It’s all Robert Browning’s fault. He wrote the poem below, which is a wonderful peaen to the British shopkeeper. And as he went to a school not so very far from our here, it pleases me to think that he could perhaps have been writing about our own shop window. His verses got me thinking that there is indeed more to most shops than meets the eye. Corner shops are positively echoing with all the tales of their customers, past, present and future. Behind every exchange and transaction lies a story, real or in the making.
I have reproduced the poem in full, as I cannot think of a more fitting first post.
So, friend, your shop was all your house!
Its front, astonishing the street,
Invited view from man and mouse
To what diversity of treat
Behind its glass–the single sheet!
What gimcracks, genuine Japanese:
Gape-jaw and goggle-eye, the frog;
Dragons, owls, monkeys, beetles, geese;
Some crush-nosed human-hearted dog:
Queer names, too, such a catalogue!
I thought, “And he who owns the wealth
Which blocks the window’s vastitude,
–Ah, could I peep at him by stealth
Behind his ware, pass shop, intrude
On house itself, what scenes were viewed!
“If wide and showy thus the shop,
What must the habitation prove?
The true house with no name a-top–
The mansion, distant one remove,
Once get him off his traffic-groove!
“Pictures he likes, or books perhaps;
And as for buying most and best,
Commend me to these City chaps!
Or else he’s social, takes his rest
On Sundays, with a lord for guest.
“Some suburb-palace, parked about
And gated grandly, built last year;
The four-mile walk to keep off gout;
Or big seat sold by bankrupt peer–
But then he takes the rail, that’s clear.
“Or, stop! I wager, taste selects
Some out o’ the way, some all-unknown
Retreat; the neighborhood suspects
Little that he who rambles lone
Makes Rothschild tremble on his throne!”
Nowise! Nor Mayfair residence
Fit to receive and entertain–
Nor Hampstead villa’s kind defense
From noise and crowd, from dust and drain–
Nor country-box was soul’s domain!
Nowise! At back of all that spread
Of merchandise, woe’s me, I find
A hole i’ the wall where, heels by head,
The owner couched, his ware behind
–In cupboard suited to his mind.
For why? He saw no use of life
But, while he drove a roaring trade,
To chuckle, “Customers are rife!”
To chafe, “So much hard cash outlaid
Yet zero in my profits made!
“This novelty costs pains, but–takes?
Cumbers my counter! Stock no more!
This article, no such great shakes,
Fizzes like wildfire? Underscore
The cheap thing–thousands to the fore!”
‘Twas lodging best to live most nigh
(Cramp, coffinlike as crib might be)
Receipt of Custom; ear and eye
Wanted no outworld: “Hear and see
The bustle in the shop!” quoth he
My fancy of a merchant-prince
Was different. Through his wares we groped
Our darkling way to–not to mince
The matter–no black den where moped
The master if we interloped!
Shop was shop only: household-stuff?
What did he want with comforts there?
“Walls, ceiling, floor, stay blank and rough,
So goods on sale show rich and rare!
‘_Sell and scud home_’ be shop’s affair!”
What might he deal in? Gems, suppose!
Since somehow business must be done
At cost of trouble–see, he throws
You choice of jewels, everyone,
Good, better, best, star, moon, and sun!
Which lies within your power of purse?
This ruby that would tip aright
Solomon’s scepter? Oh, your nurse
Wants simply coral, the delight
Of teething baby–stuff to bite!
Howe’er your choice fell, straight you took
Your purchase, prompt your money rang
On counter–scarce the man forsook
His study of the “Times,” just swang
Till-ward his hand that stopped the clang–
Then off made buyer with a prize,
Then seller to his “Times” returned;
And so did day wear, wear, till eyes
Brightened apace, for rest was earned;
He locked door long ere candle burned.
And whither went he? Ask himself,
Not me! To change of scene, I think.
Once sold the ware and pursed the pelf,
Chaffer was scarce his meat and drink,
Nor all his music–money-chink.
Because a man has shop to mind
In time and place, since flesh must live,
Needs spirit lack all life behind,
All stray thoughts, fancies fugitive,
All loves except what trade can give?
I want to know a butcher paints,
A baker rhymes for his pursuit,
Candlestick-maker much acquaints
His soul with song, or, haply mute,
Blows out his brains upon the flute!
But–shop each day and all day long!
Friend, your good angel slept, your star
Suffered eclipse, fate did you wrong!
From where these sorts of treasures are,
There should our hearts be–Christ, how far!