It’s an unavoidable fact of life that there will always be certain people who know more about us than we’d like them to: the therapist, the ex-boyfriend, and hotel housekeeping are among them. We’ve told them our hangups, fallen in love with them once upon a time, or literally asked them to sift through our dirty laundry. As a result, they know our secrets—but that’s usually because we’ve willingly spilled them.
There is another breed of person that knows a bit more about us, though. They see us on our drunken late nights and equally on our hungover late mornings. They know that we don’t go grocery shopping as often as we should and that, sometimes, a 40 oz. bottle of Red Stripe paired with tortilla chips is a suitable dinner for a Thursday night.
They are the corner-store owners.
Every urban dwelling human has probably entered an unspoken relationship of this kind. Each city has its own iteration dotting the streets—the bodega in NYC, an off-license in London, or a liquor store in LA—but what takes place inside is largely the same. Each time you go to buy your brand of tobacco on your way to the bar, stumble down the road to pick up milk and eggs on a Saturday morning without bothering to put on a bra first, or purchase Cool Ranch Doritos and chocolate bars when you’re drunk, depressed (or both), they learn just a little bit more about you.
Taken individually, these habits may not reveal that much, but, over the course of a year or two, much more if one were paying attention. (And let’s be honest: they totally are.) My corner-store owners know that I drink Diet Coke in a can when I’m on a deadline, Perrier when I’m hungover; I read the Guardian on Saturdays or the Observer on Sundays; and I regard a bottle of dry rosé as a panacea for most of my ills, so long as it’s not an abstemious Monday.
Having grown up in suburbia, where big box chains and SUVs render the landscape impersonal, I hadn’t really experienced the intimacy of the corner-store relationship until I moved to cities. There was the flat in Camden where the corner-store guys directly across the street could see into the second-story window that I shared with another Australian girl (and who were not shy to share this fact with us each time we went to buy Maltesers late at night); the corner store in Dalston where the Turkish proprietor once suggested I buy the right-wing Daily Mail when he’d sold out of the weekend Guardian (I have a feeling he was trying to provoke me; our relationship was never the same); and the Moroccan teenager in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris who, despite my inability to speak his language, was incredibly gracious the time I knocked over an entire display of roasted nuts and could only emphatically say “Je suis désolé!” before scurrying out in utter humiliation.
After the nut incident, I was inclined to walk the extra few blocks to the slightly larger, more anonymous—or safer—supermarché next time I wanted a late night snack. Along similar lines, the humorist David Sedaris talked about his fraught relationship with a French corner-store owner who dismissively asked him if he was a tourist on vacation despite the fact that he had bought his newspaper from that woman seven days a week for a year and a half. Like me, Sedaris felt the weight of their silent judgment; the more they know about us, the more self-conscious we become in our dealings.
Alas, if I can get past this possibly imagined neurosis of what the off-licence owner thinks of my idiosyncrasies, perhaps there’s something to be valued in this inescapable intimacy of urban life. (Perhaps he doesn’t think of me at all, but the nature of humans is to be voyeurs.)
We move through cityscapes with the protection of headphones, buy our cinema and train tickets from machines, and—if Amazon has its way—benefit from same-day delivery of items ordered online via unmanned aerial vehicles. Perhaps the humble corner store is the last stand of enforced human interaction.
They are, after all, one of the few places where a “hello” and “goodbye” are required to complete a transaction instead of a “confirm purchase” button. If nothing else, it’s a hell of a lot easier to buy a pint of milk by walking down the road in your PJs than it is to wait for a drone to deliver it.
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Photo by Eddy van Tilburg.