BBC – Culture – A cultural history of the beloved corner shop

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“I come from a hidden world: I am the daughter of shopkeepers… My childhood story is about more than just transactions involving pints of milk and packets of cigarettes; it’s integral to the story of Britain itself.” – Babita Sharma, The Corner Shop

When so much suddenly changes about everyday life, we’re still innately drawn to whatever seems most familiar. One of the countless effects of the global Coronavirus pandemic is that the whole world now somehow feels hyper-localised; in contrast with the panic-buying storm that has consumed big supermarkets (certainly in the US and the UK), a simple and steady landmark re-emerges: the comfortingly handy corner shop, aka the ‘mom and pop store’.

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Most of us have grown up around these family-run shops, happily frittering pocket money on sweets, or popping in for an impromptu ingredient; many of us have worked in one – I did, between the ages of 16 and 18, at one of the corner stores dotted around the London neighbourhood where I still live. My boss Mr J was both sweet-natured and no-nonsense; he’d left Pakistan as a teen, and worked in the Gulf states before arriving in Britain, building his local business from the 1980s, and raising his family. His corner shop opened 365 days a year, early until very late at night. During my shifts there, I got to know countless customers, their personal characters and quirks; it was an undeniable melting pot in a modern suburb that otherwise rarely paused to chat.

The corner shop is also a cornerstone of pop culture. Over the years, this cosy setting has been portrayed in numerous soap operas, sitcoms and movies, as a social hub and often a spot for gossip. Arguably the most famous British example is the classic BBC sitcom Open All Hours, which ran for four series between 1976 and 1985, featuring the late Ronnie Barker as stammering, tight-fisted shopkeeper Albert Arkwright, and David Jason as his hapless nephew/assistant Granville (Jason recently reprised this role in Still Open All Hours). The show remains incredibly resonant, not only through its fruity comedy and slapstick scenes (Arkwright: “I hate that scrunching sound errand boys make when you have to stand on them”), but also through its unmistakeable poignance; each episode would satisfyingly conclude with Arkwright’s twilight monologue, as he shut up shop.

This is a place where the everyday and the extraordinary converge

Britain’s tiny island has often been branded ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ – it’s a phrase that was once believed to be a Napoleonic insult, though it was positively declared by Scottish economist/philosopher Adam Smith, in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations. The staple British corner shop as we know it dates back to Victorian times; much would also be made of so-called ‘Iron Lady’ UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s background as a grocer’s daughter: the corner shop represented humble yet sturdy trade. Our sense of quaint pride in its identity and evolution (from formal counter-service to grab-and-go purchases) was recently portrayed in a BBC reality documentary, Back in Time for the Corner Shop, where a real-life Sheffield family lived and worked as local shop retailers, in ‘eras’ spanning the late 19th Century to the 1990s.

While there are obviously national/regional variations in set-up, the corner shop surely serves a universal, relatable need, as US writer Robert Spector notes in his book The Mom & Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of The American Economy Are Surviving and Thriving. Spector’s take is contemporary rather than nostalgic, although in a 2010 interview with marketplace.org, he points out that the qualities associated with a corner shop (and its independent keepers) are enduring: “When you’re an entrepreneur, all you have is your good name,” says Spector. “Therefore, you have to be an honest, honourable person in order to survive. Very simple stuff, but very important stuff.”

Mom and pop culture

That solid reliability, along with the idiosyncratic layout of a corner shop (piled high with necessities, from tinned goods to greetings cards and hosiery), is used to dramatic effect in pop culture; this is a place where the everyday and the extraordinary converge. One stand-out scene is in Brit ’zom-rom-com’ Shaun of the Dead (2004), where the film’s titular hero (Simon Pegg) blearily pops to the local shop for a can of cola and an ice-cream, oblivious to the bloody handprints on the shop fridge, or the lurching undead on the street outside; for a few minutes, we are absorbed in the familiarity: scanning the available drinks, listening to the Hindi pop song on the shop radio, leaving change at the strangely empty counter (Shaun assumes that the local shopkeeper will understand if he’s a few pennies short). A small town shop (strictly speaking, the Federal Foods Supermarket) is also where Stephen King’s 1980 horror novella The Mist unfolds in a typically gruesome way. In a comparatively light-hearted farce, Brit film Convenience (2013) has two would-be store robbers forced to work the night shift instead of completing their heist, while Corner Shop: Thank You, Come Again (2019) involves siblings in a comedy feud. In Spike Lee classics, such as Do The Right Thing (1989), Brooklyn’s bodegas are at the heart of the drama on the streets.

