’t bother with these fancy expensive places on Northcote Road; go to Mirch Masala on Upper Tooting Road.” And he was right – Formica tables and little atmosphere but great food and cheap!!
Down here in Hove there are less Indians and Pakistanis, more Syrians or Ethiopians or Turks running the convenience stores. Sam, a Coptic Christian originally from Ethiopia, ran the nearest store when we first moved here. Now he drives a taxi and is proud of his university-educated children. Fattey, the current owner, does both, that is runs the shop and drives a taxi but he’s opened later during lockdown and I now go to Rami’s.
The other morning I was in Rami’s collecting my daily copy of The Times when a grey-faced, grey-clothed thin woman dashed in. “Oi!” she shouted with a throaty voice that gave one a clue as to her addiction, “Have you got any B&H? (Benson & Hedges cigarettes). Rami had a quick look behind the cover of the cigarette cabinet (Note 3) and replied: “Sorry, sadly we have run out but we’ve got …..” and the woman legged it, muttering ‘f**k f**k f**k’!! Must have been desperate?
We have all got accustomed to being able to access any sort of video clip, mainly through YouTube. A recent video clip from a convenience shop of a woman who had some issues – about entitlement, about not wanting to wear a mask, about the price of alcohol, about a complete lack of respect for the shopkeeper, suffering the effects of lockdown and anything else that might have explained her behaviour, went viral.
In this still from a grainy in-store CCTV recording, you can just make out the red sweater and blue trousers of the woman on the right hand side, using her hands to sweep bottles of alcohol from the shelf – you can see the red wine lake on the floor!!
I was in Rami’s when Jim came up to the counter (he could have been Andy, Pete or Simon for all I knew). He’d bought a few things, sliced white bread, some margarine, a packet of sugar and a couple of bottles of spirits, and emptied a bag of loose coins that he must have raided from his coffee jar and said that’s £10 and you had better check it and here’s my card for the rest! I was surprised that he expected Rami to count it, or trust him; there must have been two hundred coins, shrapnel in some language, and Jim had made no effort to bag it! I didn’t want to appear nosy and simply glanced at Rami; he gave me a look and above his head I imagined a speech bubble: “geri zekali” – which I translated from his Turkish to be ‘retarded?’!
All of the above are simple superficial observations. Dig a little deeper and you open the floodgates to supermarket competition, squeezed margins, very long hours for little reward and stuck with 25 year leases with no opt-out clauses. I have a genuine affection for these little shopkeepers, for without them the high street would be a dull place.
Richard 19th February 2021
PS Francisquinha should have been in rehab this week (see PC 217) but instead decided to start a vigil outside the King Edward VII hospital in London where the 99 year old Duke of Edinburgh is ‘under observation’.
Note 1. The local streets must have been named by someone French – Abbeville Road, Bonneville Gardens, Narbonne Avenue, Deauville Court, Trouville Road!!
Note 2. Treohan is an Irish name but you find thousands of English, Scottish and Irish names woven into the EuroAsian fabric of both India and Pakistan. For example Alistair McGowan, the UK impressionist and comedian, thought he had Scottish or Irish roots, but researchers for the BBC Programme ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ found his roots in India …… and in one village over fifteen families with the surname McGowan.
Note 3. From April 2012 all cigarettes for sale must be hidden from view, in an effort to discourage under-age smoking.