In your corner

Corner shops, communities, capitalism

Front door of Coborn Corner corner shop on Bow, London

We have a corner shop that is, undeniably, the heart of the neighbourhood. It is a tiny establishment that, despite bursting at the seams with stuff, is a place where the proprietor holds court, aided by a rotating council of three or four sage regulars.

He dispenses advice on local schools, the state of the roads, the relative quality of the local takeaways, and much more. He knows my entire family: what we eat for breakfast, when we’re ill, or when my goblin child has had a good day at school. It is a deftly run local business, but also a hub of gossip, advice, and low-key support. Last time I was in there, he was ringing around, trying to find a room to rent for one of the customers.

This role is not unique to my corner shop. According to research from the ACS:

  • 79% of independent retailers engaged in some form of community activity over the past year

  • A quarter of customers come from half a mile or less and over half of customers (57%) walk to store

  • 36% of customers know the people running and working in their local shop very well or quite well

These are national numbers. I suspect the urban/local split has some impact (e.g. more ‘community activity’ in the village; more people walk to the store in Peckham). Most convenience stories remain independent, locally-run businesses, either entirely so, or part of a vague umbrella franchising arrangement.

The report also gently cites (without wading in), the larger context - that is, the declining provision of services at the community level. There’s been the gradual shuttering of local and neighbourhood branches of semi-critical services such as banks and Post Offices. Convenience stores have often stepped in to pick up the slack. There are shops that serve as de jure extension of the Post Office, and others that are de facto alternatives - such as selling stamps, wiring money, or offering package collection and drop-off. Banking is more complex, but convenience stores are generally home to the local ATM. The adaptable corner shop also fulfils the other neighbourhood needs, from selling condoms and cold medicines to having a coffee machine or stocking pre-packed sandwiches.

Even setting aside the greater context of key service providers cutting and running from ‘unprofitable’ areas, I’m still of a divided mind. The positive, such as it is, is that corner shops are positioned to ‘omnify’ (a word I’ve just minted, but sounds suitably wordlike) and provide the bandage layer of triage for a community’s needs. As local businesses they can identify a problem, and as independent ones, they’re agile enough to provide the solution. Post Office closed: add package drop. Pharmacy unavailable: add a small range of over the counter drugs. Local cafe doesn’t open early enough: add coffee machine for key workers. No nearby grocery: supply the basics for a school meal. It all reinforces the position of the corner shop as a hub of support for the community.

There are some parallels here to the omnification of libraries. I’ve written about this in the past, but to recap: the closure of basic services has led to libraries katamari-ing more and more responsibility for community activities. They’re now business centres, day cares, youth club, adult learning centres, craft hubs, warm/cool places, advice surgeries, and more… It is great that libraries can, but that doesn’t mean that they should, and it does often take time and resource away from their actual intended function: being a library. Darren McGarvey also talks, powerfully, about more the intangible second-order effect as well, such as the loss of one of the last few quiet spaces. 

I think retail is less sacred than reading, and I, fortunately, can’t think a parallel to that horrendous loss of quiet. If a corner shop gets crammed full of bandage-level services as part of its omnification,… that’s probably ok? And, ultimately, a corner shop is a business: it provides these services to increase profits. They’re positioned to know if their customers have more need for machine coffee or canned pasta sauce. If the services get in the way of profits, the services won’t happen. The shop itself is best-placed to decide.

And that’s what I don’t like. We’re outsourcing essential services to capitalism.

Just because a local indie business can bodge together enough bits and pieces to keep the neighbourhood afloat doesn’t mean that they should. Or that they should. Some spreadsheet in Canary Wharf (officially domiciled in Panama) says that x branch is underperforming and, whomp, there goes a neighbourhood’s access to any banking more complex than a cash withdrawal (‘you can’t invest, save, start a business, get a loan, take advice, or deposit money here, but we will help you buy shit!’). If a neighbourhood is lucky enough to have an insightful, agile, entrepreneurial (or even predatory) business as its corner shop, it has a safety net - of sorts - and can still access some useful services. If you don’t live near a sufficiently opportunistic private business… well… don’t catch a cold in the evening.

Society isn’t collapsing. If I want to visit a bank or a Post Office, I can. I’m lucky enough that I live in a major city and - even in an underserved neighbourhood - these staples are still a short bus ride or a longer walk away. Critical services like ambulances still exist, and thank god for them. But we need to be more ambitious and think beyond simple subsistence coverage, and review the services that communities need to succeed. What’s the middle of the pyramid - everything between corner shops and city centres?

Those services in the middle - when you need more than Lemsip but less than an ambulance - are important to the long term health and thriving of a neighbourhood. If I want to buy a last-minute meal for my kid that isn’t made of puffed salt; if I want to talk about managing debt or get advice on a business loan; if I want to start a side hustle that involves a constant stream of packages and packaging; if I want to manage a flu; if I want to have an actual face to face chat with other locals in a space that’s not crammed with expired Quavers… Corner shops help a neighbourhood exist, but those middling services are necessary for a place to succeed and grow. With the decline in local service provision, we are lucky to have corner shops for the basics, but a local area still needs more to thrive.

If you’re missing my HOT TAKES on books, I’m participating in a long-running weekly reread of The Big Book of Science Fiction. Next week I’ll be winding up the romance challenge as well, so stay tuned.

I also finished Beth O’Leary’s The Wake-Up Call. It was very good - although not quite the same level as The Flatshare. I liked the external conflict (speaking of the lionisation of independent businesses), but the two characters didn’t have quite the distinct voices of her earlier novel, and the inevitable (if well-seeded) misunderstanding-and-breakup was deeply annoying. Still, very cute, very Christmassy if anyone is stockpiling books for the holidays.

How hopeful we feel and our view of risks, challenges, and the future has a role in developing long-term resilience and coping with changes. For example, a 2021 network analysis exploring how subjective feelings of wellbeing are related to individual, community and place characteristics found that civic agency – whether individuals felt they could influence decisions made about their neighbourhood – is positively associated with [our survey’s] item ‘I’ve been feeling optimistic about the future’. 

The absence of hope – despair – has been linked to mental health problems and an increase in mortality, as well as vulnerability to misinformation.

The amount of time we spend with family has drastically decreased across every age group – especially younger people. The amount of time we spend with friends has plummeted – and again it hit younger people especially hard. (It's partially because we have fewer close friends than before. Meanwhile, the amount of time we spend alone has gone up across every age group. Elderly people were always more isolated, but that's gotten worse.

Doodles’ $500m in sales and massive valuation have created nothing. There are no superfans, no true loyalists, and no evangelists. Just a depressing chatroom of marks that have yet to admit they’ve been conned chirping “GM” at each other.

My knee-jerk response was LOL, but we all* (over the age of 40 and nerds) remember the Steve Jackson Games raid, so actually having some official guidance that is ‘people running around in the woods pretending to be elflords ≠ terrorists’. Similarly, there’s now a track record of people plotting real world violence, trying to hide behind the ‘lol it was only a game’ defense:

Live action role play is an old theatrical behavior and a new excuse. The concern that this label can be used as a defense for planning and preparing a targeted attack on a public official, democratic government, or anyone else is a real one. Leaderless cells may be particularly well-suited to claim they are no different from true role players who enjoy the benign recreation of history or fantasy.

Both of the above links are via Matt Muir’s Web Curios, which I - unashamedly - tap for all the Good Stuff.

A nice shout-out to The Big Book of Cyberpunk on Transfer Orbit. Also, an honest-to-god unboxing video via Ganzeer - plus a peek inside. Also, also the actual FIRST REVIEW (speedily done, given the size of the beast).

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