x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

After dozens close, how Abu Dhabi's quirky corner shops have taken stock

When the capital's groceries were ordered to renovate or close, some feared it would make the capital a bit less interesting. John Henzell reports that such concerns underestimated the ingenuity of shopkeepers.

The Al Firdous Grocery store in the Mushrif area has made some modifications but will soon close for renovations in an effort to fully comply with the new Barqala regulations. Delores Johnson / The National
The Al Firdous Grocery store in the Mushrif area has made some modifications but will soon close for renovations in an effort to fully comply with the new Barqala regulations. Delores Johnson / The National

It's the bat-singing glasses with candy that really encapsulates the experience of shopping in the old-style groceries of Abu Dhabi.

Not because everybody needs or even wants a piece of cheap Chinese plastic tat for a dirham. It's just that the ability to find just such an obscure item was part of the quirky appeal of the groceries where goods would be stacked to the ceiling.

Ask for rope and the shopkeeper would inevitably smile and reach down to some nook and cranny, emerging with rope in a range of colours to choose from. A football? No problem. Nail scissors? Yep. Scouring hammam glove? Here you are, Ma'amsir.

Sometimes I used to treat it as a kind of game: try to stump the shopkeeper by asking for something seriously obscure. More often than not, I'd lose and the shopkeeper would be proudly holding up an item so esoteric I thought there was no way it could possibly have it in stock.

All this prompted a slight sense of dismay when Abu Dhabi municipality announced that the capital's groceries had to renovate to standards similar to Adnoc oasis shops or the kind of 7-Eleven convenience stores found overseas.

The new Baqala stores would be brightly lit, with wide aisles and shelves no higher than head height. The stock would be checked regularly for use-by dates and the refrigerators and freezers would be assessed to ensure they kept perishable goods at the right temperature.

It all sounded efficient and corporate, just another step towards Abu Dhabi being the modern city the government wants it to be. But it also seemed likely to drastically reduce the range of goods on sale and the quirkiness factor that had been so appealing.

Soon after the January 1 renovate-or-close deadline this year, most of the capital's groceries were shut. In a few areas of town, it was every grocery, leaving residents without any option other than taking to their cars to visit large, mall-based retailers or major grocery stores.

A few others chose to invest in renovation to bring their stores up to the rigorous Baqala standards. But a few others dragged their feet, continuing to trade in the same way they always had, staving off intervention by promising the inspectors of the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) that they would upgrade by the new deadline at the end of June.

In the same way that conservationists will set out to record the habits of species threatened with extinction, The National set out to visit some of the remaining old-school groceries to chronicle the range of goods and to compare the experience with newly opened Baqala stores.

Walking into the Al Zubair Grocery in Khalidiya is a little like walking into a dark room. It takes time for the eyes to adjust to the truly mind-boggling number of items on display but, after a few minutes, it's possible to appreciate the vast range, spanning mundane tins of beans through to cheap toys and other household items.

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Grocery closures in a single Abu Dhabi block

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Once, this grocery would have been unremarkable. Now it's a holdout to the previous way of shopping in Abu Dhabi, and it's on borrowed time.

In a few weeks, Bangladeshi shopkeeper Imam Hussein explains, it will close to be renovated to Baqala standards.

For now, though, the shelves are so stacked with goods it's entirely impossible to hazard a guess at just how many different types of items there are. Hussein thinks there are about 1,000 but I suspect it might twice that many. There are 17 different types of lentils alone.

With Baqala, he thinks there will be 500 different types of items. Maybe fewer.

But which ones? The battery-powered parrot in florid colours which perches - broken, Hussein says apologetically - on the top shelf? The motorised toy rat covered in faux fur which must have caused the ADFCA inspector to do a double-take when it was spotted on the bottom shelf?

How about the infamous bat-singing glasses, comprised of eyeglasses in the shape of a bat with a whistle built in, accompanied by a tiny bag of sweets that are shaped like something a real bat might produce but in colours unknown to nature. How it can be manufactured, shipped from China and sold at a profit for a dirham boggles the mind.

The store easily passes my test of obscure domestic items, with hammam gloves, shoe polish, rope, nail clippers, balloons, superglue, light-up yoyos, Smurfs stickers, footballs, box cutters, air freshener, padlocks, squirt guns and a battery powered fan in the shape of Spongebob Squarepants.

And that's not even beginning to account for the range of items, prompting a reassessment that the guess of 2,000 items might be conservative. And it seems that Hussein knows where every single item is located, making him like a kind of grocery Google.

The grocery is buzzing, with never a moment without customers and often queues for those waiting to pay.

Down the island near where Muroor and Airport Roads meet, Al Firdous Grocery looks like it has made a half-hearted attempt to comply with Baqala's standards by having new, lower shelves and wider aisles than most groceries.

