Friday, June 1, 2012

Scribbles in Drumcondra-- Everything a Newsagent Should Be

I have sometimes been accused of being anti-capitalist. This might be because, although I am a conservative, I do not worship at the shrine of the Free Market. (I even doubt if such a thing as a free market exists. Businesspeople who consider labour and safety laws to be suffocating red tape seem less hostile to other regulations like copyright and contract laws.)

But as a matter of fact I am not anti-capitalist. Nor do I have any problem with the profit motive, with entrepreneurship, or with inequalities of wealth. I think consumerism is a bad thing if it means people are compulsively shopping or becoming obsessed with the acquisition of luxury goods. I think it's healthy to get as much use as possible out of what you have, and to appreciate the old and time-worn more than the new and shiny.

For all that, I don't see anything dirty or shameful about shopping itself, or even taking pleasure in shopping. I love shops. I'm not talking about the swanky shops full of big-name brands, the sort of shops that probably charge your credit card just for looking in their windows. No, I like corner shops and pound shops and second-hand shops. I think there is a unique pleasure in scanning shelves of cookie jars and soapdishes and novelty pencil-cases. Shelves full of battered old books and old numbers of The Northumbrian History Society Journal are even better.

(I even had a Dublin Shops blog at one stage. It must have been the least-visited corner of the internet.)

I walk from Dublin city centre to Ballymun most workdays, and I usually make it my habit to drop into Scribbles on Drumcondra Road, the best li'l newsagent in the city, if not in the whole of Ireland. It's a pokey little shop-- I often find myself bumping into other customers-- but it's better-stocked than most other newsagent's I know, and it has a unique character.

First of all, and best of all, it stocks all the Catholic newspapers and magazines. The Catholic Herald, the Catholic Voice, the Irish Catholic, the Catholic Times (which I didn't even know existed), the Sacred Heart Messenger, the Universe, and more. This is fairly remarkable in itself, since most newsagents don't stock any of the above. It also stocks Catholic calenders and cards.

It sells the provincial newspapers, along with lots of international newspapers. Also available are Ireland's Own and Ireland's Eye, old-fashioned Irish magazines which hold their own in so many newsagents against the tide of celebrity and sports and computer titles.

In keeping with its name, the shop has a whole wall of stationery and pens, which I take great pleasure in dawdling over. Pretty much every writing implement and aid you could imagine is there, along with envelopes of every kind, copies and notebooks, twine, folders, and so on. Just looking at them arouses that deep-seated desire that lurks in so many of us, the desire to deprive blank paper of its virginity, to keep records and compile journals and doodle on a lined page with a deliciously fluid felt-tip pen.

It has books, too, and a surprising selection. There are the standard thrillers, and the usual chick-lit, but there are also books by local authors (and I don't mean just Cecilia Ahern), books of regional jokes, and other oddities.

And there are toys, the kind of toys that were plentiful in shops when I was a kid, but that I never notice these days-- toys that are not merchandising attached to some TV show, but rather timeless favourites like water pistols and skittles and magnifying glasses. Cheap toys that come in a bag rather than a box. Even seeing them makes me nostalgic.

Even the sweets are different from those of other shops. Sure, they have all the standard chocolate and fizzy drinks, but they also have unexpected products. I bought an American cream soda there recently, and today I acquired a can of root beer. Root beer! I've only tasted it once before, and that was in the USA.

My favourite thing about Scribbles, though, is the whole atmosphere and layout of the shop. Nothing is more soul-numbing than the orderly, logical, rationalistic floorplan of a Tesco or a Hughes and Hughes. There is something in the human spirit that cries out for disorder and spontaneity, and little shops like Scribbles satisfy that appetite supremely. Everything is on top of everything else, and everything is higgledy-piggledy, making the place as individual as a fingerprint.

Added to all this, the staff are really friendly, and are usually chatting to regulars when you walk in. Some people seem to resent shop assistants talking on duty-- at least if it delays them being served by as much as a precious half-second. Personally, I've never wanted to be served by zombies with vacant grins. I like to feel that every shop has a life of its own, that it's more than just a place of business. Even if that means I have to wait five or ten or even fifteen whole seconds for attention.

Is this a lot of words to waste on a mere newsagent's? I don't think so. I think we are too dismissive of shops. We spend a lot of time in them. They are public places, community centres, even little societies of their own. And the good ones, the ones that preserve a character and individuality of their own in the face of the Tesco's and Spar's and Centra's, deserve to be celebrated and cherished.

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