I was thinking about how the way we shop has changed—it’s not just the High Street and the supermarkets any more, these days we have shopping malls in big cities and large out of town retail parks, yet when I was a little girl there were far more small businesses around. Where I lived there was a shop which would be considered as a ‘corner shop’. Now a corner shop wouldn’t necessarily be on the corner, this one certainly wasn’t, though it was near the end of the street. It was the sort of shop that opened early in the morning to take advantage of passing trade on the main road and to receive deliveries. I think it opened about 6 a.m.
What I loved about this shop which was run by an elderly couple, was that it sold everything. It was Mr and Mrs Morgan’s front room really. The Morgans inhabited the rest of the property and were alerted to the fact that someone had entered the shop by a little overhead bell that jangled when the shop door was opened. In their passage way I remember bundles of stick for sale, many of us, including my family still had coal fires back then, so it was useful as kindling.
Another thing the Morgans did which you wouldn’t see much of today was to put items on ‘tick’. My grandmother had a little blue book which grocery purchases were listed on then settled up at the end of the week. I used to think as a child that the little blue book was amazing. You could get anything you wanted and all for free—or so I thought in my childish mind. One day, I went into the shop with one of my friends. We asked to buy a little blue book, then ordered all sorts of sweets and chocolate. Mrs Morgan kept sweets in glass jars and there were all sorts: bon bons, nutty clusters, shrimps, imperial mints etc. I also remember ordering a dummy! Our sheepdog, Jess, had just given birth to a litter of adorable puppies, but one wasn’t feeding so well. This was a dorma dummy, which meant it could be opened to put a little drop of milk inside. It might have been a good idea but that poor little puppy died anyhow, he just couldn’t feed like the others. I suppose he might have been what was known as the runt to the litter, too weak to compete with his brothers and sisters for food.
Anyhow, to get back to the story, Mrs Morgan looked at me quizzically, arching a silver brow as she filled paper bags with various sweets with a silver scoop, got several bars of my favourite chocolate from the shelves, and I finally ordered some frozen Tip Tops from a small freezer she had in the corner of the room.
“And you can put all that on the blue book like you do for my grandmother, Mrs Morgan!” I announced proudly, self-satisfied with myself for being so forward thinking.
She shook her head sadly and let out a deep sigh. Then returned the sweets to their respective glass jars, the chocolate bars to the shelves and the Tip Tops to the freezer. “You have to be an adult to have one of those books!” she said, then turned her back on us as we scuttled out of the shop.
Although we weren’t living in the actual town but on a busy main road just out of the town itself, there were several shops around in those days. There was ‘Nana the Meat shop’…in Wales we often used to refer to shops or services by the name of the person: I also knew of Reggie the Butcher and Miriam the Post Office. Nana was a little lady, who I would say was probably only about 4ft 10 inches tall, maybe even smaller. She seemed very old and wizened to me and she was the most wrinkled person I’d ever seen in my life! I think she only had one tooth in her head, well that’s what it looked like to me. She operated some sort of butcher shop out of her front room. How that worked I don’t know, but people shopped there. I remember a large white tiled slab and the smell of the blood. How a little old woman could hack away at a hunk of meat with a cleaver, I’ll never know, but she did it well.
I also remember several other ‘corner shops’ in the area along with a hair dresser and grocery shop with a large slicing machine on the counter. Those sort of larger grocery shops often had chairs for customers to sit down and people would stand around chatting endlessly about their bunions or some exciting piece of gossip. A hub of the community.
There were two small post offices in the area. These days I have to travel into town itself to find a post office. Those post offices were again a hub of the community, where people chatted to their neighbours whilst waiting to rise their pensions or to pick up their family allowances, cash a post order or pick up a stamp to post a birthday card.
Sadly, those days seem to be dwindling away. If I stand in line now at my main post office in the town, I tend not to know that many people, if any at all–they’re strangers. An automated voice in both Welsh and English calls me to a numbered counter and I’m out of there in a flash. No standing around chatting to find out how Mrs Morris’s husband from number 22 is doing since his big operation. No friendly banter, unless on the very rare occasion, I spot someone I know, but even then as we are in an organised queue, that person might be several inline behind me and by the time I’m dealt with, they’re busy at the counter themselves, so I don’t hang around, I leave and miss chatting to them altogether.
The way we live life these days seems to be breaking down communities. Even the shops on the High Street can be empty when there are more people shopping at the out of town retail parks that are springing up all around the country.
Sometimes I yearn for the days when we had the smaller shops, though many would argue we have more choice these days. Though at what cost?