An insightful look at modern Britain through the prism of the corner shop.
From the general stores of the first half of the 20th century to the reinvigorated corner shops run by immigrants from India, East Africa and Eastern Europe, their influence has shaped the way we shop, the way we eat, and the way we understand ourselves.
Babita Sharma grew up as a ‘corner-shop kid’; gaining a unique insight into a very British institution from behind the counter. She is a journalist and presenter on BBC World News.
The book evokes well the shifting attitudes to immigration, from the invitation made to workers after the war, through to English fears over lack of cohesion, to these being weaponised by various governments. It also documents the shifts in Britain’s retail spaces and what these have meant for local communities. Occasionally, the book feels like as if it’s padding out its page-count with repeated grand statements about the cultural import of the corner shop can occasionally feel excessive. Yet as a peek behind the counter of one of Britain’s most enduring institutions, it is human, accessible and informative; a nuanced exploration of part of British Asian life that has long been stereotyped – and therein lies this book’s strength.
In fact, it’s one of the best books I’ve read of the immigrant experience in this country. But it’s the detail that makes it. For one thing, corner shops could open on Sundays in the Seventies and Eighties when supermarkets couldn’t. Why? Because of the 1950 Shops Act, an inexplicably shambolic piece of legislation that meant you could sell pornography on a Sunday, but not a Bible. You could sell a G&T, but not teabags. You could sell a fresh chicken, but not a fresh egg. And a fish and chip shop could sell any dish on Sunday other than fish and chips. The ramifications were too complex for supermarkets to overcome — but a corner shop could be lighter on its feet. It must have been a singular childhood. For dinner, you had to eat what was available: there often wasn’t time to make a proper meal, as there was a shop to be run. On the basis that you are what you eat, Sharma says she’s ‘half-Indian, half-Findus’. It’s a typically deft touch in a subtle, enjoyable book.