 

The corner shop, or mom and pop store, reflects the fabric of our nations through their abundant diversity, and the vital role that immigrant shopkeepers have played. TV newsreader Babita Sharma’s book The Corner Shop is one evocative real-life account, of her own British Asian family running (and living above) a Reading shop. Another commentator who springs to mind is Scottish comedian/broadcaster Amna Saleem (@AGlasgowGirl on Twitter), who has had to put her first TV show commission on temporary hold, while she helps her younger brother run their family corner shop (their parents have been stranded abroad during the pandemic, though they’re doing well).

The things you see behind the cash register encompass the whole human spectrum, from absolute generosity to plain greed – Amna Saleem

“The things you see behind the cash register encompass the whole human spectrum, from absolute generosity to plain greed,” Saleem tells me, over the phone. “That contrast becomes particularly highlighted at such a strange time… I cannot say that I ever thought that my family business would ever be considered a vital service. Local shopkeepers could be forgiven for closing up and going home, but morally, we can’t. We know our shop serves a community that includes many vulnerable and elderly people, who were isolated even before the pandemic happened. I do want people to understand when they’re shouting at shopkeepers, that inflation isn’t their fault; they’re dealing with suppliers who are putting prices up.”

Saleem points out the innate adaptability of the corner shop; when the pandemic began, her family immediately organised supplies to local charities, and simple provisions for NHS staff. Many of the current feelgood stories that we now share online stem from family-run corner shops rather than billionaires: independent businesses doing what they can to provide supplies for the community. Even under ‘normal’ circumstances, corner shops have proved exceptionally adaptable; my old boss Mr J variously provided a grocery store, hardware supplies, a deli, a VHS video rental shop, an off-licence (though he openly lamented this detail to me, as a practising Muslim), and a newsagents. The shop atmosphere was always welcoming, though I was in no doubt of the challenges my boss faced; I’d stand at the till, reflected back on the CCTV Mr J had installed after many attempted robberies. Wedged just under the counter, there was a large kitchen knife: a kind of helpless means of self-defence.

Its quirky charms were a draw for indie filmmakers, with their prototype hipsters and anti-heroes

Have any fictional depictions of corner shops made an impression on Saleem? “Apu [The Simpsons’ infamous Kwik-E-Mart proprietor, voiced by Hank Azaria] constantly haunts every shopkeeper’s kid,” she replies. “You still get all these people trying to put on that ‘Indian’ accent: “thank you, come again”. Many representations are not so positive; you’re flattened as a character. Although despite the stereotypes – at points, it’s peak Scottish Pakistani.”

The corner shop might never be conventionally fashionable, yet its quirky charms were a draw for indie filmmakers, with their prototype hipsters and anti-heroes. Kevin Smith’s breakthrough movie Clerks (shot for $27,575 in 1994) drew from the writer/director/actor’s own experiences working shifts at a New Jersey grocery store. In Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites (1994), a Gen X cast also including Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke and Janeane Garofalo trade barbed quips at the convenience store (I have since never forgotten that “Evian is Naïve spelled backwards”).

The intimacy of such a bijou shop setting naturally spills over into personal dramas. In the This Is England film and TV series, the local British Asian shopkeeper initially experiences vile racist abuse from neighbourhood thugs, but later also becomes a caring stepfather to one of the narrative’s main characters. The local shop frequently becomes a place of confessional, for both customers and owners. In Fellini’s semi-autobiographical comedy-drama Amarcord (1973), adolescent Titta (Bruno Zanin) has an awkwardly intense coming-of-age experience with a local shopkeeper. During one brilliant scene in Juno (2007), the everyday teen heroine (Ellen Page) takes a series of pregnancy tests at her local mom and pop store, drily observed by the tetchy shop assistant (Rainn Wilson): “That ain’t no Etch-A-Sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be undid, Homeskillet.” In Yiddish-language US film Menashe (2017), we follow a kindly shopkeeper and widower in a Hassidic Jewish community, striving to reunite with his young son, and also sharing his woes with his Latin American customers.

The corner shop blurs reality and fantasy in contemporary art; in 2018, Karla and James Murray’s Storefront art project involved nearly life-sized paintings of mom and pop stores from New York City’s Lower East Side. It strikes a chord across music genres, too, whether it’s Brit indie outfit Cornershop (who have splendidly subverted stereotypes throughout their work, including latest album England is a Garden), the raucous holler of Macklemore’s Corner Store (“2am, Got some mango Hi-Chews, a bag of chips”), or The Jam’s 1980 song, Man in the Corner Shop, which hits a suitably timeless end-note:

Puts up the closed sign, does the man in the corner shop
Serves his last, then he says goodbye to him
He knows it is a hard life
But it’s nice to be your own boss, really

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