"ON TRADITION"GROCERY SHOP (MERCEARIA) “O LUGAR” ("THE PLACE") \ IN MONTE ESTORIL, PORTUGAL
If you walk uphill on this road you may not notice it is there. There’s no logo, no indication of a name even, there is no ‘look at me’ waving flag. The white gate lies hidden within a stone wall, the quirky stone steps lead the way into a fruit and vegetable shop which is 100 years old. As I walk in to take some photos of ‘design artefacts’, with no expectations, I am told a moving story of how one shop was, and is, the centrefold of many lives, from strawberries to weddings. Ana, the proud owner of this shop, is its third generation of shopkeepers. Her father, at 11 years of age began working here as a courier boy. He delivered daily supplies to the hotel down the road, by the beach, where famous actors and politicians once stayed (the hotel has now been demolished to become luxury apartments.) Back then “we had the most tasteful ingredients and the hotel did not want any other supplier” Ana smiles, although there were 3 other grocery shops in the same neighbourhood, on the same road in fact, they could not compete with this prestige of quality. In the shop, we can almost recreate the scene with people lining up in the morning, being served over the very same marble counter... the worn out wooden displays tell these stories, of movement, of activity. When the original founder died without any successors, Ana’s father, in his 20’s, inherited the shop from his boss. This man worked his entire life in the same shop. With the same counter. So, Ana grew up here. From a very young age she helped out, packing and unpacking. She vividly describes the time back then, when live chickens and rabbits were sold in the shop - “at the back there, in a cage, my father used to stock live animals, you picked the chicken you wanted and he would kill and prepare the meat for you.” 30 years ago this practice was banned from shops, until then it was very common. People picked out their meat in the same way as fruit and vegetables. Ana met her future husband here - “Well, we used to date through letters and sat outside with my mother watching us.” But she never wanted to keep the shop. She had studied to become a beautician. But when her father grew old, and her being the eldest child, he begged her to not “take away his little girl” (the shop). She felt an obligation to carry on the family business, the proud inheritance of her father, his lifework, his masterpiece. In the same way as an artist, the shop contained everything he believed in and lived for. And people knew his name. So Ana carried on, and her husband followed. Ana’s reign at the shop was tougher than her father’s. She witnessed the difficult times of dictatorship (Estado Novo) and the social revolution in 1975. “People saved up. They didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. So they cooked 3 different dishes with 1 ingredient.” The hotel got sold and they lost their big client, then having to rely on their very faithful consumers. People shopped there because they trusted them. Sometimes they could not afford to pay on the spot, but, they paied later on, when they could. Resilience. Community. After the social revolution, the boom of mass supermarket chains, the 80’s and 90’s brought about a drastic change in business - “People became fascinated by the packaging and some things were cheaper. (But I have never shopped much in supermarkets, even now.)” The faithful costumers they had then, and have now, were descendants of her father’s costumers, and father’s boss’ costumers. Generations of costumers. “I have costumers that used to come here as little girls with their grandmothers. Now they have their own family and children...” These costumers continued to trust the quality of their products, the story, the origin - “We know the name of every single supplier, we know their business, some their families.” They purchase their fruits and vegetables directly from the farmers who travel across the country, sometimes their intermediaries, and all meet at the local market where the shops get supplies. Some of these farmers are too, like Ana, second generation in the business. In recent years, Ana has hearing about this thing of ‘organic’ shops - “Sometimes we get foreigners coming in here, tourists, asking if our products are “organic”. I’m not sure if I understand what they mean. But I always explain that the products we sell (the ones farmed in Portugal because bananas are not) they are farmed with compost, you know, instead of using chemicals in the land? Because that’s how producers have always done it. Chemicals have no taste and people want taste.” That’s why these fruits and vegetables don’t last in the fridge as long, because they have no preservatives in them. And the food smells.. of food. Right now, Ana is 60 years old and will be retiring in 5 years. “You see? you have been here 1 hour and I’ve only sold 2 breads to that old man, that's only 1Euro.” Ana, much to her sadness, does not have any children. “I only come here everyday so I have something to do, but I’m tired.” In 5 years the centenary shop will close its doors, shutting in the all history, the stories, the culture, the tradition. With the marble counter.