A beautiful gift book arrived in the house, Over the Counter: Cork’s Retail Heritage documents a selection of the remaining traditional shops in the city and county; the places where a shopkeeper stands behind a counter and where goods are arranged in wooden shelves along the walls.
Friends from the North, one a grocer’s son and a former grocer himself, the other a grocer’s daughter looked through the pages; the scenes pictured were as familiar to people from rural Ulster as to those who went through shop doors of southern Cork. The pictures exuded atmosphere; remembered sounds and scents brought tumbling reminiscences.
Pictures of Berkel and Salter scales sitting on shop counters, declaring amounts in pounds and ounces, are forever associated with blocks of cheese being cut with a wire, the piece requested then being placed on a sheet of greaseproof paper before being weighed. Shopkeepers were skilled at estimating within an ounce how much they had cut; a pound of cheese requested would rarely have resulted in a piece that exceeded half an ounce less or half an ounce more than the desired amount.
Of course, the appeal in the photographs lies in their evocation of a past that has almost disappeared. Perhap the demise of the small shop is due to price competition, perhaps it is something more. Shopping has become a leisure activity and the corner shop cannot compete as a venue. There must have been a point when shopping passed from being a necessary duty to being a leisure activity.
My grandmother in Somerset did her weekly shopping from the farm telephone: making a list through the week, she would phone the Co-op in the local village with her list of requirements and the Co-op van would deliver her groceries to her door (online shopping would have been no novelty to her). Trips to towns with high streets and department stores were rare. Maybe women would have lingered at drapers, looking at new stock that had arrived, but most shops were hardly places where one could browse. Perhaps the change began with the supermarkets and the opportunity to shop at your own pace. But pushing the trolley around Lipton’s, or whatever happened to be one’s supermarket was hardly the ground for a lifestyle change. Leisure shopping seems really to have developed with the advent of shopping malls.
In Northern Ireland, it used to be said that the shopping centres appeared not as marketing devices, but as a response to terrorism. As bombs tore the hearts out of towns and cities, retailers located in out of town sites; sites that had ample car parking for an increasingly mobile population and sites that were more easily secured against attack than shops that fronted onto streets with passing traffic. In Belfast the security response was to close the city centre shopping streets to traffic, but the malls became well established.
Living in Newtownards in Co Down in the ’80s, the shopping centre became a meeting place; it was warm and welcoming with a string of cafes and an abundance of benches. The shopping mall has now become the first choice as a meeting place, particularly for young people. The mall represents a safe place, an environment protected against the excesses of drink and drug abuse that mark parts of our towns and cities. There is no danger of meeting youths drinking and cursing their way through the streets, and no danger of getting threatened by some addict looking for money. In our failure to secure our city, we have driven people indoors.
The malls reassure because they are predictable; before one goes through the automatic doors, it would not be hard to list the stores one expects to find. The mall enables shopping as leisure.
Sadly the mall also threatens; the heritage recorded in the pages of ‘Over the Counter’ will cease altogether when the last customer succumbs to the temptations beyond those sliding doors.