The Little Shop that Shouldn’t

Every day I walk past a little shop: The Village something or other. Some whimsical misnomer that transports one’s mind to the pastoral wholesomeness of a little hamlet set into greening mountainside, far from the bustling grey of London, far from the anonymous rush and the industrial, faceless cement and plastic flimsiness of relentless commercialism, to a quaint place of smiles and bowed roofs where cows chew the cud and the smell of slow baking bread fills the valley with its hearthside scent.  

Through the windows of the shop I see great loaves and cakes and biscuits and exotic chorizo, crumbly cheese and jam jars of chutney spread out on a bare, gnarled tabletop. The table legs are painted pastel and the tops are barren and raw and unvarnished, as if the table was rescued from the kitchen of a farmer’s homestead somewhere in rural Cyprus. The floor is bare wood and were it not for the warmth dribbling up from the underfloor heating, one would feel as though they had stepped in the romantic idea of some well kept peasant’s hovel. Brown twine hangs by the window frames and tied into are cloves of garlic interspersed by little packages of delectable niceties. Their sugar coatings glisten innocently. 

The bread, rotund and fat and welcoming, looks freshly baked but there is no oven in the small room. The crusts are cracked and tanned as if they had been sprayed by an artist and they are just the right amount of imperfect, just the right amount of misshaped. Sourdough, pumpernickel, ciabatta, focaccia; loaves with seeds in them, loaves dotted with raisins, square loaves and spherical loaves; all picketed by their own twee little signs denoting the prices: £4, £5, £6 and so on. Pleasantries and trite nothings are scrawled crudely and in charming handwriting about the walls of the shop and words jump from the curated mess: “Artisanal”, “Freshly baked”, “Organic”. In the fridge humming and casting a lazy glow by the wall, cans and pop-cap bottles with unrecognisable, calligraphic labels and beautiful pictures of lemons and hops and barley, and rose-cheeked children smiling, that look to have been masterfully designed in a loft in Paris, shiver with seeping droplets of condensation.

And each day, alone in his empty little shop, the proprietor, a young man in the mire of his thirties stands clicking dolefully on a Mac upon the table top, one foot crossed over the other. He glances outside past the milk cart he has sawn in half and placed pristinely by the doorway next to two empty milk pails and sees me stroll past. I imagine him to have started his stupid little shop on the capital of a trust fund. I imagine him to have thought himself mightily clever for noticing a gap in the market for unpackaged bread that warrants being sold for quadruple what it is worth, since it is wrapped in brown grease proof paper and tied with twine. I imagine him to delude himself that he is a self-sufficient entrepreneur and happily contributing to Britain’s economic growth.

I see him, and I look into his eyes and a small, guilty, fantastical part of me wishes that one day I could walk by his shop and see its doors shut, the lights off, and just beyond the glint of the window panes, the silhouette of his feet dangling loosely, rotating, ever so gradually, North East to South East and back again. He having despaired at the ruination of his silly, silly business.

For he is a symptom of the attritional gentrification that pours like a plague over London. He moves in flogging bread that, unless its flour is harvested from the fields of Elysium, is possible only of being marginally better than whatever is on the shelves of Sainsburys. He marks up his wares so they are unaffordable to all but the slickest of City bankers. And with him come those inordinately, undeservedly wealthy bankers. And with the suits comes higher rent, higher house prices and more expensive pints. And slowly, slowly, unnoticeably withdraw the poor citizens from this little area of London further afield, kowtowed and beaten by the subterfuge of gentrification that does not push them, but gnaws its way into their being and forces them to march. With this man’s faux-wholesome bollocks – a little play at purity and rugged pastoralness in a place devoid of it – come wankers who slurp it up because “you can taste the quality, Grace” and “well, actually, Oliver won’t eat Hovis; he’s very discerning!”

That is just the way of it. Slowly the culture of London that comes only from the poor is bought by the rich for pennies on the pound and turned into a gross parody of itself; it is purchased like intellectual property and framed on the white walls of large living rooms in the penthouse suites of glass towers. And the painters are left to scrounge on the dole, the inventors and creators scrabble for the crumbs. There is no stopping the advance of Artisanal bread.

Well, today I walked by the shop. The lights were off, the doors were shut, and in the window a sign said “Shop to Let”.

It seems the invisible hand of the free market has some welly in it yet.

That is, until the next foppish young scout comes along, and just behind him waiting, his clientele.