One of an occasional series where we get to see what it’s like being behind the counter for a day…
Well it is still technically the Chinese New Year, and so we thought we’d have a chat with our Vietnamese/Chinese neighbours.
Kim Lien (who is Chinese but was born in Vietnam) is a sort of oriental Mrs. Shopkeeper. She works silly long hours, but patently enjoys every moment in her little retail universe. Her family all help her (you can see Mummy Lien and daughter Naomi in the picture there), but it is Kim who is tied to the till, the public face of the business. She has been many things – a factory boss, a restaurateur – but this is her first actual shop.
Your day starts… We open at 10.30, but I often have to start earlier, running around to collect supplies
What do you eat? We have no room to cook in the shop, so we subsist on instant noodles and food from the many local takeaways
Best bits of the job? It is a privilege to be able to interact with the local community, both Chinese and otherwise.
Worst bits of the job? We are a small-but-growing enterprise, and I have got to that frustrating stage where I need staff but cannot afford to pay anyone. So I have an increasing work load and am spending more and more hours in the shop.
Would you want your children to follow you into the trade? I’d be delighted if Naomi came to join me. She already helps out.
Your day ends? We shut at 7-ish, but often leave much later.
Back room secret? Stock, stock and more stock I am afraid. A lot of noodles.
Tell us a trick of the trade… Non-oriental people seem very nervous when they come in to the shop. You should talk to the shopkeeper more, ask for their help with ingredients. We like to help…
Gong Hey Fat Choy – or rather, Chuc Mung Nam Moi (in Vietnamese)! Happy Year of the Monkey!
How lovely to have a guest contributor. Karen Resta is one of Mrs.S.’ best-friends-that-she’s-never-met – yes, a Facebook friend. She’s a clever and sassy New Yorker most of the time (and a cracking writer – you can see more of her stuff here) – but she spent a good few years in a wee corner of West Virginia, and this reflects her time there…
NO MATTER HOW YOU’RE DRESSED
There’s always the guy who walks out of the tiny food store with the screened-in front and the peeling white paint the moment I walk in. He might be tall and lanky, or he might be short and skinny, but he’s never fat – the reason being that he works on a farm baling hay, fixing the vehicles that break, handling the cattle and the crops. Late fall, he’s got a crumpled brown paper bag of apples in his hand. Late summer, he’s got that same small crumpled brown bag of Scuppernong grapes, so sweet their aroma strikes you from ten feet away. But each time -every time – he’s also got a chunk of something glaring yellow and red in his other hand, wrapped tight in cheap shiny plastic wrap.
He’s always there, that guy, though he may not always be the exact same guy,but he looks right into my eyes, I mean right into my eyes, unashamedly, without hesitation or covertness of any sort whatsoever and he smiles the sweetest damn smile. His smile holds the beauty of a simplicity rarely seen outside these parts, outside places “like this”, like this place you now call home but that’s not really home. There’s no measurement, no conniving, no wondering, in that smile.
In that smile, I’m the girl sitting on the haystack, laughing as the colt skitters sideways from the cat jumping up out of the tall grass to surprise it. In that smile, his eyes say in a straightforward manner, without any twisting torturously around as if under a sharp pin: I’m a good man. His eyes say this without question for he knows he is, without question. The sun rises, the sun sets. The world is as it has been for some long time here and it won’t change too quick, no need to worry about this that or the other thing. Hay grows and is cut. Calving season arrives with reminders of life and death as some calves live, some die – some rise and grow, some falter, and each one is a small perfect thing of beauty, at least for that one shining moment. That smile of his says he’s a man who likes you as a woman, without question. It says,”I’ll cherish you.” And you know he would, for it shows in that smile, without question. He’d cherish you – and how often does that happen.
Inside the dusky store a piece of bright yellow and red hoop cheese waits to be cut with the heavy battered steel knife from the huge round as big around as your arms could stretch, sitting right there on the square wooden chopping block, the table draped with flowered felt-backed plastic tablecloth. Most people don’t leave without a piece of this cheese (if they’re smart) to quickly pull off its wrapper to devour it crumble by slightly oily, rich, biting, heavenly torn-off crumble right there in the car.
