The New Curiosity Shop
Writing recently about two giants of retail got me thinking about my own inauspicious attempt to be a shopkeeper.
I must have been about six when I decided that that a rather nice empty chocolate box had distinct commercial possibilities, so I priced it up and put it in the sitting-room window, where passers-by would be sure to see it: Top 1/-6, Bottom 9d. I don’t know who I thought was going to buy the picture-less bottom, and I wasn’t even offering a discount for buying both bits.
You won’t be surprised to hear that it didn’t sell, and that it was whipped out of the window sharpish by the adults, but not before they had all laughed like drains.
Even this couldn’t put me off, and I am never happier than when behind the counter at a jumble sale, or flogging off some unspeakable piece of junk on a charity stall. (I’m not what you’d call a strategic thinker.)
But with Woollies, Curry’s and now BHS going to the wall, I wonder if we need new approaches to retail that don’t fit the orthodox models. An entirely self-inflicted puncture (as my failsafe method of neat parking involves feeling when the tyre comes into contact with the kerb) took me not to Kwikfit but to an independent supplier recommended by the breakdown man. I could tell as soon as I drove in that this was no ordinary tyre outlet because of the large signs everywhere, communicating advice and instruction about everything in large black capitals: checking your tyre pressure after 30 miles, rules for cheques and credit cards, unmissable offers, etc., and this impression was confirmed when I paid.
The owner, who presided genially over a team of young mechanics, took the opportunity to give me some personal safety advice about the latest method for snatching handbags left unwisely next to the driver on the passenger seat, pressed some leaflets from the Stroke Association into my hand (’Women get them too, you know’), and sent me on my way with a sugar lolly and a handful of puncture vouchers. Health and safety tips, sweets and free puncture repairs, not to mention a very reasonable new tyre? I shall be going there again.
I don’t think we always had such rigid concepts of what should go together in the retail sphere. An advertisement in the Hairdresser’s Gazette from the early 1900s invites coiffeurs to think about taking a few bicycles to sell in their salons or barber’s shops. This is surely the way to go now, as we try to retrench, consolidate and conserve resources.
Nevertheless, aspiring retailers need to choose what makes up their offering carefully. I am sad to report that the establishment at the bottom of my road that was purveying the fish foot spa experience, healthy cooking lessons and the steamer pans to help you, and Christian principle (just the one) appears to have closed its doors for the last time.
As for me, I daydreamed for some time about opening a shop fuelled by two of my favourite things: vintage clothes and going to markets in France, from which I would bring back beautiful ceramics. My little emporium was going to be called ‘Frocks and Crocks’. Imagine my shock and disappointment when I saw a stall of that name in our local monthly market. That’s where daydreaming gets you.