One of the things that sets rural France apart from rural England is that many small villages here still boast their own shop(s). However, a lot of them are under threat and the trend is towards concentration on the outskirts of bigger towns.
(Before you ask, the picture has nothing really to do with shops. I just thought it was a nice picture of Belcastel in the Aveyron, taken at about this time of year. They have a Michelin-starred restaurant, but I don’t think there’s a shop.)
A well-served community
Our own commune, which has around 1,500 inhabitants spread across a large area, can still support two general stores, two butchers, three boulangeries, three hairdressers and a separate barber’s shop, a chemists, a newsagents, a wine shop, a quincaillerie (ironmonger) and a seed merchant. Plus there are a few shops that open only in the high season, such as a couple of potteries. There are also a bank, a post office and various cafés and restaurants. A bi-weekly market (Tuesday and Saturday) just about struggles along, too.
This is a far cry, though, from the village’s heyday at the beginning of the 20th century. Then, there were many more shops serving a population of about 4,000 and a host of cafés and hotels, which must have been teeming on the day of the monthly cattle fair (now no more). If you walk up the main street, you can see that most of the buildings once had shop fronts, now converted into windows or bricked up.
Price includes ribaldry
In principle, small shops tend to be friendlier and offer better customer service. This isn’t always the case in practice: the employée in one of the general stores is a candidate for my ‘surly shop assistant of the year’ award. But, generally, once they get to know you round here, shopping can even be fun. I never thought I’d say that.
The butcher we use is a case in point. Jean-Louis is a small, wiry, witty man like a Chinese firecracker. He runs the shop with his son, a large, bovine, gentle giant who blushes if he makes a mistake. Jean-Louis knows all his customers and can be relied upon to come up with a quip. Once, a customer asked for “une souris d’agneau” (knuckle of lamb). Quick as a flash, Jean-Louis replied, “Je n’ai pas de souris puisque ma femme a une … chatte!” I’m not going to translate it. It’s vulgar. You’ll have to look it up. But we all guffawed. You don’t get that at Hyper U.
There are signs that things are changing in our village, too. Several shops have closed down completely since we moved here in 1997 and have not been replaced. The Casino general store (a franchise: a bit like Spar in the UK) has moved out of the centre of the village to occupy the old salle des fêtes. And there are rumours that the pharmacie is going to move from the village up to the new medical centre, to which one of the GP practices moved a few weeks ago. It’s a 1.5 km walk out of town, up a steep hill with juggernauts thundering up and down it. Not exactly ideal for elderly people without a car.
Up till now, someone living in our village could find there everything they needed for everyday purposes. I wonder how it will be in 10 years’ time?
Pros and ‘cons’ of supermarkets
The big downside of local shops is, of course, that they are more expensive and less well stocked than their hypermarket counterparts. We worked out that the local Casino is 33-50% more expensive than Leclerc, which makes it worth taking the 55km round trip to Villefranche-de-Rouergue, even when the travelling costs are factored in.
Villefranche itself (a town of about 12,000 inhabitants) has changed in similar ways to our village in 13 years. The shops in the centre are closing down; many of them are empty. National chains that occupy the routes into town are replacing them. The Route de Montauban on the southwest side of town has been developed out of recognition since we moved here. Once it was lined with fields and the occasional house. Now it’s all warehouse-type DIY and car accessory stores.
I have always hated supermarket shopping. I don’t like the impersonal atmosphere and the ghastly piped muzak; the trolleys whose wheels go in opposite directions; the queuing at the till behind the person who laboriously takes every item out of their trolley one by one and then remembers something else they needed and wanders off in mid-flow (the ‘cons‘ in the subheading); and the scramble to get your items onto the conveyor belt and then to pack them at the other end while the shoppers behind you glare at you accusingly. It doesn’t matter if you’re in England or France; it’s just the same.
But even I have to acknowledge the convenience of getting all your shopping in one place, so I’m as guilty as anyone else of hastening the demise of our local shops.
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