As that woman in the second photo was about to find out, the store was closed. She would get everything she'd selected for free, because Chuck and Judi Fowler wanted to pack up and go home.
They'd put almost two years into running this business. In what must have been one of the retail miracles of all time, the Corner Shop became profitable after only three months. That's a miracle because neither Chuck nor Judi knew the first thing about what they were doing. They'd never owned a retail business before, but, more importantly, they didn't have a clue what most of the stuff they were selling was. It was British groceries. The Fowlers are Americans.
The corner on the rue Four des Flammes had stayed empty for two years when the Fowlers found it. Previously, it had been occupied by an underwear store aimed at gay men like the guys who ran it. Montpellier must have more underwear shops, and more lingerie shops, per capita than anywhere else on earth. It was hardly surprising that this particular one had gone out of business. I try to do a random walk through town most days, simply because the city center's so small and because it feels good to get out of the house and walk up and down the hills every day, so when the Fowlers' little sign went up announcing the new business, I made sure to fall by every couple of days to see what was going on.
It took a while, but eventually shelves went up, refrigerators and freezers were moved in, and, in October, 2010, the shop opened for business. I went in because they were selling one of my favorite treats: Grape Nuts, which I think are the perfect foil for the local strawberries. Not that it was strawberry season, but if they had them, who knew what else they'd have?
Then, one of the periodic disasters struck me and I lost my telephone service. I asked Judi, who'd advertised free wi-fi until she learned about the French law that if you offer wi-fi you have to keep records of the patrons' use of it, if I could use their wi-fi a few hours a day. She was very happy to have me there: not only were customers scarce, but Chuck had to go into the hospital for observation, and he'd be in for a while. She didn't like being alone in the store, so I was happy to hang out there.
One reason there were so few customers was that word hadn't gotten out yet. Before moving to Montpellier, Chuck and Judi, both engineers, had worked at a tech incubator over near Cannes, only to watch it fall apart. They'd been patronizing an English grocery store near Antibes, and, while casting around for something to do next, noticed how well she was doing. They told her they'd like to do something similar, only not in her back yard, and she pointed out that Montpellier was a central location for an area that had thousands of British people, mostly retirees, in it. It was a natural.
Pretty soon, they were getting the hang of it. Oh, sure, there were blunders. The Great Mincemeat Glut of 2010, where Chuck ordered a truly mindbending quantity and variety of mincemeat for pies and sold not very much of it (to put it mildly), came and went. They discovered that the French, so very protective of their own goods, thought the Brits made vastly better marmalade than they did, so a nice selection of that went in. They ordered a bunch of flour on someone's recommendation. That turned out not to be a great idea, but when the sell-by date came, I got all the 00 flour to make pizza with. French kids discovered Dr. Pepper. (Note to Texans: they still make soft drinks with cane sugar over here. No having to search for Mexican Cokes or Dublin Dr. Pepper!) Someone talked them into stocking wine, which was a real coals-to-Newcastle move.
But the Marmite flew off the shelves ("People really eat that?" asked Judi, amazed), and so did the Vegemite ("What's the difference?" she asked me, as if I'd allow another molecule of the stuff to pass my lips). Vegetarians were delighted in the Quorn and Linda McCartney offerings (although if you're going to be a vegetarian, eating fake meat seems to me like you haven't thought it out very well), and came in to fill baskets with the stuff. Frozen British sausages and that hyper-salty pork that passes for bacon over there did very well. So, for some reason, did frozen sliced white and whole-wheat bread, although the pan-European company Harry has identical products available in all the supermarkets here. Despite the dire warnings from the doomsayers and the mountain of unsold mincemeat, the Corner Shop started making a profit. They started getting offers for the business.
It became a regular stop on my walks around town, although so much of the stuff for sale was processed or loaded down with sugar that I didn't buy much (Grape Nuts and bite-sized Shredded Wheat were exceptions, but they were expensive), leading Chuck to call me a "food snob." It was still fun to talk to the Fowlers, to meet the folks who came in, the ones who, like me, hung out from time to time, to learn about the town (and pass on my own knowledge as I gained it) from the daily events there. Once, I was showing some folks around and walked in there minutes after Chuck had been robbed by a gang of Roma. He hadn't realized this sort of thing happened. I followed the politics of the local English bar scene without having to hang out in them and spend money. I got to know the routines, like the guy who'd come over from the bar across the street to buy candy. He was an alcoholic, dry for years, who tested his resolve by continuing to hang out at his old place with his old crowd. And he was a sucker for English candy.
