I hate supermarkets with a passion. I’m getting on a bit – not ancient, mind, but getting on – and I’m old enough to remember when the first of these horrors opened their doors in Australia. The Aussie equivalent of the five and dime – based on the US model – had been around since 1914, but the supermarket idea didn’t reach the Wide Brown Land until the 50s.
Before the first of these wonderful institutions opened its doors, its representatives flooded the airwaves with radio commercials and speeches telling us of the wondrous benefits that were soon to shower down upon us. I can vividly remember one such: “There’ll be no more waiting to be served,” the spruiker said. Fair dinkum. No more waiting to be served; among the first shots in an ongoing campaign of lies, half-truths and Pavlovian advertising.
I know people had to wait their turn at Sydney Fong’s Chinese Emporium while the serving Fong inquired after the health of someone’s grandmother or admonished a young father to look after his wife and new baby, but that was part of the shopping experience – before I ever knew there was such a thing as a shopping experience. Besides, Mr and Mrs Fong remembered people’s birthdays and sent flowers to births and funerals.
It was the same at Roth’s General Store in Mudgee, New South Wales. Even in the 1980s a damaged wine barrel holding brown-mallet axe handles stood just inside the door and there were still a few left-handed broad-axe handles “out the back”, despite the fact that around Mudgee there hadn’t been a sleeper (railroad tie) trimmed with a broad axe in 50 years.
The Roths knew everybody and sold everything: lamp glasses, wicks for kerosene refrigerators, instant Chinese meals, chook feed, boil-in-a-bag dinners, beekeepers’ requisites from centrifuges to honey tins, cookware; it was all there. And, what’s more, they ran a little wine bar next door where wine from the family vineyard was sold by the glass or the bottle and, for special occasions, by the barrel.
If you ordered a new lamp glass, it was carefully swaddled in old newspapers and just as carefully packed in a box. The box was then taped shut and tied neatly with shopkeepers’ twine that trailed down from a ball suspended from the ceiling. The whole procedure might have taken five minutes, but you knew the glass was going to get home safely, even if you stopped too long at the Coolah pub on the way.
Long-winded it may have been but it didn’t take any longer than you have to wait in a supermarket checkout line and you could hold a conversation with the other waiting patrons or say “Hell’s bells, I forgot the new wetback for the stove” and dash off to get it and still regain your place in the line.
And people in those stores knew where everything was kept and had a fair idea of what you were looking for – even if you didn’t.
The following is an almost verbatim transcript of a conversation I had with a spotty youth in a giant hardware store. I swear it’s true:
“Can you tell me where you keep the poly pipe elbows, please?”
“Poly pipe elbows.”
“What are they?”
“They’re joiners for lengths of PVC water pipe, angled so you can run the pipe around corners.”
“Do you know what department they’d be in?”
I think I’ll give up on asking for the location of things in superstores. Just the other day I asked a supermarket person where I might find coconut cream, having exhausted the possibilities of Asian Foods, Mexican Foods, Foreign Foods, Sauces and Condiments, and Cake Mixes. “Never heard of it,” she said. I did eventually find a single tin, among the drink mixers.
The supermarket killed the butcher’s shop. A good butcher throve or withered by the quality of his meat – and his repartee – and would cut and trim your purchase the way you wanted it. The woman who assisted me into this world, Great Grandma Ada would have hated the supermarket meat aisle as much as she hated the English king. In her last years she lived with my grandmother and insisted on doing the shopping. She’d make the butcher cut one fat mutton chop for her and one lean one, from a different carcase, for Maude because that’s what they ate and that’s what butchers did. Now, there’s no way of telling what the meat you’re buying is really like until you get it home, and then it’s pretty much too late. If you know of a supermarket that gives you a choice between range-reared and grain-fed beef tasting of chook feed, please let me know.
Supermarkets also did for the corner greengrocer. A couple of Australian generations have lived their entire lives not knowing the taste of fresh – not to mention ripe – fruit and I’m guessing the same might be true for many urban Americans. That a retailer can convince folks that fruit is still fresh after it’s been trucked all over the country – or the globe – and ignore the fact that it’s green, is testament to the power of teevee.
Superstores and shopping malls do have one redeeming feature. They keep me on the straight and narrow. I believe that as long as I remain a reasonably decent person, then when I die I shall just fade away into the cosmos and the soil, my immortality guaranteed by my descendants and those of my siblings. Should I stray from this path, then I will be condemned to wander for all eternity through a shopping mall looking for a hardware superstore that stocks the little C-clips you use to join wire netting.
That, dear friends, is why I like small towns and small stores.