For most people, the corner shop is a place where you spend a few or so minutes browsing the aisles before collecting your items, hitting the check out and going about your day.
For me, it’s where I did my homework, stocked shelves, snuck sweets, read magazines and impatiently waited to go home. The shop was kind of like a babysitter. Keeping us entertained and fed while our parents worked until I was old enough to be left at home by myself. It’s a place that is just as familiar to me as my home. It’s also the place I knew I never wanted to end up as an adult.
Growing up, I saw exactly how hard my parents grafted, the long hours, the occasional unruly customers, the multiple break ins and general stress it brought them was enough to motivate me towards building my own career. Like any job, it has its ups and downs, often taking as much as it gives but the good mostly outweighed the bad. We may be a staple for the community but it is our customers who are the warm characters who fill the funny stories my dad tells around the dinner table after a long day. Whenever I would pop by the shop, I’d be greeted warmly by regular customers, as if I were a family friend they watched grow up which in many cases is more or less true. They were always quick to remind me to visit my parents more often thanks to my ma complaining to anyone who would listen about my long absences from home spent abroad.
At the start of this month, I was in the middle of writing my very own TV show. My first huge commission that had the potential to change my life. The project that could maybe see me make it as a Glaswegian, working class, kid done good. Then the pandemic came upon all of us and just like that the whole world was changed.
Many of us put our lives on hold and were forced to re-prioritise our responsibilities. My own work had to take a backseat as my siblings and I worked out what to do in our parents absence as they unfortunately managed to get caught in a lock-down abroad. Thus, my brother was kept from his regular job and put in charge of the shop while the rest of us pitched in where we could.
In the first few weeks, we did a number of charity drop offs. Donating to places such as the Scotland Winter Project which is a tiny operation that went from feeding 50 homeless people three times a week to almost 200 in the space of a fortnight. We knew life was quickly going to turn into the Hunger Games from here on out so we had to act fast. It’s never been to this extreme extent but we’d seen it all before — the last few weeks of 1999, in particular, always comes to mind. We are no strangers to the panic-buying coping mechanism of the masses which is why we knew that the only way to handle it was by instilling firm but fair rules early on so that everyone had a chance to get what they needed.
Lately, we’ve had to defend ourselves from customers (rarely regulars) who claim that we get paid all the same so it shouldn’t matter whether one person buys 20 packs of toilet roll or 20 people buy one each but it does matter. It matters to us immensely. Sure, we get paid regardless but knowing that one of our more vulnerable customers might not get the supplies they need isn’t worth an easy sale. In other cases, customers understandably complain when prices are raised and get not-so-understandably angry at whoever is behind the till not realising that this isn’t our fault. While we will be sure to remember, for future reference, which suppliers jacked up the prices, we have no power to force them to stop especially as there are limited places from which we can get stock right now. If suppliers are selling hand-sanitiser, which used to be 48p per bottle, at £8 instead, we take that hit too as we either make nothing on that sale or very minimal when it is then sold from our store. And, don’t even get me started on handling cash. I’ll never look at it the same way. You don’t realise just how hoachin cash is with germs until it becomes a huge health hazard.
I never once imagined that in the time of an international crisis, my family business would be considered essential. Mostly, as I’ve had the privilege of never really having to think about it before. Along with others, we’re out there exposing ourselves to make sure people have access to necessities.
Being the offspring of a shopkeeper is mostly Apu jokes, free child labour and an endless supply of inflation-free Freddos so it is quite surreal to see us visibly become a vital part of society. One of the few places still open in the time of lock down. An unprecedented event, as we’re constantly reminded.
We’ve seen so much already from behind the cash register and things have barely even begun. We’ve had a woman brought to tears as she tried to figure out what items her confused, lonely, elderly neighbour might need. A man with a husband in intensive care on the verge of breakdown. Exhausted NHS staff with lines from their masks still embedded on their faces. We’ve seen small acts of kindness including one person donating their hand gel to another after overhearing that they have a sick kid at home. People with partners in the NHS who are scared for their loved ones own health as they try to heal others with little protection. Elderly customers who are isolated with no family nearby or allowed to visit them due to the circulating virus which means we may be the only people they get to see that week. We’ve seen such gratitude and appreciation from front line workers who pop into our shop for free tea and coffee — the least we can do for their invaluable service. We’ve also, sadly but not surprisingly, seen unashamed greed as customers we’ve never seen before literally sweep entire shelves into their basket only to throw tantrums usually relegated to toddlers when told they can’t take it all.
I’ve seen the best in my family as well as they continue to put others before themselves. Keeping certain stock aside to ensure elderly regulars are well looked after. Offering kind words to people who are feeling overwhelmed. Giving away things for free to struggling patrons. Doing numerous, exhausting, trips a day to cash and carry to ensure the shop is stocked for the people heavily relying on us. Working long shifts every day when they could be forgiven for simply shutting up shop and staying safe at home in isolation.
This isn’t just the story of my family. This could easily be the lives of many key workers all over the country trying their best to keep calm and carry on in the face of a worldwide crisis.
NHS staff, teachers and people like us deserve your support and respect more than ever which is why we need you to stay home only venturing out when necessary. Let me be clear — the consequences of not taking this seriously is to actively put families like mine in physical danger.
I’m begging you, please don’t kill us, stay home. I still have my sitcom to write.
[artwork – Lucy Sparrow]