When we were growing up in Ireland our mothers would send us up to the shops for messages. Clutching the coins she entrusted to us we would give the note to the shopkeeper, or recite what she wanted and he would duly hand over the message wrapped up in brown paper and tied with string.
Messages I remember: 10 Craven A, a yard of knickers elastic, 2oz of cheddar, 5 codeine, 1lb of broken biscuits, a packet of Bisto, a pair of brown shoelaces, a bottle of paraffin, a nice fresh piece of plaice.
Nowadays we go off to the brilliant local supermarket (ultra efficient but with a wonderful variety of local produce) or the well-organized hardware store with its stocked and gleaming shelves, where the shopping experience is similar to that in Canada. But the shops of my childhood are still here too, in the small towns and villages. You can find hardware stores stuffed to the ceiling with everything you might need heaped in teetering piles. Ballydehob has one, My Beautiful Launderette, where we have dropped off our laundry and bought glue, mousetraps, nails, tools and flower seeds. In Bantry, when we can’t find the exact light bulb we are looking for in the airy modern electrical supply shop we can be sure to track it down in Vickery’s, a shambolic space loaded to the scuppers with kitchen ware, hinges, table lamps, shovels, and soap dispensers.
While modern boutiques abound in the larger towns, some clothing and haberdashery stores retain an old-fashioned charm, with most of the goods shelved in plastic bags behind glass-fronted counters.
Perhaps our favourite is Miss Clerke’s in Skibbereen. It is unchanged from the small grocery shops of the 1950s, with a little of everything neatly arranged around the walls. We go in there to buy bonbons – Robert has a liking for the apple-flavoured ones – although we have been out of luck lately. “The traveller,” she tells us, “hasn’t been able to get the apple ones for a while now.” We go home happily chewing on lemon ones (a ‘quarter’ in a paper bag) and fantasizing about life as a bonbon traveller.