« ’arabe du coin » or the corner Arab, is the term—racist and pejorative in nature—that the Parisians use to refer to the small neighbourhood grocers which stay open late and on Sundays in this city. Their goods are pricey and limited, but often exotic (pistachios and pastries from the Middle East; Jergen’s Hand Lotion imported from Tunisa and bearing a label straight out of the 1960s; the whole line of Cadbury chocolate snacks) and obscure.
I never patronize my grocer when I need to do a major shop but I do stop by with the girls to pick up a bottle of water or select some penny candy. The latter involves a time-consuming ritual: the children take a small kraft paper bag and fill it with sweets picked from the drawers of a structure which was certainly destined to hold small bits of hardware in someone’s tool shed rather than gummy bears, gelatinous worms and chocolate-covered marshmallows. Since there are about 20 different drawers to choose from and the assortment changes from time to time, the girls can spend a lot of time examining and deciding on their bounty.
My particular grocer is one of the nicest merchants I’ve ever dealt with in a city not known for warm customer relations. He could be curt and gruff, given that his shop is close to the Eiffel Tower and his clientele largely made up of tourists with a limited notion of French (or Arabic). But he is always happy, always eager to chat, and always gives the girls a little something. Today it was a little feathered “bird”, the kind one sees stuck in floral arrangements. He showed off a postcard he had received from some recent visitors to his shop—some Americans he had charmed and who courteously remembered him after they returned home. The space around his cash register is filled with postcards from “friends” who have stopped and bought a cold coke and a sack of chips from his place.
I have seen him make deliveries to the older folks in the neighbourhood, sometimes just a 6-pack of mineral water to an old lady too frail to lift the thing and carry it home. He closes the shop to do this. “If I don’t, who will?” he once told me when I asked about it.
My father inherited the family concern, a menswear store in San Rafael, a store which did a good business during a time when most working men wore suits and shopping malls had yet to mushroom across America. [Name redacted]Shop for Men and Boys was where the Marin County businessmen went to be outfitted sharply and the local talent could find original shirts and Levis. My father dressed Jerry Garcia and Van Morrison, Philip K Dick and Frank Herbert, all Marinites at one point in their lives.
I grew up in that store. I would go there after school, do my homework in dad’s office above the “floor” and ride home with him after he closed the shop at 5:30. When I turned 16, I had the “right” to work there, hocking the ties and Jockey shorts, the cords and the cowboy shirts. To this day, I can accurately gauge a man’s neck size, arm length and inseam without the help of a tape measurer.
My dad was probably the last of a generation of professional retailers….at least in our part of California. He knew about fabric drape, where the cuff of the pants should “break” at the shoe, how to chalk a suit jacket for alterations (“We’ll have this out of the tailor shop in time for your wedding, Mr Albert, you can count on it”) and how to lay out a tie so you could see how it might coordinate with the shirt (“Offer it like a box of chocolates”). He took a great deal of pride in his shop and in his product. He worked 6 days a week, stood on his feet for 8 hours a day, and never complained.
In 1980, dad saw the writing on the wall. The malls had moved in, with their free parking and all-in-one shopping under controlled climatic conditions. He correctly predicted that downtown San Rafael would be going belly-up in a matter of years. He measured his last client’s inseam length, stitched a perfect hem into the worsted wool, and locked up the shop in September of that year.
Trend predictors say that in retail, there will ultimately be only two contenders: the large stores like Macy’s and Nordstroms, and the small specialty shops such as my dad’s. But I don’t see too many of those small places thriving when I go back to California. And I certainly have trouble finding a professional salesperson who knows the width and depth of his product, or even cares about what he is selling for that matter.
So I truly appreciate the attitude of my neighbourhood grocer. It brings back a memory of my father, and of a time when pride in doing the job correctly, of filling a community niche, was important to both the giver and the receiver.