Carla Carlisle on shopkeeping

Tucked on the kitchen shelf next to the teapots are the Eurostar tickets to Paris. This is where we always put tickets, because ours is a chaotic household and we spend a lot of time looking for stuff. Somehow, only tickets expensive and complicated to replace have a sacred space. There is something very satisfying about Eurostar tickets. For a start, the printed stiff card is more reassuring than those e-tickets you print yourself. And I like studying the little bilingual wallet they come in. In the English column under ‘The rules’, it says: ‘All Eurostar services are non-smoking, which is just how we like them.’

The French version is ‘Pour le confort de tous: Tous les services Eurostar sont non-fumeurs pour votre confort.’ Less reassuring are those little words non exchangeable/non refundable, a warning that appears on every ticket I buy. I call it Ticket Tyranny, because from the moment you commit to the cheapest fare, your life is ruled by that time and date. Unless you decide not to go at all, which is what I did last week. I don’t chuck two aller-retour tickets one for me, one for Sarah, my shop manager lightly.

The September trip to Paris for the ‘Maison et Objet’ exhibition is an important one on our calendar because it’s our last big buy for the shop before Christmas. Deciding to cancel at the last minute was a nervous decision. But here is the reality: being a shopkeeper these days is a nerve-wracking business. My customers are very much like me, and we’re all nervous because we simply don’t know what lies ahead. We’re putting on a brave face, with the new autumn goods a welcome relief from the messy sales of summer goods sold at a loss, in part because we never had a summer, in part because people feel wary and insecure. But behind the fresh face, optimism is thin. My instinct is to hunker down. Proceed with caution. And give ‘Maison et Objet’ a miss. More and more, the beautiful French things that I find there are designed in France but made in China. When times are good, you’re tempted to overlook these details. But when the pound is falling, it makes you think long and hard about the wisdom of going to Paris to pay in Euros for goods made in China. This need to retreat isn’t new.

Back in the 1990s, the trend doyenne Faith Popcorn coined the term ‘cocooning’ to describe the hunkering down in the economic gloom in the early half of that decade. The home became a fortress, and folks invested in comfy sofas and widescreen TVs. I believe that cocooning is back. I’ve slashed my budget for Christmas decorations for the shop on the theory that we’ll have a nostalgic appreciation of angels from years past. I’ve cut back on expensive and useless stocking stuffers (I keep thinking of Nabokov’s description of Fabergé’s encrusted eggs as ‘trivial monstrosities’) and I’m concentrating instead on useful, beautiful comfort goods such as soft wool blankets and cashmere socks made in Scotland, glassware and pottery made in England, tweed jackets made in Ireland. I’m calling these treasures the ‘Dappled Collection’, from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Glory be to God for dappled things… all things counter, original, spare, strange’.

And nothing shipped 6,000 miles in a container. My husband is uneasy about my protectionism, but I feel the situation for the small shopkeeper is dire. Perhaps it was ever thus—re-read The Tale of Ginger and Pickles and you will swoon at Miss Potter’s prophetic pen. Ginger and Pickles gave their customers credit and ended up losing their shop. There is no crystal ball, but cutting our losses (two Eurostar tickets at £59) seems a good start, along with doubling our orders to Johnstons of Elgin and Persephone Books, wool throws and good books pour le confort de tous. Which is just how we like it.