But the Fowlers ran afoul of another delightful local custom. Unsure if they'd succeed, they took a 23-month lease on the property. Around the beginning of this year, they realized they should renew: even if they didn't keep the business, they could sell it to one of several people who'd expressed interest. But there was a catch. Rental law in France is very hard on the landlord (which means it's good for renters like me). After two years, you're in. It gets very hard to evict a sitting tenant. So as that 23rd month approached, the Fowlers went to the landlady. And she said sure, they could have the lease. For €20,000.
And guess what? They refused. I was there when Chuck got the call from Judi saying that's what had happened. "Well, that's it. We're gone," he said. And, a month later, they were. The day after the call came, they marked down everything 50%, sold a bunch of stock to a new enterprise called Loulou Internationale on the rue Marioge over by the Arceaux, and sold the freezers and refrigerators to a woman who's opening a store in Clérmont-Hérault in June. As soon as they can sell their house on the outskirts of town, get rid of some of their furntiture, sell their cars and all, they're moving to Panama. Or at least that was the fantasy last I'd heard.
|Two exhausted Fowlers|
* * *
I'm sad to see them go. A few months after I moved here, Lawrence McGuire opened his quirky bookshop, The Globe, over behind the main post office, and after a year or so, it went out of business. In the meanwhile the Corner Shop had opened. These were places I could drop into, meet people and chat with them, hear gossip and learn stuff. I'm not sure what closed the Globe, but I am sure what closed the Corner Shop: greed and mistrust of foreigners, both of which are rampant here. Why would any landlady in her right mind not want a business which had been profitable for 18 months in a location that wasn't particularly central or visible from the main tourist routes? And what made her so sure the Fowlers could just reach into their pockets and hand over 20 grand, even if they were making a profit? And, of course, if they'd sold the business, the new owners would have to renegotiate the lease.
And this has played into some of my thinking about my own situation here. I've now been here 3 1/2 years. I know almost nobody, don't hang out much, and have no network. I keep comparing this to my situation in Germany and telling myself it's different: there, I had a network when I moved, friends my ex-girlfriend had introduced me to. I acquired other networks, which had Germans and non-Germans in them, and they helped me understand the place I was. And it was easy to move around: my first apartment was a tiny box, and over the course of the next couple of years, I moved several times and eventually found a nice place. When I had to leave that after 11 years, I found another nice place.
Here, it hasn't been as easy. Information about basic daily life has been hard to come by. It took me months to discover that I could pay my telephone and electric bills at the post office, and that was after asking at offices of the electric company and the phone company and being told it was impossible. I've discovered that I might not be able to get another apartment. Well, I could, but it would take my having to
- put down a year's rent in escrow
- pay three month's more rent as "security"
- give the real estate agent a month's rent as a kind of legal bribe
On the one hand, I really love this place. It's been hard because finances have been hard ever since I got here: I rented an apartment that proved to be much smaller than the lying landlord told me it was (but on the other hand, I have a good lease), and two months after I got here, the project I was going to finance the first few months with, ghostwriting a guy's memoirs, collapsed when he burned me for $20,000 and then turned around and declared bankruptcy. I haven't been able to sell a book idea since then (although I've come close), and magazines no longer exist, so it's been hard establishing a firm foundation, living on a hand-to-mouth, broke-but-not-poor basis.
On the other hand, the weather here, the natural resources (which includes the food and the scenery), the whole vibe of the place, keeps me from the utter despair that was an almost constant companion in Berlin. Part of my recent marathon trip to the States was seeing if there were a place back there I'd like to live, and the short answer was that although Petaluma came close, the answer was no. Come August 2013, I'll have been in Europe for twenty years.
The closing of the English Corner Shop just stirred up these thoughts, especially as I enter another period of counting the pennies. That won't last forever, I hope, but it's still hard to make long-term plans at the moment. And, as I was walking along thinking these thoughts, with sort of an imaginary black cloud over my head, I came upon a wall with graffiti on it. I stopped, stared, and gaped. I'd seen it before, in Berlin. In German. I came back and took a picture of it, but someone had defaced it and written over it, and when I looked at the photo it didn't reproduce so well.
The sentence, however, read "Étrangers, ne nous laissez pas avec tous les FRANÇAIS!!!"
Foreigners: don't leave us here with all these FRENCH!!! (The assholes had crossed out the last word and replaced it with "Arabs.")
So now I'll leave you with a little picture of defiance while I put on my shoes and take another walk and try to figure all of this out.