On the drive home it’s best to go up the other road, the straight one – not the wildly twisted one overlooking pastures and wide valleys stretching far as the eye can see I took to get here, the road that makes the car almost fall off the side of the mountain as it edges past any other approaching vehicle. There’s the painted sign that’s almost illegible (you’d have to know it was there to know it was there) for the Cashmere Coon Hunt Club, where guys meet Friday nights to drink beer, talking over the day sometime soon when they’ll head out with their dogs to hunt raccoons . . . sometime soon . . . then past more hills, more tiny square houses off in the distance, more cows, more murky green-edged ponds. It’s time to go home, which is not – really – here. It’s time to go back to a place of belonging more closely than here. I’ll savor those jagged bits of torn-off cheese chunks all the long drive home, till bit by bit the hypnotic, acidic, dense buttery haunting taste is done with but never forgotten. Home might just be where the heart is – and sometimes you can taste it – no matter how you’re dressed.
Eurgh! Bugs! Pests! Mice…or worse! Yup – even if you are part of the 5% of the population that is fascinated by our cities’ low-life and vermin, you will have to agree that they are not good for business. Any retail business in London (and most big, old cities) that claims not to need a pest control contract is, frankly, living in denial.
And before you ask: Mr. & Mrs. S. have not (now, or ever) got (or had) bugs, or pests, or mice. But you know that old thing about you never being more than 6 feet away from a rat when you live in London? And you know that (wonderful wonderful) film Joe’s Apartment? These little things all resonate with Mrs.S. Prevention is most definitely better than panic in this case, and whilst Master Shopcat has his moments, they rarely coincide with the moments that he is actually required to do anything. And so, yes, they have a bug blasting agent, a jolly giant of a man called Adrian (that’s him in the picture – give him a cheery wave) from a very nice family company called Beaver House. It took a while before Mr.S. could convince Mrs.S. not to call Adrian every time she saw a spider, but they have now been working together happily for over ten years.
Adrian is one of the more heroic of our cornershop heroes, as he has to deal with stuff that would send most of us scrambling for the nearest chair or at the very least squealing in horror. Somewhat disturbingly, most pest controllers seem to be infeasibly happy in their job, and Adrian is no exception. He will regale you with tales of horrific infestations elsewhere using the same tone that most people use to tell bedtime tales. He is also, somewhat worryingly, a keen cook. Best not to dwell on this fact too long.
Anyway – give that man a roach-shaped medal and a bug-winged cape.
One of an occasional series where we get to see what it’s like being behind the counter for a day…
A lot of people ask Mr. & Mrs. Shopkeeper where they buy their fish. And the answer is here, at K & A (although we can never remember if it is K & A or A & K). They are just beyond the railway bridge in Rye Lane.
Now there are lots of similar shops selling fish in Peckham. But we haven’t yet found one that knows their stuff like these chaps. They go to market themselves every morning, only sell stuff that is fresh and seasonal, and are not afraid to tell you what’s what in the fish world. They offer great advice, fillet stuff beautifully, and are unusually cheerful for men who spend their lives rummaging through ice and fish guts…
Anyway, we reckoned their work looks pretty hard, so we went along to ask Khayam, the governor, about his day…
Your day starts… at 5am on the days we go to Billingsgate. Otherwise, at 8am.
What do you eat? Quite often we make rice and qorma. Otherwise it’s one of the numerous takeaways on this stretch. There’s a great new Pakistani kebab place near the station.
Best bits of the job? Providing really good service and top quality fish for my customers. We’ve been operating for over 15 years now and we have a lovely, regular clientele.
Worst bits of the job? Some people think it’s the smell, but you get used to that. I’d have to say it’s the cold and the wet. The pain of a sharp wind as you shovel ice on a Winter morning is hard to describe. Ungrateful and rude customers are a source of distress too.
Would you want your children to follow you into the trade? My kids will do what they want to do, regardless of what I think. I doubt if it includes fish.
