As cities around the world become same same, it's the local merchants that make us different
In praise of Abu Dhabi's small shops
When I lived in a fourth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn, in the hazy days of pre-gentrification, I got to know the guys in the deli that I passed every day on my way to the subway. For those of you who aren’t New Yorkers, the deli is much more than a sandwich place. It’s a corner market where you can get coffee and sandwiches, sure, but you can also get cat food and paper towels, dish soap, fruit and a certain kind of delicious wholewheat fig bar that I’ve never seen anywhere except a New York deli.
The guys who worked at the deli became my unofficial concierge service. The mailman knew to leave packages there for me; a friend coming to visit could pick up the key to my apartment. On holidays, I brought the guys little gifts—chocolates or maybe a plate of homemade cookies. The conversations we had, about the weather, local politics or the health of the ageing cat who patrolled the store, helped the city feel like home, as if I weren’t entirely alone.
Then I went on vacation and when I came back, the shop was boarded up. The fig bars, the sandwiches, my concierge service, all gone. I asked my landlady, an unpleasant woman who knew everyone’s business, what had happened. “Rent,” she said, making a brushing motion with her hands. “Their rent went up crazy high so they’re out.”
In the overall life of a city, the shuttering of one small shop is not a big deal, although it’s a big deal for the people who worked in the store and a loss for those of us who saw the shop as an anchor in our daily lives. When I walk down that block now, I could be anywhere. There’s a bank, a CVS, a national drugstore chain; there’s a Hollister store. It’s the same line-up of stores I see all over the city and I wonder—how many Hollister stores does one city really need?
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The other day I picked up some alterations I’d had done at Ansar Tailor, my favorite tailoring shop in Abu Dhabi. It’s near Madinat Zayed shopping centre, right next to Food Queen Honey, with its gleaming glass vats of amber honey. The last time I was at the tailor, he took me next door to meet Saleh the honey seller and we had a long conversation, in a mishmash of Hindi, Arabic and English, about bees and why honey will cure you of almost anything — or so Saleh told us.
Walking from my parking spot to Ansar's, I went past the notions shops, which always tempt me into thinking I should take up sewing so that I’ll have a reason to buy yards of velvet ribbon and rhinestone buttons. The empty lot next to the shops echoed with the shouts of kids playing cricket, a game that I will never understand. Their shouts mingled with those of men sitting outside little grocery store listening to a sports match on the radio. The smell of cardamom wafted out of the store and mixed with the scent of fresh bread from the bakery down the block. I couldn’t resist. I took a short detour and bought myself a fluffy round of warm naan, which I munched on as I walked back towards the tailor.
The tailor had my garments tidily wrapped up and we spent a few minutes chatting and nibbling on the warm naan. We talked about the beautiful fall weather and the health of his mother back in Kerala. He asked after my children, whose growth he measures in the size of the hems he puts in their school trousers and then he apologised for the increased cost of the alterations he has done. “They charge more for rent,” he said, waving his arms around his tiny shop. “Much more expensive now.”
We are leaving for the winter holidays in a few weeks. I hope that when we come back, Ansar—and its neighbourhood—are still there.