Saturday, 29 August 2009

The Hardware Shop

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker ….. a nursery rhyme about people who actually did things, made stuff. They were the job they did. Will it come around again?

Yesterday, I wrote a piece about the greengrocer's and today I am moving on to the hardware shop and its natural relationship to the modern DIY store. A sort of bipolar snapshot that is less about the history of retail outlets and more about what we value as a species. A bit like yesterday's attack on fruit and vegetables so I apologise for the recurring theme but maybe it's useful to examine the idea of the shopping parade and what it represents. Let's turn the clock back and see what is revealed as I ram-raid the shops of my youth.

The parade itself is L-shaped but the overall effect is that of a square with the missing corner occupied by a box they call a public house. There are two paths into the parade: the pavement leading down from the community centre, past and under the bridge made by the old peoples' flats and then the more direct route from the car park which takes you along next to the pub. This second entrance is flanked either side by grassy areas, littered with cigarette ends, teenagers on bikes and I think, some picnic-style benches belonging to the pub. But that's the thing. That's what would be there today, I imagine. I do know that it was a foreboding path to follow. Maybe I'm just projecting what is common now back into the past. A flaw in my memory. I'll assume that we've negotiated the teenagers, the pub's guard dog and resisted looking in through the darkened windows at the fruit machines twinkling hedonisticly. Not fairy lights. You'd go to the hardware shop for those. Right. Up the steps, don't hold onto the metal handrail, it's got chewing gum stuck to it. Now, at the top, dead opposite is where we're headed. The serious shop. All the others on this side of the L are lightweights. This is the shop to buy the things you really need.

The glazed door is a mozaic of stickers arranged around the 'Open' and 'Closed' sign. Unlike the greengrocer's, the door is usually closed or maybe in summer, wedged a few inches open with a piece of wood. As you push your weight against the glass, a bell tinkles above your head alerting the shopkeeper to your presence. The fact that you've stumbled in from the sudden give in the door's hinge mechanism or that the only line of vision you have is the tiled floor leading you straight to the till seems to be ignored as a means of announcing your arrival. The layout is a labyrinth of shelving stacked higher than you dare look for fear of flinching and knocking the displays over.

If the shopkeeper is occupied with another customer, you may get a chance to browse around this grotto but inevitably, you will be greeted with 'Can I help you?' and the fun will end. I remember tap washers, screws, rat poison, mops and rabbit food. There is always one of those portable gas heaters and a smell of paraffin. Mr Hardware wears a brown cotton coat, a bit like a doctor's. Mrs Hardware is never to be seen but her touch is evident in the knitted toilet roll covers and doilies in the window display and the varieties of threads and floral sticky-back plastic rolls.

It was the shop you went to buy everything that you couldn't get in the other shops. That much, I suppose, is obvious as it wouldn't be sensible to have an overlap but what I mean is that he sold the means to mend things. He sold little things. Or just one thing if that's all you needed. No sales, no offers. I don't think he wrote to any of his customers. They just came to him when they needed something.

This weekend is 15% day at our nearest DIY store. They sell similar stuff to our Mr Hardware but in bigger quantities. It's such a bargain to buy these quantities that if you're lucky, you might even get one free. For what? They probably won't have your tap washer because they're all made to a special design, you may have to replace the whole unit and hell, you may as well buy a new sink, a new kitchen even and yes, today is 15% day. So you've saved all that money.

I may hear you saying that the hardware store was old-fashioned and out of touch with modern style. Perhaps it didn't even address the issue of style at all. And that's a good thing. Mr Hardware didn't try to decide your style for you, he respected what you already had and helped you to fix it. If he couldn't then so be it and you could go off to make your choice elsewhere. The DIY store has already lured you out of town, swallowed you whole in its cavernous hangar and convinced you that their range is style itself, that you have a choice. Their choice. So you don't need to bother yourself with going elsewhere. A little Orwellian maybe?

Friday, 28 August 2009

The Greengrocer's

The shopping parade of my youth: butcher's, baker's, mini-supermarket, newsagent, greengrocer's, hairdresser's, off-licence, fish and chip shop, launderette and hardware store. The pavement outside would always have been fouled and there would be a dog chained up to the railings outside, snarling and leaping at passers-by Nervous cats could be seen peering through the gaps between shrunken yellowed net curtains at the windows of the flats above but then taking your eye off the pavement below was always a mistake.

This morning, I revisit the most curious of those shops: the greengrocer's.

The heavy glass door with a thick diagonal handle was always propped wide open with squashed cardboard boxes, regardless of the weather. The air was warm with business, thick with the smell of bruised green cabbage leaves, earthy beetroot and damp newsprint. They rolled around the dusty floor with odd cooking apples as if being coated for batter. Thick brown paper bags hung on hooks by a loop of string next to the oversized scales, waiting to be punched into life in order to receive their cargo; produce deftly tossed in by dirty, lined hands belonging to weathered ladies with an intimidating patter. Greengrocer speak. Not the coarseness of a market trader but loud enough that their voices never faded even when they had their backs to you, shuffling and grabbing crab-like from the crates lining the shop walls.

Then we all got a taste for packaging. The ladies must have retired from the shop. They'd all looked like they were ready for it anyway. The earth and the smells gone, we ate varieties of fruit and vegetables only distinguishable from one another on the basis of shape and colour. Taste was as uniform as the supermarkets themselves. They were so pretty and we could buy them at any time of the year and we proudly stacked them up neatly in our trolleys. We would buy one and get one for free, the one which ended up in the bin because it not longer looked perfect. We congratulated ourselves on our wealth. Improved travel and international markets allowed us to interpret the availability of beans and tomatoes of exotic origins as proof that we'd conquered the seasons as well as our body clocks.

So how come it feels so good to eat runner beans for days on end, to give courgettes away to your friends after a rainy spell in summer? That they are so abundantly delicious that you search recipe books for new things to do with .... with whatever this week's crop is? Because we're celebrating the natural alliance between man and nature, trusting that harmony between them is more valuable than aesthetic perfection or material wealth which only ends up in the kitchen bin with the packaging. Oh, and it is real and can be right there in your garden. That's real fast food.

I'm sad that summer is ending but the pumpkins are swelling, tanned and promising another delve into the recipe books as well as excited children anticipating October 31st.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

He's worn me down

Monty seems to have found his voice again. He's been pestering me, trying to get to the laptop and I've finally given in. After all, what can be the harm in the innocent ramblings of a senile old dog?

I, meanwhile, am at some sort of in-between stage with my writing. Making lists, plans, writing the odd poem to keep the creative juices flowing and waiting for school holidays to end before I start writing more seriously. So much material accumulating it almost hurts. Anyway, I'm going to pass over to Monty now. Perhaps it will keep him quiet for a bit.