Your day ends? We shut at 7pm.
Back room secret? Our back room is mostly fridge I’m afraid. But we do have a robust heater and a kettle to help us get warm.
Tell us a trick of the trade… If you want good fish, always talk to your fishmonger. Ask his advice on what’s best that day, and on cooking it too.
No – we haven’t made this up. Of course shopkeepers have a patron saint. In fact there are legions of us across the world, and so we actually have two saints looking after us. Would you like to meet them? Of course you would.
The first saint dude is a chap called Expeditus – but you can call him Saint Expedite if you’re in a hurry (obscure pun intended). He was a relatively unknown figure in history – a 4th Century (AD) Armenian soldier in the Roman army who converted to Christianity and was martyred by the Emperor Diocletian (on April 19th, which is now his saints day). On the eve of his conversion, medieval urban legend has him decrying the words of a crow, ‘Cras!’ (Tomorrow!) by squashing said bird underfoot (bit squishy we imagine) and retorting, “Hodie!” (Today!) – hence his popular depiction to the right.
A lot of fun was had in the 18th and 19th centuries over a wonderful misunderstanding: when the Catholic church took to dispatching relics to different and august institutions, various religious organisations received parcels marked ‘EXPEDITE’ (as in the French and general European term for ‘SEND QUICKLY’) and got themselves all excited thinking they’d gotten themselves some actual saint bones. Scepticism as to the merits of his sanctity ran so high that in the early 20th century there was a minor papal conspiracy to get him de-listed as a saint dude – but this only served to increase his popularity with the masses, and he has more or less cult status these days as he’s regarded as the lord of the fast buck. Many impoverished or gambling peeps (especially in South America for some reason) set up a shrine of sorts to him, offering a glass of water, some fresh flowers, a slice of pound cake (surely a pun) and a red candle. Who do? Voo doo. Right on.
Anyway, we will give him the benefit of the doubt. And some pound cake. Especially if it turns out that he looked more like this image than the traditional portrayal above (shh – don’t tell Mr. Shopkeeper).
The second cornershopkeeping saint is San Martin Caballero, another 4th century soldier boy who converted to the Early Church. This chap didn’t get into too much trouble however, and ended up as Bishop of Tours. A charming tale recounts how he passed a ragged beggar in the road one day. As the weather was a bit chilly, the soon-to-be-holy one cut his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar to keep warm: St. Martin is thus seen as the passing stranger who gives hope to those in need.
How does he end up as a shopkeeping hero? Well… every random passer-by has the potential to become a customer, help the shopkeeper in need (aka bored shopkeeper doing sudoku behind the counter) and boost their livelihood.
St. Martin’s saints day is November 11th.
So here’s the thing: shouldn’t we move to get April 19th and November 11th set up as shopkeepers’ holidays? Surely, if the banks can have hols, so can we. Furthermore (thinking aloud here: walk with us), if we’re a nation of shopkeepers, shouldn’t we have an annual yippee-kay-yay shopkeeping festival on one of those days? You know this makes sense. We’ll get a petition together….
Mrs. Shopkeeper has been hugely busy with stuff, and so this has been just the most neglected blog in the last few months. But that will all change as of January 1st. Well, realistically, January 3rd or 4th.
Anyway – thank you for your continued interest. And in the meantime we offer you this timely reminder of why you should keep it local: OXFORD STREET IN THE RUN UP TO CHRISTMAS!!! Need we say more…
Image by KnownColour, sourced under the Flickr Commercial Commons Licence.
Go on. Admit it. Wouldn’t you just love this shop to be on your corner? Festival of fun? Giggles galore? Near Miracles? That’s our kind of corner shop – notwithstanding the fact that all cornershops possess at least a teensy bit of magic anyway. Maybe it’s just us, but shops which are on a hill as well as on a corner deserve extra respect – one naturally assumes the shopkeepers have one leg shorter than the other…
Photo by littleweed1950 via our all-singing, all dancing Flickr stream.
