Guest Column

At Your Service

Two years ago, I lived on a bustling, cobblestoned alleyway in Guanajuato, Mexico, just 60 feet and six inches from a little corner grocery store. I know that distance to be true because as I sat sunning myself on my front step, morning coffee in hand, I would look down the street to the front door of the store, flash back to my high school baseball days and think to myself: "That door is exactly the same distance from me as home plate is from the pitcher's rubber."

One morning as I was thinking that very thought, the shopkeeper stuck his head out and beckoned emphatically. When I strolled over to see what he wanted, I found him pointing proudly at three small bottles of syrup on one of his shelves.

Just a day or two earlier, I had gone into the shop in search of maple-flavored corn syrup (which is as close as you can get to real maple syrup in Mexico). The shopkeeper seemed crestfallen when he didn't have what I wanted, and now he had rectified the situation. So even though I had managed to find syrup at another store, I bought one of his bottles anyway.

To be honest, I was not surprised by his gesture, since every time I went into the store, the shopkeeper would leap eagerly to help me or to apologize profusely for a 50-centavo hike in the price of eggs because—¡Qué pena!—his supplier was sticking it to him again, and what could he do? Sometimes he tossed me a little piece of candy as an apology for a price hike or simply as a gesture of good will. And if I ever needed a stick of butter or a bottle of water at 11 p.m. and didn't have the cash on hand, no problem. "Just bring it by when you have it," he'd say.

So, of course, I made every effort to shop there as much as I could. This was actually easy to do, since he had managed to cram everything from ice cream to toilet plungers to fresh tortillas to 15 different types of canned chiles into his 10-foot-by-10-foot establishment. In fact, I became such a loyal customer that I experienced pangs of guilt if I shopped anywhere else. When I did, I would be sure to approach my house from the opposite end of the street, shopping bags obscured behind my back.

My relationship with the little corner store made me recall similar establishments back home in New England. I remembered when my family first moved to Newmarket, N.H., in the late 1970s, and there were at least seven locally owned corner grocery stores in what was then a town of 4,000. (Today the town is twice that size, and only Marelli's and L&M carry the flag for the mom-and-pops.) And I recalled when, as an undergrad at UNH, I had a summer job giving tours at Strawbery Banke museum in Portsmouth, where one of the exhibits was a 1940s corner store. I remember how visitors would "ooh" and "ahh" as I told them how store owners once knew their customers by name, ran tabs for those who faced financial difficulties, and took phone messages for folks in the neighborhood. Back then, people would run down to the store to grab a bottle of milk and end up spending an hour getting caught up on the latest gossip. Now in many parts of the United States, when you're out of milk you have to get in your car and drive to a generic chain mart where you'll be waited on by a disaffected teenager who doesn't know you from Adam.

In Mexico, NAFTA has opened the door for American super chains, and they are expanding aggressively here. Wal-Mart reportedly controls 40 percent of the retail market in the country now, and 7-Elevens are popping up all over Mexico City, where I've been living for the past year. But the mom-and-pop store has yet to become a museum exhibit—at least for now. Today one of these shops can still be found on virtually every block in every city and town in Mexico.

The owner of my current corner store is gregarious Rosario Manjarrez, who, like my shopkeeper back in Guanajuato, credits me a few pesos when needed, gives me free samples of new candies she's trying out, and carries just about everything I could ever need. It's easy to see why her shop is always jam-packed with customers, even with a new 7-Eleven a block away.

Myself, I plan to keep going to Rosario's shop whenever I need a can of black beans or a bottle of the local soda pop, Jarritos. And I'm hoping that the Mexican people will continue to see the value in having your own corner store—complete with an eager shopkeeper—just a baseball's throw from your doorstep.

Jonathan Clark '90, '01G, an editor, reporter and translator for the Miami Herald, International Edition, lives in Mexico City.

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