Vice - Corner Shops - Photo Bex Wade -16
Life

Corner Shop Owners Are the Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic

When the big supermarkets let you down, the humble corner shop always has your back.
11 May 2020, 8:30am

Every supermarket shelf around me has been empty for the past two weeks. We already know the drill: no toilet paper, no pasta and definitely no flour.

I grew up in the 80s as part of a lively corner shop-owning family, long before we got hooked on big name supermarkets, Nectar points and “buy one get one free” offers. My granddad’s shop in Wales is long gone, but I wondered how corner shops – those stalwarts of high streets everywhere – are dealing with coronavirus.

Before the advent of lockdown, I photographed corner shop owners and workers in east London to find out how they’ve dealt with being suddenly thrust onto the frontlines of the disease, serving their communities as supplies from bigger outlets dry up.

Ahmed, All in One on Mile End Road

VICE: What’s business been like in the last week?
Ahmed: Not very good. It was busier before but I think people aren’t coming out of the house now so business is going to go down... So at the moment it’s not very busy. I think it will be more than two or three weeks before they do.

What kind of stuff are people buying most?
We have the off-licence and cigarettes, so cigarettes, snacks and booze.

How are you keeping up supplies?
The warehouse where we get our fruit and vegetable supplies from is running out. So what we have to sell is all we have.

Are you changing the prices of anything?
Nah.

How do you feel about coronavirus? Are you scared?
Yes, we are also worried about the virus and also I think everyone needs to keep themselves safe.

Mohammed, City Supermarket on Mile End Road

VICE: What’s business like?
Mohammed: People are shopping but they’re looking for grocery items and we’re short of them. No toilet tissue, no rice, no pasta.

What kind of stuff are people buying most?
They’re looking for everything we don’t have. Toilet paper.

How are you keeping up supplies? Has it been hard getting stock?
I can’t get stock. There are no suppliers at the moment. But I did get masks which I’m selling [for £2 each].

Are you changing the prices of anything?
I’d never change. No, same prices as before.

How do you feel about coronavirus?
I’m scared. It is natural to be scared. The whole world is not safe, the doctors aren’t safe, a good person is not safe. I am just a normal person so how will I be safe?

Did you get any kind of government advice about staying open or closed?
I think I need to stay open because I help people. I’m interested in helping people.

Ali, Cambridge Supermarket on Cambridge Heath Road

VICE: What’s business been like?
Ali: It’s been really busy, like triple the amount every day. People buying panic items, extra extra stuff.

What kind of stuff are people buying most?
Cans, long life fish, soup, bread and eggs. Cleaning products too. Last week was cleaning products, this week they’re starting to buy groceries. But not alcohol, surprisingly.

Has it been hard getting stock?
We’ve got a problem, yeah. This is actually my last stock. Everything was hard to get hold of. There’s just no supplies of anything at the moment.

Are you changing the prices of anything?
No. But we are restricting the amount of items people can buy such as children’s medicine like Calpol. We sell them one or two max.

How do you feel about coronavirus? Are you scared?
Yeah of course, especially as I work on the till and because we’re connected to everyone, passing money etc. I’m washing my hands nearly every half an hour.

What do you think the role of corner shops is compared to supermarkets?
Corner shops are really small shops, but they try to help people. You see in this time we’re in, big supermarkets just don’t help the people. Something people need to understand is that corner shops are really important – they have to save them.

Father and daughter-in-law John and Manisha, University Stores on Old Ford Road

VICE: What’s business been like in the last week?
John and Manisha: Not so bad, but off and on, you know. We’ve had a few more customers and we’ve been selling a bit of extra stuff. It’s been quiet because the boxing at York Hall has been off. People usually come in before to get their beers.

What kind of stuff are people buying most?
People have been coming in to get their daily stuff and trying to find toilet paper and hand sanitiser.

How are you keeping up supplies?
Everything people have been looking for has all gone. We sell toilet roll... all finished. Pasta... all finished. No hand wash… all finished. No hand sanitiser. Just a bit of rice left.

John and Manisha with Sadiq Khan.

Are you changing the prices of anything?
Not at all.

How do you feel about coronavirus?
We are not really worried, but we are careful.

What do you think the role of corner shops is compared to supermarkets?
To help the community. It’s been like that for a long time. Sometimes old people can’t go as far as the supermarket and so they come here – [they’re] our local people.

Have you had any unusual encounters with people?
Lots of celebrities come in here. This shop has been here for more than 100 years – we’ve been here for nearly 40 years. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, came in here last Friday.

Mehmet, Corner Super Market on Cambridge Heath Road

VICE: What’s business been like in the last week?
Mehmet: This week has been a little bit better, busier. A lot of people stocking up.

What kind of stuff are people buying most?
People have been buying tissues, food, drink and a lot of toilet paper. Also a lot of pasta, flour, rice, noodles and some of them buy crisps and biscuits.

How are you keeping up supplies? Has it been hard getting stock?
All the cash and carry places are empty now and they are putting their prices up.

Are you changing the prices of anything?
Not all of them, only the toilet paper and handwash. People weren’t buying any of this before but now I can barely find it in the cash and carry so I had to put the prices up.

How do you feel about coronavirus? Are you scared?
I’m not scared, but it’s not good. I’m not scared for my business, though.

How many times are you washing your hands?
I’m using gloves but also washing them two or three times an hour. When I go home, I shower and wash everything.

What’s the role of corner shops compared to supermarkets?
A customer Patrick told me: “The supermarkets are completely empty so I knew these guys would have stuff I needed. I used to always come to shops like this and then I stopped but now I remember why I did.” He then went on to ask for paracetamol but they’d run out so he settled for some Lemsip.

Saban, City Supermarket on Cambridge Heath Road

VICE: What’s business been like in the last week?
Saban: Not very busy.

What kind of stuff are people buying most?
Toilet paper, pasta, hand wash. We still have pasta!

Are you changing the prices of anything?
No no no, I’d never change them. If I changed them my customers wouldn’t be happy.

How do you feel about coronavirus? Are you scared?
I’m wearing a mask. I’m scared. I’m not scared about business, but I’m scared.

What do you think the role of corner shops is compared to supermarkets?
These shops are here to help everyone.

@bexwade

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