Monday, 26 January 2009

The Paper Shop
In the five years that I have been living in England, I have seen some of the most stable and ancient of traditions fall the way of ruin. The demise of the local pub, by no blame of its own, for instance. Pubs have been a part of British culture for thousands of years. The oldest one in the country is right here in Norwich. It dates back to 1215, and is called The Adam and Eve. Although the local pub is usually within walking distance of one’s home, the anti-drinking laws of this country put a strangle hold on its patrons not to drink more than a breath of alcohol or run the risk of arrest and driving sanctions and huge fines.
Then came the anti=smoking laws. That just about put the nail in the coffin. Imagine not having a fag with a drink in a pub! Well, it is happening everywhere here now. This is rough going in a country where more than half of the adult population still smokes.
And of course, there is the beloved post office, which for many small British villages was the other life’s blood of the tiny community. It, too, has been taken away in thousands of small villages. Old age pensioners that have lived their whole lives in these villages and depended on the local post office to have access to their pensions, find that this option has been yanked away from them when they finally came to the age when it would be needed. There is much bitterness over the closing of so many rural post offices, and rightfully so.
The arrival of the huge chain supermarkets have made it difficult for the small local shops to survive, but it seems the bulk of them are using good standard British ingenuity and finding ways to stay in business. The shops have very good local products in them. Meat, cheese, pork, milk, eggs, veg - all from local farms. The quality is always top notch if not close. As an American, I can tell you that having a local butcher shop, greengrocer, and doctor’s office within walking distance of one’s home is pure bliss.
There is one small neighbourhood shop that has not changed since its conception, and that’s the “paper shop”. These shops are always small, crammed to the rafters with ‘stuff’ and a venue for news, both written and vocal. Wooden doors with a bell, in the country, metal ones with a buzzer in the urban areas. These shops have every magazine published in the UK and every newspaper one would want too. They always take up one whole wall of the shop. Then there’s the ‘other’ necessities. Sweets (candy), milk, pop, snacks, tobacco products, lottery tickets, greeting cards, a freezer with everything from ice cream to frozen peas, always a tiny little thing packed to the top like the shop that houses it. Charity containers line the counter along with mints, gum, and small gadgets. There’s a brilliant video out on YouTube of a seagull that has learned to walk into the shop and nick a bag of crisps (chips) from the lowest shelf in front of the store.
I love watching the men of our neighbourhood tootle down to the paper shop every morning to get their papers and talk about the latest soccer games, the weather, and pick up or pass on any gossip that may be about. Men of all ages and shapes do this. The really young ones, can’t be asked to walk so they go in their old bangers with the music turned up loudly. Most of the men have a dog with them. It is a routine everyday and the dog goes along at a reasonable pace - unless there has been something happen extraordinary in footy the day before, or there is other hot gossip to be discussed. Then the dogs are having a hard time keeping up with their puffing and determined owners on a mission.
I’ve gone into the paper shop in the morning, looking for butter for baking as I thought I had enough and of course, I didn’t. A yes, the American girl, lets have a go at her! In my first few years here, no one would strike up a conversation, let alone tease me. Now, they all know me, that I work locally, and I’m married to that bloke that has his van parked opposite the house all the time down by the infant school. So as I walk into the shop to grab the butter and a small bottle of milk besides, several men who have been in a passionate discussion about Chelsea and Man U, turn and smile at me and I can see in their faces that I’m in for it. I’ve been teased about everything from my president to my country’s choice of foods. “Oy! That Bush bloke still running in the hall with scissors?” “What? No ketchup? Or did you just forget, love? Let me get some for you!” There’s no need for offence to be taken. Their teasing is much like high school banter and they would never presume to have a go at me unless I was accepted and liked. I know I mustn’t tease back, as I haven’t been part of this place long enough. But I smile, laugh, and mention something that I know they would feel comfortable talking to me about.
I decided to buy a scratch off lottery ticket one day, on a whim. I chose one and the shop owner leaned over the counter and whispered, “You know whaaaaaaaat? You don’t want that one, love. Someone over in Pakefield won over £2million on it last week. You’d have better luck with another kind. This one hasn’t had a win in quite a while.” pointing to one I never considered. I didn’t win on it either, but it was worth it just to hear him say “You know whaaaat?” in that broad Norfolk accent.
Paper shops are usually owned by families that are local and have spent their whole lives in the neighbourhood. When the wife is in the shop, then the discussion turns to soap operas, sales, and illness. The teenage children are sometimes recruited to take a turn. The son is all business, with the radio blasting in the background. The daughter plants herself behind the counter, nervous, ever watchful of anyone coming into the shop. Her service is surprisingly bored and impersonal. She wants you to bugger off, okay?
I love paper shops. I love the ambience of them, the simplicity, the clutter. Brits read papers every day not just on Sundays. Some have it delivered to their homes, but most go to the shop to pick it up. Popping over to the paper shop is giving one’s self a little treat. One never knows who will be there to greet you or what conversation you might get into. Interesting news found in the paper shop. I’m privy to it now. So tomorrow I’ll be walking over to the paper shop to pick up a paper and some other news too!


  1. My Mum used to work in the paper shop..she loved it!! thanks for the trip down memory lane and thanks for finding me..I have missed you so...if you look on my blog you will find Gaz and the rest of the crew!!


  2. Hi Susie I have just been catching up with your blog and it is lovely to see you here ~ I am sure you will soon catch up with everyone and I know they will be as happy to see you as I am ~ Ally x

  3. Great post Susie! I, too, love the tradition of the paper shop. We had a brill one in Chester and I loved to go there. Here in the small village I live in now we do have a post office, which also works as the paper shop. You've done an excellent job of describing it all. I think that shops like the paper shop, butchers, green grocers and post office are the backbone and heart of all our small communities. I don't like to imagine a village without one of each and well, the pub is a must!