Mark Griffith; Retail is Detail

Never on a Sunday

One of the shabby charms of the post-communist East Bloc in the 1990s was the slapdash enthusiasm with which citizens of the newly freed ex-Soviet satellites took to private enterprise. In Russia itself, violent business oligarchs from a class of communist apparatchiks with secret-police connections grabbed the limelight, helping a few of state socialism’s bureaucrat-criminals become startlingly wealthy. However, Russia’s onetime vassal states like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and others saw a bigger class of new business owners less obviously dominated by protégés of the previous regime.

Hungary’s contribution to this new outburst of enterprise was a mass of wonderfully amateurish corner shops. These stayed open 24 hours a day as a matter of course, but in every other respect seemed tired and overwhelmed in the presence of actual customers. In some parts of central Pest (the lowland 19th-century half of Budapest on the east bank of the Danube) there was one of these “non-stop” shops on every block.

Each one was generously stocked with pretty much nothing but drugs. That is, tobacco, alcohol, tea, coffee, and lots of sugar. Of course there would also be starchy snacks, matches, cigarette lighters, lavatory paper, some jars of pickled gherkins, stale bread, and a separate category of confectionery: diabetic chocolate (Hungary has a big population with the “sugar disease”, so diabetic-friendly foods are a mainstream product line here). A moulded plastic tray somewhere in the shop with three sad oranges and a cucumber would add an eclectic note, in case anyone unfairly complained that the premises lacked much in the way of food. While Polish and Russian 24-hour shops had already become, 2 or 3 years into the mid-1990s, spotlessly clean, brightly-lit emporiums with competitive prices where owner-shopkeepers tried hard to welcome patrons regardless of language, Hungary’s sleepy cubbyholes of consumerism dozed on, grimly determined to keep the customer in his place.

Strolling out at 2am on a hot summer night to obtain something from one of these stores was a curious acquired taste. A quietly sullen interaction with the shop assistant, conducted in a monotone on both sides, allowed a strange comradeship with the blank-faced night worker. This might be an expressionless gangly lad wearing a tee-shirt celebrating an intellectual rock band so obscure they had never actually managed to cut a record. Or it might be a pretty girl with a fixed glare – the prettier she was the angrier she was to be caught in the demeaning position of manning a retail outlet in the small hours.

Provided one kept things as low-key and laconic as possible, one could (at least with the males) be for a brief moment spirit mates united in understated rudeness. No sign of jaunty British cheer could be allowed to disrupt the soothing muted gloom of the cluttered store, always lit by a few neon strips at different stages just before burn-out.

These shrines to entrepreneurial reluctance are now under threat. I feel like a passionate Pevsner, a foreigner documenting a vanishing treasure of Hungarian culture unnoticed by the Magyars themselves. In early 2013, Hungary’s Fidesz government, a group of former urban liberals turned vaguely rural and Peronist, created a new entity – the tobacco concession. This set up registered tobacco stores with a monopoly on retailing cigarettes, cigars and so on. The licences to run these stores were sold off lucratively, giving the government a much-needed new source of cash. Unkind souls immediately alleged that some of the new concession-holders were friends and playmates of the governing party, but this isn’t very interesting.

What it more importantly did was remove a vital plank of profitable business from the shabby non-stop shops. I asked several if they would survive without cigarette sales. “No,” they muttered concisely at locations which three months later then shut down. The new monopoly tobacco stores are in most cases also selling alcohol, which might be why the idea of repeating the clever wheeze with a new wave of monopoly concessions to retail alcohol was quietly shelved: it would cut into the profits of the people who just bought the smokers’-shop licences.

Now the scruffy late-night stores of Pest are thinning out, cruelly robbed of their right to sell Hungary’s most vital food item, the cigarette. Some continue though, still secure in their local niche. A few are still a comfortingly dingy place to obtain salt, yeast, and flavoured cleaning alcohol at 4am.

They were, and still are, of course the perfect location for the non-standard encounter. The furious girl with a face like thunder who on my request for a cigarette lighter chose one of 15 designs and slapped it on the counter – a comedy lighter featuring a helpfully labeled cartoon of a Kama Sutra sex position. Translation: chat me up, you boring bastard.

The sweet-natured but infinitely weary Egyptian Copt who sometimes has to serve us through an anti-personnel grille in his shop door when street activities get lively around 1am. The two painfully thin grizzled men with missing teeth (one customer, one salesman) in the shop with only two shelves – 12 boxes of biscuits on each shelf – who challenged me to a series of mathematical match puzzles they had stretched out across the counter at 3 o’clock one difficult night. Or the mildly busy 24-hour shop around midnight where a man and woman, both in their 20s, were intently watching a porn channel on a TV set near the ceiling, ringing up each purchase and silently handing back change without once taking their eyes off the carnal congress on the small screen.

Round the corner from my flat is a non-stop where a very understated 20-year-old clerk got into 3-way conversation one afternoon with me and a curvy girl customer. She was chatting him up and asked, apropos of nothing, if he ever had trouble on the night shift? Now you mention it, he murmured, something quite funny happened last week. He gets out his mobile phone and shows us a snatch of security-camera footage filmed inside the shop we are in. There is our man, in the middle of the night, gloomily mopping the floor of the empty 24-hour store. There in the doorway is a fat stranger, waving a pistol at him, issuing threats. Staff member continues to clean floor, wearily suggesting man with gun leaves. Fat man with gun issues more threats from doorway, waving shiny firearm at boy with mop for about another minute. Then goes away. Visible in the CCTV footage, youth continues mopping floor. Girl and I make impressed noises. We purchase.

These late-night shops continue in reduced numbers, resolutely unadorned, unhelpful, and unexcited about the tedium of selling stuff. One medium-large one I’ve been visiting lately is quite ambitious, extending to more than one type of pasta and even a cabinet of sturdy, long-term sandwiches. Lads in there play a techno/house-music radio station loudly, and sometimes have 3 or 4 non-customers sitting around at the till to keep them company through the long night. I asked the name of the radio station and since then they curtly nod at me in laddish acknowledgement of our common bond in boredom.

Then one night the till boy was suddenly smiling & laughing and so were two friends. He insisted on pouring about a third of a pint of home-made vodka-strength schnapps into a plastic cup for me so I could briefly join his merry band. Breaking the rules he rang up my purchases impressionistically, guessing each price instead of checking. The result was cheaper than usual by a few shillings, almost a pound sterling. He seemed giddy, liberated from the chore of always counting.

Three nights later he nodded seriously at me again in greeting as he and a friend stood outside the shop on the street smoking cigarettes, both staring silently into the dark.

Mark Griffith keeps a weblog at http://www.otherlanguages.org

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2 Comments on Mark Griffith; Retail is Detail

  1. Brilliant article: I loved the summing up of a nation’s personality through describing the shops and their keepers. This article was evocative and thoroughly enjoyable. More, please.

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