What’s yours called? Mine is called Frank’s. Frank’s might be small, but it’s perfectly formed, its meagre square footage crammed full of eclectic fare that both serves and reflects its multi-racial North London community. Giant bags of basmati rice stand shelf to crowded shelf with ghee, baking soda, hot sauce, gooseberry jam, tins of Pease Pudding, improbably coloured fizzy juice and strange crisps you’ve never heard of. Frank’s also sells posh chocolate, premium batteries and fancy shampoos at half the price of the Tesco that was recently rumoured to be replacing it. A roll of bin bags is 99p. Everybody loves Frank’s.
And never more so than now, in these frightening times, when a trip to the supermarket feels fraught with the possibility of coming home with far more than just the daily special. Economical as it might be, the weekly supermarket shop has never seemed less appealing. If the long queues snaking towards the entrance don’t dissuade you, the smash ‘n’ grab selfishness of the bogroll hoarders will.
My love affair with corner shops started early, sparked by a solo visit to Feeno’s, aged eight. The shop was a two minute walk away on the same side of my Edinburgh street – hardly a high-risk journey – but as I ventured out of the house without my mother for the first time, I felt brave and intrepid, a pint-sized mistress of the universe in a Snoopy T-shirt and towelling shorts. 10p to spend on sweets! The largesse of it! I was never going to make Feeno rich, but he was friendly nonetheless, diligently weighing out strawberry and banana bonbons with a silver scoop. I loved those trips to Feenos.
Over the years, my passion for the corner shop remained undimmed, even if they weren’t always deserving of my love. Oh, I’ve known some bad ones: Russel Rip-Off, opposite my student halls of residence, and The Shop That Sells Nothing, a tiny shop in Battersea, both spring to mind. But in the main, they have been saviours throughout every stage of my life, from the chocolate months of early motherhood to the corona panic of more recent times.
Whatever else 2020 throws at us, one thing is clear: this will be the year that the cornershop came into its own. Britain has always been a nation of shopkeepers, of course – it’s hard to think of the corner shop without picturing Albert E. Arkwright and his nephew Granville restocking the shelves of their Doncaster store – and yet it wasn’t so long ago that they were said to be dying out, squeezed into oblivion by Asda, Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsburys, as well as even cheaper players such as Aldi and Lidl. One report by the British Retail Consortium claimed that corner shops would all but have vanished by 2015, victims of “predatory” – or below cost – pricing methods, as supermarkets exploited their economies of scale.
Thankfully, this didn’t happen. With the sort of pluckiness that so often characterises small businesses, corner shops diversified, broadening their range of products and services – most notably, to include parcel collections and Post Office counters. In 2019, there were over 46,000 convenience stores in the UK, employing around 365,000 people and turning over £40bn annually, according to the Association of Convenience Stores.
By the end of 2020, that profit is likely to be far higher. Being among the few retail outlets classified by the government as “essential”, grocery stores’ takings are set to soar. That their owners will be financially rewarded for providing such a key service to their communities is only right, for even in the more decorous areas of Britain, customers aren’t always as polite as they could be.
“They’re like animals,” I heard Paula, one of the assistants at Frank’s, say to a regular the other day, as someone barged through the door looking for paracetamol. Let’s hope every shopkeeper in a position to do so can reward his or her staff for their loyalty during these trying times. After all, while the rest of us self-isolate or only leave the house once a day, it’s they who have risked their health to provide a service to their communities.
But then, that’s what the best corner shops have always been about: community. They are not just grocery stores, they are social hubs, particularly valued by the elderly and infirm, for whom out of town supermarkets are as impersonal as they are impractical. They might not sell the cheapest butter, but in a corner shop, everybody knows your name. Back in the heady days when my chi-chi local grocery store was still allowed to serve coffee, I loved that the sales assistant would often have my order ready before I’d even placed it. Living in London, these small intimacies are of particular comfort, although they’re valued everywhere.
Just as Asiyah Javed and her husband Jaward are valued, for handing out free care packages to families in need who shop at Day Today Express in Stenhousemuir, Falkirk. That the Javeds spent £4,000 giving away 2,000 packs of baby food and other supplies is a heartwarming example of the “value with values” ethos that is the lynchpin of our best British corner shops. In times of crisis, they have shown they are there for us. Long may they trade.
Have you noticed your own local initiatives with small businesses doing innovative, creative and kind things to adapt? Share your stories below or email [email protected]k with pictures.