The Corner Store is Alive and Well in Mexico
I love small stores. Over the last twenty years or so, when the “big box” stores really began to take over the U.S., it seemed that with every square foot added, my anxiety increased everytime I had to walk into one of those behemoths. To this day the experience leaves me cold, impersonal and exhausted, as I wander from aisle to aisle not finding anything I am looking for.
In the town where I live in Mexico, most of the stores are about the size of a walk-in closet. La tiendita de la esquina (also known as the corner store) and la papeleria (a “stationary” but oh-so-much-more store) are the heart and soul of a Mexican neighborhood. In my neighborhood alone, I count eight tienditas within a three block radius. Each one has it’s own flavor.
You can get the basics at all of them: milk, cigarettes, and snacks. But one might have some avocados and limes and another might have fresh chilis, pan dulce or tomatoes. Another might sell chicken and dog food. If one doesn’t have what you’re looking for, the other one just might. At least that day.
When I think of a “stationary store”, what I remember feels very formal and well-organized; lots of pastel colors with beautiful displays of paper from India and China and Nepal. This would not describe a Mexican papelería.
La papelería is like a tiny Office Depot, except all the goods are hanging everywhere on the walls willy-nilly and packed into the small space. You will find paper, pens, notebooks and all things office-y to be sure. But also, glitter, grosgrain ribbon by the foot, art supplies, packaging, single sheets of tissue paper in every color and party decorations as well. Many also have computers and copy machines.
My favorite papelería is packed to the gills. Everything looks like it has been there for 100 years and the elderly woman who owns this store knows exactly where everything is.
As a teacher here for six years, I went to the papeleria nearly everyday for copies and supplies. The one a block from my school is run by a sweet young couple who always addressed me as “maestra”. Need twelve novels copied for a class? No problem. “Copyright infringement” is not really a thing here.
Shopping at these stores is not only convenient but comes with a side of friendly greetings and conversation by the owners who are also your neighbors. You don’t enter these stores and browse the aisles with your large shopping cart. Most everything is behind the counter and so it is necessary to interact with the owner or worker, thus giving you a pleasant exchange with someone in your day. This fosters a sense of community where people linger, converse, exchange pleasantries, and probably a little gossip.
Since nearly all small stores in Mexico are extensions of the family home, sometimes the owners only pop out from their living area when they hear someone has come into the store. True to the family owned business, there are frequently babies and young children helping their parents, playing, watching television or doing homework.
I have a soft spot for the mom and pop store because I am a product of one.
My father owned and operated an Italian deli and small grocery for the whole of my childhood. Along with all three of my siblings, I worked for him from the time I was twelve until I left home.
As an adolescent, it seemed to me my father knew just about everyone who came into the store. He was always a flirt and fancied himself a singer and so he saw his business as an extension of his personality and used his charm to win and retain his customers.
He would sing someone a song while he sliced the deli meat or dished out the olives. He’d happily give you a sample of cheese or a piece of Bazooka bubble gum for your child. He was the guy everybody knew because everyone in the neighborhood shopped there. I came to understand they not only came to “Carmen’s Deli” for the quality food and convenience, but they came because my father provided them with a little something friendly and familiar in their day.
The Mexican tienditas provide this similar experience. There are over one million of them and they are the most common small business in Mexico. They arose out of a need for people who have low income and no car and with very small homes, little room to store large purchases. On the corner they can buy fresh in small quantities.
Tienditas also act as a kind of “social bank” giving credit to people in the community without access to bank financing.
One of the things that is unique about these mom and pop stores is that they are all unique. While the big box store is bent on making every store, and therefore every experience completely homogenous, the tienditas restore a sense of individual character to your shopping experience.
While some people may take comfort in a kind of sameness and predictability, modern times seem to point to people wanting more connection, and less anonymity. There is a human scale to the corner store that gives a rhythm to a neighborhood and the community a chance to slow down. No store the size of a football field can accomplish that to any sizeable degree.
There are certainly big box chainstores in Mexico, although only a good distance from town(but still not as enormous as some in the U.S.) and thankfully not part of my car-less experience where I live.
The corner store not only feels familiar and comforting but provides an essential thread in the social fabric of Mexico just like my dad’s deli did for my childhood neighborhood. I dream of returning to the U.S. to a mom and pop revival of sorts, dishing out the personal and friendly service I remember my father providing all those years ago.
I go to the corner for a quart of milk. It is late afternoon and the the only light inside is from the glow of the setting sun. Carlos, the owner, has a few coins and bills lined up on the counter ready to dispense change. We share a joke as I catch him “robbing” a piece of his pan dulce for sale. I notice he has limes today and I place a few on the counter. We exchange “buenas tardes” and a few other pleasantries and I leave with the smile of a happy customer and walk back up the dusty hill.
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