Corner shops? No, they’re are cornerstones

Corner shops? No, they’re are cornerstones: They guard our secrets, watch over our children — and sell us emergency wine, a joyous new book celebrates the people who keep Britain open all hours

  • Babita Sharma is best known for presenting Newsday for BBC World News 
  • The daughter of Asian immigrants, she explores UK corner shops in a memoir
  • Her parents ran a series of corner shops in and around Reading and Caversham
  • She recalls their shop being a friendly,and capable hub of the community  
  • Immigrants have been noted for bringing corner shops back from the brink 
  • Corner shops were able to thrive when legislation limited supermarket sales 
  • Babita also recounts the racism of the era by members of the National Front

BOOK OF THE WEEK 

THE CORNER SHOP: SHOPKEEPERS, THE SHARMAS AND THE MAKING OF MODERN BRITAIN  

by Babita Sharma (Two Roads £16.99, 272 pp)

We lost our corner shop a couple of years ago. The Patels had been running it for as long as I have lived in the neighbourhood, which is the best part of 30 years.

Then a Sainsbury’s Local had opened up on the main road and the corner shop saw its turnover cut by 45 per cent overnight.

They struggled on for a few months, but to what end? Eventually, they shut up shop, converted the building into flats and hotfooted it for comfortable retirement in the wilds of Edgware. I still feel angry about it now.

A corner shop, if you have a good one, is the hub of a community. Ours was a small miracle: friendly, capable, light-footed and always looking to improve its service.

Babita Sharma (pictured centre with her parents in the family’s former corner shop) explores the history of corner shops in Britain in a fascinating new memoir

When our daughter forgot her keys a couple of times after school, where did she go to sit for an hour before someone came home? You guessed it.

Babita Sharma is best known as a journalist and TV presenter who helms Newsday for BBC World News, but she is also the daughter of Asian immigrants who, when she was a child, ran a series of corner shops in and around Reading and Caversham.

Her book is a memoir of what it was like to grow up in a building that had no front door other than the shop entrance.

It’s also a study of how so many of these shops came to be run by Asian families, whether from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan or East Africa, which threw out most of its Asian families in the early Seventies. In light of what’s going on in the world today, this early example of ‘ethnic cleansing’ actually takes the breath away.

In Uganda, for example, the indigenous black population were not allowed, by law, to go into trade, and the longstanding Indian minority were not allowed to own property.

The result was that the black population had all the land and 50,000 Asians, 1 per cent of the population, controlled 90 per cent of the country’s wealth. Idi Amin came to power, called the Asians ‘bloodsuckers’ and sent them all packing. Several of them ended up in Leicester.

The city council in Leicester was concerned that too many immigrants were arriving, so it put large advertisements in Ugandan papers asking them to go somewhere else, anywhere else, just not Leicester.

The result: even more people went to Leicester. They had heard of it now, you see.

Asian immigrants have been noted as saving corner shops from the brink, at a time when the model portrayed in BBC sitcom Open All Hours (pictured) was on the decline 

In the UK, meanwhile, corner shops were in sharp decline.

The traditional model — of Ronnie Barker as Arkwright serving you behind a counter in BBC sitcom Open All Hours — had been superseded by the arrival of American supermarkets, with their wide aisles, Angel Delight and many different cheeses: English cheddar, Canadian cheddar, Australian cheddar, Irish cheddar. (I can remember how exciting these shops were in the late Sixties when, let’s face it, nearly everything was exciting.)

Many of the Asian immigrants had strong business pedigrees: they realised that, while most shoppers would pop off to the supermarket for the big shop of the week, they’d use their corner store for emergencies.

So it was they who brought the corner shop back from the brink. Bag of sugar late at night? Emergency greetings card? Bottle of red wine when you’ve just inadvertently emptied the last one? The phrase ‘open all hours’ pretty much sums it up.

Sharma is excellent on all this and the cultural peculiarities of running these places.

‘Understanding customers’ daily habits became a fact of my childhood,’ she says. ‘When I began writing this book I knew that, as a former corner shop kid, I was still bound by a particular code of conduct.’

Babita says historically in Britain there has been times when there seemed to be nothing worse than seeing someone of colour doing financially well, when white parts of the country are out of work (pictured: children playing outside a corner shop in Manchester in 1977)

For, as well as delivering your newspaper and supplying your groceries, they were the custodians of your personal secrets. They must reveal nothing — unless they changed their customers’ names in order to write a book about them.

‘So Mark, as I am now calling you, your teenage addiction to porn mags will not be revealed now that you’re a sitting member of Parliament. Your secret is safe with us.’

A lot of it, of course, was the purest drudgery. Floors had to be mopped, more often than you could imagine, and family members had the enormous advantage, as employees, of not having to be paid.

I remember the smaller daughter of the Patels serving behind the counter of my corner shop, bored to distraction, because there were roughly a thousand things she’d rather be doing. I believe she’s a barrister now. Sharma doesn’t soft-soap the racism of the era, or the ever-present threat of having dog poo posted through your letterbox by members of the National Front.

THE CORNER SHOP: SHOPKEEPERS, THE SHARMAS AND THE MAKING OF MODERN BRITAIN by Babita Sharma (Two Roads £16.99, 272 pp)

‘In Britain, there has historically been nothing worse than seeing someone of colour doing well financially when white parts of the country are p****d off and out of work.’

In fact, it’s one of the best books I’ve read of the immigrant experience in this country. But it’s the detail that makes it. For one thing, corner shops could open on Sundays in the Seventies and Eighties when supermarkets couldn’t.

Why? Because of the 1950 Shops Act, an inexplicably shambolic piece of legislation that meant you could sell pornography on a Sunday, but not a Bible. You could sell a G&T, but not teabags. You could sell a fresh chicken, but not a fresh egg. And a fish and chip shop could sell any dish on Sunday other than fish and chips. The ramifications were too complex for supermarkets to overcome — but a corner shop could be lighter on its feet.

It must have been a singular childhood. For dinner, you had to eat what was available: there often wasn’t time to make a proper meal, as there was a shop to be run.

On the basis that you are what you eat, Sharma says she’s ‘half-Indian, half-Findus’. It’s a typically deft touch in a subtle, enjoyable book.

 

 

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