Depending on your point of view, it was either Napoleon or Adam Smith who first called England ‘a Nation of Shopkeepers’
But it was only after I came to settle here in France that I started to think of shopkeeping and market trading as skilled occupations, and realised just what is involved in keeping the customer happy.
It’s probably because it’s just so much easier, where we live in England, to nip down to the supermarket. There weren’t too many independent shops on our daily round: so much for a nation of shopkeepers. Mind you, we loved it when Emily was a Saturday girl at the French patissier who was then in Harrogate, Dumouchel. She would often be sent home with a couple of unsold petits gateaux for us to enjoy, or some slowly-fermented sourdough bread. It was small shop, and quite expensive, so she learnt quickly to value customers and to treat them well, so they’d come back. She learnt too that while most of the people she served were friendly and appreciative, customers could be curmudgeonly too.
So who are the good commerçants here? Well, down at the bakers, they’ll often put aside our much-loved pain noir without being asked if I’m not in bright and early, knowing we’d be disappointed if they sold out.
Today at the market, madame who runs the cheese and charcuterie stall had printed off some recipes specially for me, because she knew I might enjoy trying them out.
Down at Bobines et Fantaisies, she goes to Toulouse most weeks to seek out unusual scarves and accessories, so there’s always something new and worth trying at her tiny shop. ‘Let her try it on. If she doesn’t like it, bring it back!’, she’ll insist, as you dither between a bracelet, a couple of scarves and a chic but cosy winter hat. These shopkeepers remember us, our tastes, our whims and foibles. They welcome us, and chat cheerfully with us, even if we leave the shop empty-handed.
There’s just one shop here that doesn’t cut the mustard. ‘Il n’est pas commerçant’ we all grumble. Those of us outside the select band are routinely ignored, and as we feel our custom isn’t valued, some of us now go elsewhere.
But not to the supermarket. Oh no. Yesterday we DID pop into one, but as the muzak system was belting out a schmaltzy version of ‘Auld lang syne’ in what passed for English, we very soon shot out again. Small Shops Rule OK.