Country Shops of St Helena, Part 1 – Family Traditions
The Shops And Keepers Behind The Counter | Sharon Henry
Something most of us can appreciate is how fast time flies, blink and before you know it – we’re living in the future and an ever changing world. Take for instance shops and the way we shop.
As a young child I remember running errands to buy hot, fresh bread from the town bakers, waiting for a quarter pound of cheese to be cut and balance-weighed to order and buying single cigarettes over the counter (bad mummy!) Even, watching the cobbler do repairs holding nails in his mouth. Those bakers have closed, cheese is now pre-packaged, cigarettes are only sold by the pack (so I’m told) and certainly not to minors, and that cobbler is but a distant memory, people these days don’t repair shoes they buy new ones.
Those shops were family traditions and formed a part of our cultural heritage, some now long gone and undocumented. The retail environment and our lifestyles have evolved since, with self-service, more choice, deeper pockets, refrigeration, technology and even mobility.
Given that yesterday is already history, we’ve decided to blog about St Helena’s small country shops of today and the shopkeepers who represent that link to our island culture from another time. Steadfast in serving their communities from either home or custom-built premises, some still operating over-the-counter. Besides being grocers they are the local grapevine, the off-licence and for some, creditors until payday putting groceries on account, providing a convenient, convenience. Family traditions of the island.
This is the first in a series of four about the small country shops of St Helena. Links to the other articles at the end of this post.
Yon’s Shop, New Ground Point (sub post office)
Lily Williams [Charlie H Yon] Over the Counter. Opening date unknown.
“I think this shop could be about 100 years old,” says owner, Lily Williams (61) sitting behind the counter with a calculator at hand as she doesn’t use a till. “My nanny started it and if my daddy was still living he would have been 100 now. I reckon it might be one of the oldest shops still in operation on the island.
“We’ve always sold groceries, the main essential stuff and have always been an ‘over the counter’ shop. I won’t change that, even the shelves because it’s historical. They were made by my grandfather and daddy from flattened petrol drums, it has sentimental value.
“All I’ve changed is the counter and put a ceiling up. They say I’m old fashioned but it’s not that, it’s keeping traditions or you feel like you’re letting your parents down.”
Putting Money In The Store Room
“My main customers are from New Ground and I get people from Cleugh’s Plain. As long as I can I’ll help the district so they don’t have to go anywhere else for groceries. More or less we have everything here. I tell anybody if there’s something they want I’ll go and get it for them, that’s the service you’re supposed to provide.
“What I normally do is when the stocks come in (imported by local wholesalers) I try and get as much as I can, it’s very rare I run out of stuff. Trained by my father. Daddy taught me; ‘you must get the things in for the people, don’t worry over money,’ he used to say. ‘Put the money in the store room.’ So I just carry on with what he used to do.
“I mean it’s no use having money if you can’t buy anything because the wholesalers have run out. As long as you have stuff in the store room you always can make money off it.”
“This is also a sub Post Office so I distribute local mail and overseas post when the ship comes in, I also can do parcels and mail for posting. Mobile phone cards are new and I sell plenty. Funny how things change.
“There used to be lots of little country shops, they’re all closed now, Charlie Thomas up Knollcombes, Caswell Francis up country and Ronnie Duncan, all those little house shops and I think we are the only one still going.
“Any funny stories? Before days people used to be so poor and one we do still laugh about is when someone took mummy’s eggs from her fowls and sold them to her to sell in the shop! Some stories will have you in fits.”
My Father’s Footsteps, Family Traditions
“We do, do credit, ‘grocery books’ is a tradition we carry on. Everything is written in the ledgers and I keep two books as a check. Me and daddy used to do this together and see who could add up the fastest!
“Doing this I feel like I’m carrying on the family tradition, although I’m the only one from a family of 10! I just want to carry on in my father’s footsteps because I think that he knew I would have, so I don’t want to let him down.”
Philip John’s Shop, Nr St Paul’s Cathedral
Managed by Shana John and Karen Johnson, Self-Service. Opened 6 December, 1984
“This shop started as a one room, over the counter shop attached to our house,” says Shana, joint manager and youngest daughter (26) of the shop owner, Philip John. “We had a refit in December (2016) and opened an extension through the store room in the back. We needed more space, it used to get crowded in here with customers’ baskets plus we wanted to stock new and different items. The thing is, being in the country everything is in town and we have a lot of older customers who can’t get to town easily. They don’t have a car and need to hire a taxi which can be costly if they just want something simple like a present or a card.
“We order from Cape Town and UK to get some different items to what other shops have here. We try get little bits of everything, household items like wash cloths, clocks, torches and kettles to save people a trip into town. We have credit accounts for our customers, many who have been with us since day one.”
Baby Business Boom
“Something we sell here that people go crazy for and come from other districts to buy, is baby milk-powder and nappies. I had my little girl three years ago and found that these items used to run out. So we started stocking them and they’ve become some of our biggest sellers.”
“Being a country shop we have customers for animal feed (fowls and pigs), so our range covers gifts and clothes to baby, animal and everybody else’s food all in this small space!
“We sell our own homemade cakes, curry puffs, cheese straws and boiled pudding. People sometimes bring in their produce for us like vegetables and eggs and we sell Solomon’s Bakery bread – Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays by order only.”
“Because we’re next to the church we’ve added (artificial) flower arrangements for funeral services and gravesides and they’ve been doing well. Oh and something simple we sell that you can’t buy anywhere else, is ice lolly (pop) sticks!
“I’ve been working in the shop since I was 15 (11 years.) I’ve tried other things; worked on the RMS, been on the Police, teaching; none suited me. I think because I knew the family business was always here and I needed to be there. Now I’m settled. Will I encourage my daughter to work here? I will try! She already comes in and hands me items for pricing.
“For me the best part about working in the shop is seeing and hearing feedback from our customers, how much they appreciate what we do for them. We try to please people; it’s their shop, so we try to satisfy everybody.”
Delray’s Store, Cleugh’s Plain
Delray McDaniel, Over the Counter. Opened 1988
The shop, previously known as ‘Stevie Macs,’ was opened in 1988 by Delray’s dad who saw the need for a convenience shop in the area. Delray now owns it and started helping out from the age of 12 serving customers and stocking shelves. Over the last four years she saw a noticeable drop in business, possibly due to migration or customers shopping elsewhere. But, business has picked up again and an extension is currently being built that will expand the premises.
Getting A Brain Freeze And Sugar Rush
Kelly Augustus has been working there for a year. “We have a little bit of everything, most people come to do grocery shopping,” she says leaning on the counter, “otherwise we have quite a wide variety of alcohol so people come in to buy that and we also sell ice, our ice sales are pretty high. Thursdays and Fridays are the main days.
“We get children coming in after school for Slushies and we sell a few local products; homemade chutneys, syrup (juice concentrate) and ginger beer. Our best syrup customers are people who’ve been abroad for a long time, they come in and get so excited when they see it, they just have to buy some! (for nostalgic reasons.)”
Country Shops on St Helena, other articles in series