More music to lessen the pain of Thursdays. Because as every shopkeeper knows, Thursday is delivery day. Put-lots-of-stuff-away-day. Frankly we could have chosen anything by the Safri Duo: it’s all full of joie de vivre, and the strong bongo beat guarantees those boxes will be empty in no time. The only hitch with this is that Mrs. Shopkeeper keeps stopping her work to play very bad air drum. Ho hum.
Now this is a real shopkeeper’s shop. Selling shop fittings, and racks, and price guns, and shelving, and nasty day-glow posters. Whilst the rest of the world dreams of mobile phone shops, or shoe shops, or boutiques, shopkeepers dream of secret grottos like this. Well they do not – let’s be quite clear about this – actually dream of naked mannequins, even ‘really cheap’ ones. But the idea of finding the perfect unit for displaying this or that, or a high tech way of down-marking prices, or a super-compact counter-top dispenser… these little nuggets of excitement get us through the day.
Image by Andy Worthington via the Cornershopkeeping Flickr pool.
It stands to reason that some people are better at cornershopkeeping than others, just as some people are better at maths or extreme ironing than the rest of us. There are lots of qualities a shopkeeper needs: patience, tenacity, optimism, artistic flair, a good grasp of times tables, a love of creating order out of chaos, self-sufficiency, an ability to make a really good cup of tea. Oh – and patience. Did we mention patience? Mr. and Mrs. Shopkeeper are Aries and Leo respectively (was that a sharp intake of breath we heard?), neither of which are known for the trait of patience. It got us thinking what zodiac signs would make the very best of shopkeepers. So we offer this: not perhaps as a serious career guide, but who knows? People have changed direction for more frivolous reasons than this before now.
ARIES: Hmm. These guys reckon they rule the roost. Full of dynamism and big ideas, they are one of the most enterprising signs of the zodiac. Which should bode well for running a small business, yes? Um, well, they’re very good at opening new shops, and putting systems into place, and telling staff what to do. And then they get bored. So really they need to be the boss. Preferably of more than one shop, so that they can rove around not-being-bored. Or at the very least they need a small shop with different departments. They totally need minions (aka shopbots) to carry out all their aspirations. Aries are easy to spot as they always carry pockets full of shiny-new shop-related gizmos.
TAURUS: the stubborn ones. Taureans make great shop employees: they are loyal and dependable. They probably make great bosses in other sectors, but in the realm of retail, they prefer the safety of a set framework. That most variable of quantities, the customer, will phase and annoy them if they feel that they have autonomy at the till. Taureans like order and routine. They like tills to be balanced, and things to be priced, and a peg for their coats, and a time for tea. They would be happiest in a bookshop, or a haberdashery or hardware store, where the quality of goods is pre-determined and arguments are relatively few.
GEMINI: The chatterboxes of the zodiac. This in theory makes for a good till-bot, until you realise that said bot has been gassing for half an hour and there are still three deliveries to be put away. But seriously: Geminis make awesome cornershopkeepers. They are great at multi-tasking, and thinking on their feet, and their butterfly minds render them totally up for the chaotic parameters within which a general store invariably functions. The erratic demands and even more erratic hours of a quirky cornershop suit them perfectly. Geminis never wear sensible shop clothes.
CANCER: Soppy and creative Cancer is always going to be better running something arty-farty or working with children. A toyshop, antiques market or gallery would provide the perfect environment for them to flourish: a canvas to play with, an auditorium in which to perform. At the same time these outlets also enjoy relatively regular hours, allowing these home-loving sorts to scarper off at 5.30 sharp. Cancerian shopkeepers always wear nice cardigans: it is the law.
LEO: Ah yes. Leo. King of the High Street. Incorrigibly enthusiastic, hopelessly optimistic, and generous to a fault…as long as you are playing the game (any game) by his rules. Leo needs to be in charge, or at least to be allowed to live under the illusion that he is in charge. And he needs more or less constant attention, like a spoilt child (or shopcat). With this framework in which to work, he will, in return, give you the world. Leo’s love of melodrama and need for an audience means that he is best suited to running a cafe or restaurant – a theatrical and rewarding environment. If you need to ‘sack’ a Leo, just ignore him for a little while and he’ll whimper and leave of his own accord. Leo is quite messy and easy to spot owing to the bits of price label and box tape stuck in his hair.
