Why I love my corner shop

Why I love my corner shop

A decade ago, superstores and changing shopping habits threatened their existence; then the pandemic made them more essential than ever, says David Aaronovitch

Whenever the Peppercorn is closed because its owners take a day off (which is almost never), I am seized with the fear that maybe they’ve shut down for good.

It nearly happened ten, or was it 15 years ago? There’s a block of flats about 150 yards from our house, with three shop spaces underneath. Peppercorn once took up two of those spaces but then fell on hard times. One of its staff had a breakdown, thought that a man in the house opposite was having an affair with his wife, broke in and started a fight. The business almost went bust but, in the end, halved the shop size (and the rent) and now the other part is a ‘dog grooming spa and daycare centre’ called Sniffles.

The ‘we sell everything’ ethos of the corner shop was celebrated in the 70s sitcom Open All Hours

I shop at Peppercorn most days that I’m working from home. For lemonade, for peanut butter, for hummus, for chocolate, for muesli, for teabags. Almost any excuse, really. Stencilled on Peppercorn’s metal roll-down is a picture of a typewriter and the legend ‘aspire to inspire others and the universe will take note’. No one seems to know why it’s there, but for a writer it’s an invitation.

There’s only ever one person working in Peppercorn, and it’s either Bülent, a wiry, smiley man in his mid-40s, or his cousin’s wife, Yazmina – similarly aged – who is slower to the grin, but when you get to know her will often show a gold tooth or two and is a lovely person. Both are from central Anatolia via Istanbul, and I think bought the shop from the original Turkish owners. On slow days, Yazmina will be found listening to soap operas on Turkish radio – which are slightly more declamatory than The Archers and with fewer sound effects – or calling her mother in Izmir. Either way, it’s drama.

The end of the school day brings a small rush of parents and their primary-age children, which is jolly. And I’ve also learnt that nothing says divorce quite like a man in late middle age who comes in at 5pm to buy a bottle of whisky. At 8pm on a winter’s night the shop’s lights decorate the whole road.

It’s not just me who finds excuses to visit Peppercorn. Alma, aged 19 months – my first grandchild – has taken to Bülent and returns his huge smiles whenever she passes, which is often, because she insists. They’re friends, too. That’s what a corner shop is.

I was probably Alma’s age when I first went inside the Cabin, the newsagent’s near where I was brought up. And like most kids, the first and last thing I saw on display were the sweets. Which led to my first, and more or less last, act of proper criminality when – aged about five – I half-inched a bright green packet of mints. As a Marxist, my mother might have believed that property was theft, but she’d been strictly brought up and believed even more that theft was theft, so she marched me back inside to give back the mints (which I didn’t even like) and apologise. I have a half recollection of the Cabin’s owner, a slightly portly, red-faced, greying man probably called John.

Only in my student days and early adulthood – when I was footloose and fancying everything – were corners shopless. As soon as I settled down and became a placed creature, corner shops became a part of my life again.

But for a while it looked as though mine might be the last generation to see them. In 2010 a report for the Greater London Assembly noted that, ‘The relentless expansion of the supermarket has prompted the dire warning that by 2015 the small independent retailer may have completely disappeared from our shopping streets, with newsagents, convenience stores, independent petrol stations and grocers the most likely candidates.’

Tobacco sales had collapsed, newspaper and magazine sales had taken a dive, booze was also down. But somehow the ‘convenience store’ sector hung on, not least because hipsters with green ideas and no cars colonised the cities.

And then it received a big boost in the most unlikely circumstances. As the pandemic was declared and we locked down and socially distanced, the corner shop – within walking distance and with no queues – became suddenly attractive again. By last year the supposedly dying sector was forecast to grow at between 1.1 per cent and 2.6 per cent. In 2022 average weekly sales in independent convenience stores were estimated at between £15,000 and £20,000.

Family-run corner shops – the type I love – are only a subset of all convenience stores. And I think ‘convenience’ is not the most important thing they offer. Rather they are ‘connection stores’; they connect the customer with the place, with the owners and with other people. They can give a sense of being recognised, in a very small way; of being cared for.

The corner shop is in some ways a residual feature of a former age. When I was very small it wasn’t just the milkman and the postman who came to the door, but the coal merchant, Viv, the woman from the Co-Op who did the rounds with her insurance stamps, and the rag-and-bone man. Just as a century before them there had been the lamplighter and the knife sharpener and a century before that the watchman with his ‘five o’clock and all’s well’.

A really good corner shop can define an area. Before moving to our current home, we lived for ten years in a network of London streets that had one famous pub – the Pineapple – and one famous shop, Mehmet’s.

Mehmet sold (and I hope still sells) all the usual things and then some less usual, including fresh bagels and croissants on Saturday morning and London’s best samosas, made at home by an Indian woman in the next street. When Mehmet got into trouble with the local council for selling Christmas trees off the pavement, residents wrote to the local paper in his support. Estate agents would mention Mehmet’s in their property descriptions. I wanted to stay in the area just because of him, but I lost that battle.

Then, last year, I saw an interview with him online. ‘I’ve been open for about 35 years,’ he said, ‘but it’s been a rocky two years and hopefully it’s going to get better now. The rent is always high: I’ve got to work all the god-given hours in the shop to pay my rent.’

One retail consultant who recently completed a detailed study into the corner shop sector found shopkeepers operating on impossibly narrow margins while working 80-hour weeks and paying themselves as little as £4 an hour. Who can do that forever? But life is bleaker without the corner shop, as anyone with no car living in a place where the local shop has closed will know. As anyone who lived through the pandemic will realise.

In that 2010 London document I mentioned earlier, there was included a plan for what has become known as ‘15-minute neighbourhoods’, where shopping locally could be encouraged. But even that plan concluded that ‘in the end, it is the responsibility of Londoners to reconnect with their local small shops and to recognise their value once again’.

True for London, true for everyone. In Sevenoaks in Kent, a friend was telling me, a ‘Mr P’ (his surname is actually Patel) has run a corner shop for years just opposite the gates of a school. The tradition is that on their very last day, the children get to sign their names on Mr P’s ceiling.

Try doing that in Waitrose.

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