The shopkeeper, who is reluctant to identify himself, says it will close in a few weeks for renovations and emerge as a real Baqala grocery.

In the meantime, this is the place to go if you want an apple-shaped alarm clock. Or a garden hose, a squeegee, "high class" socks, a Dingo-brand water bomb kit, HB pencils, three types of playing cards, recordable CDs, masks, wooden clothes pegs, soap dishes, boric acid powder and VHS tapes.

VHS tapes? It's like I've been transported back to the 1980s. I'm tempted to ask the shopkeeper if he has any 8-track cartridges but I suspect he'll actually have some behind the counter. They'll probably be by James Last or Liberace and I'll feel obligated to buy them, so I hold my tongue.

Instead I ask about the change to Baqala. He shrugs. It's just something that's going to happen and he reacts to it with the same resignation that most of us react to the return of the baking heat of summer. It just is.

Then a couple of boys come in to get their football inflated and he reaches under the counter - probably near his collection of 8-tracks - and brings out a pump with an adaptor for football valves. A few minutes later the boys are on the way to emulate Messi and Ronaldo on a bit of scrap land and I'm left wondering what the likelihood of that happening will be once this store becomes a Baqala grocery.

Up in midtown, the Defence Supermarket's pre-Baqala glory is obvious long before you step inside. The window has become just another way of displaying - or maybe just storing - the vast range of goods on sale.

There's a cricket ball, needles, a water boiling element, spoons, cap guns and balloons. It's just a hint at the vast range of things inside.

Apart from a narrow walking space, the aisles are restricted by piles of boxes of goods that will one day end up on the shelves.

Footballs are suspended from rails tied to the false ceiling, which has partially collapsed and features a series of unappealing stains where something indeterminately unpleasant has leaked from above.

The shopkeeper says the shop will close for renovations in 20 days but the impending Baqala standards have already prompted a reduction in staff from seven to three or four. I immediately wonder how on earth seven people could even fit inside the tightly-packed store.

He then shows us the ADFCA report from a few days before. It runs to half a dozen pages and makes for bleak reading since this shop has failed all but a couple of categories.

It passes for having adjustable shelves, for the colour of the refrigerators, and for the countertop - which is just visible beneath a range of goods for sale - being made of glass, deemed an acceptable material by Baqala.

But in just about every other category, it fails to reach standards and it's clear that in most of the cases, it is nowhere near close.

The most worrying ones are that both the refrigerator and freezer temperatures do not meet the standards. Combined with the stains on the ceiling, this is a grocery at which I would never contemplate buying anything edible.

This seems like the right time to visit some of the new Baqala groceries. My expectations are appropriately lowered, expecting it be akin to an Adnoc oasis or an American 7-Eleven.

The Shaar al Firdous Baqala off Salaam Street has that sleek corporate look that bears as much similarity to the Defence Supermarket as a Ferrari does to a Trabant.

And once inside, there seems to be a similar lean towards the junk food found in Adnoc, all displayed with that same sense of orderliness. But it quickly becomes apparent that the range of items is not nearly as restricted as I had been expecting.

This is a grocery which features most of the obscure items found in the old-style shops, albeit displayed in a far more orderly manner and, Tardis-like, in seemingly less space.

There are scouring hammam gloves, telephone cables, hose clips, rope in several colours, flip-flops, screwdrivers, plates, shoe polish, toenail clippers, batteries, balloons, plastic toys and even the seemingly inescapable Spongebob Squarepants merchandise.

What is noticeably absent are the bulkier items, such as footballs, but nearly all the obscure items I would use to flummox the old-style shops not only seem to be present but are clearly on display.

The shopkeeper, Ali Mohammed Krie, had been in an old style grocery before this and is adamant about the impact of working in a Baqala shop.

"This is better," he says.

Only a few steps away is the 24 Hour Baqala grocery, although the name belies the fact that its operating hours are actually 7am to 1am. It opened a month ago.

It, too, displays an unexpectedly wide range of products, also seemingly defying space to fit it all onto the shelves.

There's rope, clothes pegs, balloons, in-car cellphone charges, 10 types of lentils, fruit knives, I Love UAE balloons, birthday candles, modelling clay, scissors, a shaving brush ... and the list goes on.

The shopkeeper, Abdul Nasser, is just as enthusiastic about the new layout and standards.

"It's the same," he says, asked about the range of items on sale compared to before.

"But it's good for cleaning and good for light. It's not expensive. We have the same customers."

On the wall, there are a range of Chinese toys, including a cap gun of the same kind I had found amid the chaos of Imam Hussein's grocery in Khalidiya. I turn it over to look at the price tag: Dh5. It's the same price too.

I wonder if he has any 8-track cartridges?

jhenzell@thenational.ae