VIRGO: Pernickety Virgo fits in real well in the world of retail – as long as you shove him in a shop that suits his unusually methodical talents. A dressmakers or a print shop or a jewellers would be ideal – they are all professions requiring attention to detail, stuff that is easy to track and quantify. Their tendency to hypochondria means that they should not under any circumstances be allowed to work in a chemist. It is a well known fact that all Virgo shopkeepers wear cut off shop-gloves and talk to themselves as they cash up every night. Their books, annoyingly, will always balance.
LIBRA: Gentle Librans are too much of a softy to run a hardcore corner shop. They are too nice – or at least to worried about offending people – and in the Libran universe the old (and usually incorrect) maxim of the customer always being right is recited almost as a mantra. All is not lost for their high street career however, as they make great florists and (if they can get over the unpredictability of animals) pet-shop-keepers. Librans are creative types and have an almost worrying affinity with pretty things, so let’s surround them with flowers and kittens. Libran shopkeepers always dress up dead natty, even when they are putting out the rubbish or washing the shop windows: this can infuriate other retailers.
SCORPIO: Inscrutable Scorpio is the most ambitious of all the Zodiac. He is also a bit of a loner, and for that reason would be great in a kiosk or market stall: self-employed, without need for staff, and in control of his own destiny. Such is his determination that he will probably turn his market barrow into a PLC within 5 years. Other shopkeepers are always in awe of the Scorpio derring-do. Scorpians are also attracted to the mysterious and the occult, and are the most likely to be found running that strange crystal shop at the end of the parade…
SAGITTARIUS: Restless and garrulous Saggitarius is more likely to be a travelling salesman than a stationary one, for he loves to rove around. If he is represented on the High Street, you’ll find him either selling cars (at which he would probably be terrifyingly able), or running the local bookies (for he’s a wee bit of a reckless devil to be sure). His customers will hang on his every word: he could surely sell owls to Athens, but he is a scrupulously honest trader. He’s a kind of sanitised Del Boy, if you like. Scorpio shopkeepers are recognisable by their jolly (often mismatched) outfits and jovial smiles.
CAPRICORN: These quiet types are often the cleverest. Practical and patient Capricorn is just brill with IT and general geekery. Put him in a record shop, or better still in a computer outlet, and he’ll be as happy as a sandboy. His careful attention to detail, refusal to take risks and appreciation of a safe and secure environment mean that he certainly shouldn’t be working with food, art, children or animals. Capricorn shopkeepers always wear corduroys, and possess an unexpectedly whacky range of knitwear. It is your duty as a shopper to try to make them smile and distract them from their lives of dedicated service for a brief moment.
AQUARIUS: Quirky and ethereal Aquarius would be rubbish at anything as mundane as shelf-stacking, but they can make good shopkeepers if you give them the right commodity. They would make perfect antique or junk merchants: their perspicacity and intuition give them an eye for a bargain, whilst their lack of emotional attachment means that they would sell their grannies if the going rate was good enough. Aquarius is a good listener and rational too: he often finds himself with hordes of troubled sorts propping up the counter, and is also most likely to assume the role of High Street President in times of need. Aquarian shopkeepers keep an immaculate shop without apparently ever lifting a finger.
PISCES: these gentle souls shy away from the till and too much responsibility, but their creativity can be put to great use in a retail environment, particularly in the line of food. They would not survive in a busy commercial kitchen, but give them a deli counter to play with and they will blossom. Communication through food (or art or music) is a perfect medium for them. Mere mortal shopkeepers can only look on as the Piscean effortlessly makes displays look attractive, and customers warm to their subtle but appealing demeanour. Pisceans float around the shop and materialise magically at your elbow: they are not entirely real and you should always hug them to make sure.
Image by djg0333 via Flickr.