Sitting on the end of most British streets, selling anything from plugs to odd-looking ham, corner shops provide a homey alternative to the supermarkets' self-service checkouts and robotic 'Do you have a clubcard?' questions. As large chains ferociously chew away the British high street and turning them into a long line of Prets, these little huts of chocolate and cleaning paraphernalia have become a dying breed.
Dip Patel sells most VICE UK staff their mid-afternoon snacks and cigarettes from the off licence he runs with his mum and dad, on Leonard Street in Shoreditch. I had a chat with him to find out what its like being at the frontline of human interaction.
VICE: Where do you live? Do you have a local corner shop there?
Dip Patel: Yeah, that's my bed you're standing on. I'm kidding. I live upstairs, which is good for me because I get up at 4AM to do my paper round and then I'm back to open the shop for 7AM. Its a long shift. I finish at about 6.30/7 PM. Which is not as bad as those 24-hour shops – I couldn't do that.
Do you find yourself snacking all the time?
Yeah I do. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I come down into the shop and grab an ice cream. At the moment I've got some chocolate on the go, crisps and a croissant – but Ritter chocolate is my weak spot.
What is the weirdest thing you sell?
Define weird. I've got a duster for a car, I have got amps – you know those little fuses you put in your car; I've got those – I've got cable ties, sewing kits, baits for ants, rat traps, telephone extensions, carving knives, rubber bands, hair bands... I even have those old Granny hair grips – you remember those little, black, wobbly hair grips? Trust me, there's a market for everything.
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Is there anything you won't sell on principle?
No, if something is legal and there is a market for it, I will put it up here. I don't discriminate. I don't sell sex stuff though, no Barely 18s, because its lewd and there are kids coming in here.
Where do you pee?
I have a flat upstairs but if I don't piss on the flat, I'll go in the toilet (laughing). There is this sandwich bar next door you see, and they've got a public restroom which works out well for the whole family.
Do you get a lot of people coming in in their pyjamas?
There are no residents around here, darling – it's basically offices and shops. The few who might live around here, don't bother coming into small shops now. They are Monday to Friday workers so Saturday and Sunday – they'll go off to the supermarkets. So it's more men in suits and women in blouses, although sometimes it's men in blouses and women in suits. We are in Shoreditch – it happens. I see people wearing a lot of weird things around here, it's all fashion industry, init.
I can even tell if someone is new to the city and has just come from the sticks – from the middle of Kent like Ashford or something. I see them grow up.
What have you learned about British society by working in the shop?
Do you hear my voice? I am a Londoner. What am I gonna know about British culture? I grew up in London.
But you can tell if someone is new to the city and has just come from the sticks – from the middle of Kent, like Ashford or something. I see them grow up. They arrive in London and the girls, especially, they are wearing their mother's pearls and then after about three or four months you see the change: London's got them, they have lost the refinement and the politeness. They've become fast, stressed: "Give me the cigarettes, quick, the money, quick, quick, I got to get out."
How often do you get shoplifters?
Touch wood – not often. To be fair, kids don't shoplift as much as people tend to think. They'll do it for a laugh, and then they grow out of it. Adults shoplift way more than children.
If I see someone try to take something and it is a bit of food, I might let it go. But if I can see that this guy can afford it but he just wants to take the mick, then, no. There was this one guy, who came in and tried to take a packet of biscuits, I saw him step outside and I said to him, "I'll let you go, but know that I know what you've done." He was really apologetic but I could see he didn't have any money, so I let him take it. I told him to ask next time. You'd be surprised at the number of shopkeepers who'd help you out if you just ask. If they see you can't afford food, most of them will give you something to eat – we are not all nasty and money hungry.
Do you ever flirt with your customers?
I don't know, is this what we're doing now? You've got to. I make no exceptions – men, women. As long as I know it's all a bit of a laugh. Although, having said that, it has come back to bite me once, when I did flirt with a fella and he thought I was having a go, and suddenly he asked me out for Christmas dinner – I was like "No, mate." He took it well, he doesn't work locally but he still pops by to say hello.
What is the scariest thing that has taken place in your shop?
Quite some time ago we had an incident. There is a sandwich bar around the corner and there was this little guy working there, called Mark. He'd locked up his shop and I'd had a bad day already because I had been stuck in traffic with a cash and carry, and I'd just come back in, and then he came running in saying: "Dip, Dip, he's trying to stab me, he's trying to stab me." There comes this great, massive fella running into my shop behind him, trying to stab him with a screwdriver. "He wants me money, he wants me money," Mark kept shouting. I stepped in, clocked the bloke, bang, threw him to the ground, he pushed me back off again. But I didn't have to get him out the shop because my mum came round the corner – she's only about 4ft, still she comes carrying this massive stick shouting: "Get out you little monkey! Get out of the shop! Don't you hit my son!"
My mum, she's horrendous. The National Front – the predecessors of the BNP and all that – their head offices used to be literally behind us. When they first moved in, a couple of lads with bald heads, braces, they were all of about 6ft tall, bowled into the shop and they are effing and blinding, "You bleeding Paki, running Paki shops all over the corner, don't get no white people anymore," – that kind of thing.
So my mum's behind the counter and she pulls out a little wooden stick and shouts, "You bloody white monkeys, you bastards, get out of my shop or I'll hit you." And she's chasing them down the road calling them white monkeys and the geezers all down the street were pissing themselves laughing. They came back the next day though because she'd rang up the guy who runs the National Front – Martin or whatever his name was – and she told him, "You send those boys in my shop again and I will hit them." So he sent them round again and they said "Mrs Patel, we are really sorry, we didn't mean it. You' re one of us, you're all English." It was a right laugh, that was.