A Nation of Shopkeepers?

Ariège, France, Laroque d'Olmes

These days, while travelling’s discouraged, and normal day-today life often seems difficult, many of us have come to rely on our local shops, recognising what a blow it would be if they were to disappear. Here’s a post I wrote ten years ago in France, celebrating independent shops. It feels dated in some ways. ‘Saturday girls’ seem to belong to a different era.

A NATION OF SHOPKEEPERS…OR A SMALL TOWN WITH SMALL SHOPS

11th December 2010

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 realise just what is involved in keeping the customer happy.

It’s probably because it was just so much easier, where we lived 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.

The baker’s shop, closed since 2018. Though there are other bakers in the town still.

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, the owner 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 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.

Madame at Bobines et Fantaisies

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.

The featured image is of a cheesemonger in Toulouse.

This post is a contribution to Fandango’s Flashback Friday. Have you got a post you wrote in the past on this particular day? The world might be glad to see it – either for the first time – or again if they’re long-time loyal readers.

51 thoughts on “A Nation of Shopkeepers?

  1. How interesting. One reason why I enjoyed living in Ludlow were the independent shops and market stall holders. I loved my chats with the egg lady, and Bee on the chutney stall who takes every January off to visit Funchal, the many laughs with the butcher whilst choosing which flavour to try this week. And the time that people would take to welcome you into their shops. I miss all that here.

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  2. I’m going to send this to a friend who has just started selling at a farmers’ market. He doesn’t lack social skills exactly, but hasn’t really thought to put himself in his customers’ shoes. Thank you!

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  3. A nostalgic look back at a time when small local shops and restaurants were thriving and often defined the character of a town. And then came the pandemic. 🙁 Thanks for participating.

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    1. Since I wrote this post, two supermarkets have appeared in the town, and so the small épicerie has disappeared , as well as our baker. But so far so good with the other shops.

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  4. I loved this post and everything about it. You are right about ‘Saturday girl’ already being a bit passé(e). I’m sad that the tradition of small shops is already disappearing in France, where they are such works of art in themselves and with so much character. I was particularly intrigued by ‘Jésuite Crèmes’. Is this/was this because if you gave one to a child before he was seven……? Here in London we seem to have a number of newly-opening small shops, which are, unfortunately, very expensive. But perhaps with this d-mn-ble Brexit no deal business, we are going to have to revise our ideas about the cost of food pretty radically?

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    1. Ros, don’t get me started on the consequences hinted at in your last sentence. And yes, new independent shops seem to be more about scented soap than hardware, That Perfect Gift rather than haberdashery. But we’ll see. Our new baker/deli is doing alright, and there are still queues out of the door at our independent bookshop. They’re examples of shops that locals are doing their best to support, come what may, because what they’re doing is so much appreciated.

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  5. This brought forth two primary thoughts for me. One of my hometown – a small town of 3000 in rural Ohio – actually, the largest town in the county. My youth was a time of small-town merchants, busy streets on Saturdays – but today – a shell of those days – one having to drive to another town for certain needs. The other is Europe – a place where small shops seem to still have a place. Perhaps fewer than the past – but still alive. Then again, that’s only my impression as a visitor.

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  6. Truly another world. I’d written some time back about the commercants in Paris, who remembered me and my tastes for more than a decade as I appeared for a month or two during the year. It was a pleasure to go back for cheese, bread, or wine and find that an old favourite would be mentioned if I didn’t bring it up within the first days. Unfortunately they closed their shops one by one, and their place is taken by the chain supermarkets.

    You are right, its not the same at all.

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    1. I remember that post of yours. It IS sad. I love the relationships we build with individual shopkeepers. Supermarket staff are usually cheerful and willing, but … no. Give me that ongoing relationship every time.

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  7. Contrary to you I made many good experiences with shopkeepers in Devon. They knew what I liked and when I entered their shop, they’d let my try, offered their ware, gave advise and after I nearly broke down because ‘my’ market stall didn’t have my favourite sausages, they made sure to keep at least one pack for me every Friday. In France, the quality of a bakery cannot be underestimated. Also, we had, very close by, the probably best pizzeria within miles – and when we moved, after many a joyful meal there – I went in in advance and said to the owners: I’ll send our 3 removal guys to your place to eat. Don’t let them know, let them order whatever it is, and I’ll come tomorrow to pay for it. They didn’t even blink or wonder if I’d truly would show up – just said that said guys were speechless when they were told it was all paid (which it wasn’t then, yet). It ALWAYS pays to be kind, thoughtful, correct, polite and a smile never goes amiss either.

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      1. Margaret, i don’t know what I was thinking exactly when I wrote. I think in hindsight I was referring to your last para…. but God knows I need my head examined 😉 Of course we agree that shopkeepers are our salt in our daily life. I loved our little shops in Devon and was sad every time another one closed down. Nowadays you have to be very lucky to have ANY real shop nearby everywhere. Sorry for my brain burn, I have plenty of serious worries with family members and I only hope that we wont have funerals instead of Noël Noël.

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  8. The popularity of shopping malls didn’t help either – although I have read that the pandemic has impacted negatively on malls here and benefitted the smaller independent shops. I hope that is true, but I guess it would be very variable across different locations and types of businesses.

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  9. Can’t see for the life of me what is going to happen in January. Independent and local food stores are possibly going to run of out of fresh food if people switch from supermarkets as their favourite non-seasonal foods from Spain/Italy/France/Holland get stuck the other side of the Channel. Or, perhaps there’s going to be a Brexit Miracle!

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  10. This gave me things to think about – primarily the way I’m so used to shopping anonymously, and how this year has made me want to engage more, just to have human contact. I would never chat to the checkout person in the past, but now I do it almost every week on the big shop. I’m getting used to being recognised as a regular in our local deli-bakery now that I go every Friday morning, and quite enjoy it. I’ve bought a lot of Xmas gifts this year from local independent people and enjoyed their personal touches – the conversation around the purchase and then the surprise little notes and extras that they pop in with what I’ve bought. It also made me think about the local shops frequented by the family friends who live in Loir-et-Cher, particularly the baker who makes a low salt loaf every week for Steve because of his blood pressure and who saves them some of the bread baked with raisins soaked in the juice from the first press of the local wine, because it sells really quickly.
    I really enjoyed this post, Margaret, thank you.

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    1. Thank you! I’m a huge fan of our independent shops. As you say, they offer a personal service that chains can’t emulate My favourite is definitely our independent bookshop, where they can always help make an appropriate choice for a tricky relative, and where they know me well enough to suggest my next read. But keeping them all in business this year is hard work!

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      1. Our local bookshop is brilliant, too. Good for recommendations, understanding which book I’m talking about when I’ve forgotten the title but not the book cover, speedy ordering in, and being friendly. They seem to be thriving despite all this, which is great.

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