Big thank you from

Shopping in the good old days

by the Rambler  21/12/2001

AS I sat in a supermarket car park this week, watching harassed housewives hauling plastic bags full of goods off trolleys, I couldn't resist comparing the soul-destroying routine with what went on in the small shops of pre-war years.

Every shopkeeper knew his/her clientele and could literally have told what each had for his/his breakfast.

It was "ask simple as that" (as Anne Robinson puts it).

Let me take you back to `the good old days (scr). I haven't far to travel.

First, an elderly lady who sells boiled sweets from an array of large glass jars lined up on a shelf behind her counter.

She makes a 'poke' out of a sheet of newspaper and weighs out purchases on a set of traditional scales, using ounce, half ounce, quarter ounce metal weights. She has her wee shop beneath the railway bridge over Antrim Street, and the year is, say 1930.

School kids troop in daily on their way home from school, mostly with no more than a few pence to spend, definitely no silver. (240 pence=£1).

She knows each of them by name, so well that some even have the temerity, occasionally, to ask for certain sweets and their value only to whisper: "I haven't the money Mrs Mallon, but I'll pay you on Saturday."

Mrs Mallon doesn't blink an eyelid but unhesitantly serves the wee lassie.

On Saturday the child trips back, with the few pence clutched tightly in her fist. "That's the five pence I owe you Mrs Mallon." "Do you, dear? I don't mind. Good girl Mabel. You've very honest. I had forgot."

It did happen, no made-up story. Could you imagine any modern shopkeeper doing business that way? We have come a long way in 70 years.

Then there were the tight-fisted kind who weren't above keeping a finger under the scales to give lightweight when dealing with a juvenile.

The children knew her. Their parents knew her, but she got away with it, particularly in country shop. A so-and-so scrooge was her status but she got away with it.

I know. Imagine chiselling a kid out of a few boiled sweets!

Then there were the "chancers" on the other side of the counter. One old boy in our part of the country, a boozer, had a bad name.

One local lady who had a huckster shop in the front room had a peep-hole in the wall so that she could keep an eye on the shop from the living room side.

She knew oul Sammy was 'knucking' and always kept an eye on him.

This day she spotted him lifting half-a-pound of butter and concealing it in the crown of his Paddy hat.

She had a pot of soup cooking and in a flash she saw a chance to corner him.

The old boy lived alone, and she emerged from her living room and turned on the blarney.

"Ach Jimmy," she whimpered, "How's things?"

"Are you getting your mate (food) these days. You look a bit low. I have a big pot of soup on . Would you take a mouthful?"

Sammy took the bait. So she retreated into the kitchen and 'footered' about. Then she came back: "It'll not be long, Sammy."

Next time she came back, she said: "Come on in Sammy."

She sat him down near the hot fire and took her time to pour the soup, making sure it was steaming hot. Before long, liquid butter was oozing down from Sammy's skull!

He stuck it a wee while. Then he leapt to his feet. "I'll have to go Mrs. This hot soup has affected by bowels. I'll have to get home quick."

Away he went with his feet hardly hitting the road, leaving Mrs shopkeeper in high glee.

She had lost a half-pound of butter but got value for it.

The traditional wee shops, usually in the front room of a house in a working-class area which were listed in old street directories - as 'hucksters' have long since gone.

Higher grade, corner shops survived, but inexorably they too have been vanishing.

Most have been unable to compete with groups like Spar and Mace, not to mention Tesco, Supervalu, Sainsbury's etc.

I have some more examples of the personalised service given by some small hardware, etc. slops tong ago which I will have to leave over.

Meantime. Happy Christmas.

Ulster Star