Opinion: The figures no longer add up for our small-town shops

The main streets in Irish towns through the countries have seen a significant number of shops and businesses close down over the past few years.
The main streets in Irish towns through the countries have seen a significant number of shops and businesses close down over the past few years.
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

As a young lad between the ages of nine and 12, it was one of my jobs to do the shopping.

The local village or 'The Line' was a mile away and I would be sent off on my bike, in good weather and bad, with the message bags swinging from the handlebars. Stuffed into my pocket I'd have a list drawn up by my mother with verbal instructions ringing in my ears as to what items were to be bought in what shop.

There were three shops along with a butcher's stall and the creamery. One of the shops doubled as the post office, another was attached to the local garage and the third was part public house. We were good customers, given that there was a household of 12 and more to be fed. That included two grandparents, two parents and at least eight children. Two of my sisters were at boarding school and one was but a twinkle in my parents' eyes.

I enjoyed the shopping - it beat farming by a long shot. As one of the few males plying the street with a list and shopping bag in hand, initially I was something of a rarity. Over time I was accepted as an equal by the other shoppers, becoming adept at adult conversation. I was able to hold my own in any discussion about the weather, gallstones or varicose veins.

I also featured regularly as an altar server or a 'juvenile liturgical functionary, (to quote Fr Brendan Hoban). One of the tasks of the young liturgical functionary was to hold a paten under the chins of those receiving communion. Any of my fellow shoppers unfortunate enough to approach the altar while I was on duty could be treated to a tickle under the chin. Most found it amusing but some did not appreciate the infringement on their moment of divine intimacy. My life was threatened on more than one occasion, "If you do that again, Jim O'Brien, I'll kill you."

The journey home from the village with my 'messages' was as dangerous and potentially fatal as tickling touchy worshippers. Trying to keep the bike on an even keel while carrying enough food to feed a dozen people should have prepared me for a life in the circus, and maybe it did.

The main items in the bags would be sugar, butter, jam, cheese, ham, sausages, rashers, puddings, 'loaf bread,' tomatoes, mutton, tins of peas and beans, tinned fruit, sandwich spread, brown and red sauce - only Brits and Yanks referred to these as 'Worcester sauce' and 'ketchup'.

Occasional items would include shoe polish, 'Brasso', 'Daz', 'Brillo pads'; pot scrubs and Jeyes Fluid, this latter would be put in a separate bag and strapped to the carrier of the bike. Nowadays, a fella would have to wear a white jumpsuit and a mask before he'd be allowed to carry some of that stuff on a public thoroughfare.

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I remember the bill for the groceries would come to around £3/10s, in today's money that would amount to about €53.45, given inflation over the years.

My home village still has the Post Office with its shop, still has the garage and its shop while the pub is now simply a licensed premises. The butcher's stall is gone and an engineering company owns the creamery. In truth, the village is far better off that many of its counterparts; it is on a main road, has plenty of passing trade and is home to a thriving local community thanks in part to the proximity of Limerick City. However, not many villages are as lucky.

Few, if any, young lads on wobbly bikes do the shopping nowadays, the motorcar has put paid to all that. Indeed the amount of groceries being bought in the surviving small shops could easily be carried on a bike. The 'real' shopping calls for a jeep and trailer.

People from rural Ireland have voted with their tyres to follow the prices and while shopkeepers and shoppers blame one another for the demise of the local shop, we need to look elsewhere. We need to fix our gaze on the people setting the prices, the suppliers.

I had occasion last week to chat with a shop owner in a town near the spot where I currently lay my head.

She showed me a list of the wholesale prices she pays for her supplies and contrasted this with a list of the retail prices the same goods command in the local supermarket.

Most items are cheaper over the counter in the supermarket than my shopkeeper can buy them wholesale.

Control of volume means control of prices and those with such control have the power of life and death over our shops, our services, our towns and villages.

Let's stop blaming one another. Instead, let's focus on what the big buyers, the suppliers and the price setters are up to and ask how they can do it and get away with it.

Indo Farming

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