Ye olde corner store

A CORNER store! And instantly on my mind’s screen I'm walking up the few steps on one side of the glass frontage and in through a screen door with several bells and a noisy spring-loaded clasp in time to see a round woman making hard work of rising from a stool. She calls me love and asks if I have a note, which later I come to see as a slight, and after packing a few things into a string bag she adopts her long-suffering pose at the lolly counter while I choose two black cats, four mint leaves, a gob stopper and the rest of the threepence in cobbers please.

Ian Wells tells me that while he might be overweight he is not round, but he does own, he wrote in a letter in this paper this week, one of the few corner stores still trading in Newcastle, and, I’d imagine, anywhere else within nipping distance of a supermarket. Mr Wells was protesting that because his house is zoned commercial, because he has a shop in what is effectively the front room of his home, he is not eligible for a recycling bin or the free bulk collections available to other residents.

You may have seen the Wells family’s corner shop on the left of Lambton Road, Waratah, as you drive north from Griffiths Road towards the Mater Hospital. It’s been there since about the end of World War II, and Mr Wells and his father bought the business almost 25 years ago and operated it while the former owner lived in the house, and when she moved out 15 years ago Mr Wells and his wife, Dianne, bought the property.

Ian mans the counter and Dianne is in charge of sourcing stock at the best price, and the hours are long, 12 hours weekdays and eight on Saturdays. Five years ago they decided to close on Sundays to spend time with their two daughters, now aged 14 and 11.

For the first few years older people in the area would buy groceries at the shop, Mr Wells says, but the deregulation of retail hours and consequently the open-all-hours supermarkets mean now that customers, mainly people stopping as they drive by, buy just the staples and cigarettes. They tried videos and DVDs but the specialist stores put paid to that, they found that more fruit and veg went into the bin than out the door, and while they sell phone recharges and iTunes gift cards the margins are low. It is, though, still a livelihood, their only livelihood, and Mr Wells, who’s 52, says they wouldn’t like to walk away, but he fears the impact of the carbon tax. He sees pricing as important and says corner store prices are between those of supermarkets and service stations.

Until supermarkets changed people’s shopping habits in the 1960s people bought most of their groceries at corner stores or in shopping strips at bigger shops often called general stores, and there were so many of these outlets that pricing was competitive. It is likely that higher prices had more to do with an individual shop’s low buying power than anything else. My wife recalls that there were six corner stores (not always on a corner), in the two blocks around her family’s Merewether home 45 years ago, and often in the old suburbs we see a house that used to be a corner store, the front room on the fence line and the frame of the shop window filled in with sheeting or bricks.

I watched a very old corner store near my home die after we moved in 20 years ago. A young fellow had bought it and over a couple of years he went from selling the staples plus some fruit and veg, cold meat and tins to just the staples, just bread, milk, soft drink and cigarettes. Finally a young woman bought it as a job, she told me, and after the first week she told me her week’s takings hadn’t reached a day’s turnover reported by the seller. She walked away two weeks later and I felt so sad for her.

Convenience stores have become common in the Hunter, but since they’re in shopping strips rather than in the midst of houses they don’t qualify as corner stores. I don’t think they would anyway, they’re too flash.

Do you miss the corner store? Are we the poorer for losing the shopkeeper behind the counter?

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