Posted by Jiggy Gaton | Edit Post
Family-owned shops have been feeding their families, friends and neighbours for centuries – through complex distribution systems managed without the luxury of iPads, barcodes, or any of the other electronic accounting tools we see at play in the big-box wheeling and dealings of the Tesco.
Take the Nepali Cold Store - iconic in villages, small cities and in the capital alike, owned by the Shrestas, Chetris, Rias, and Rajaks – these are shops where people you know run them. A cousin-brother perhaps, an old school chum, a friend of your wife’s sister’s husband - you may even be related to the guy who sells you eggs in the morning, no?
Simple these stores, with no flashing and talking motion-sensor activated advertisements hung on the aisles to attract your attention to a “sale” or an in-store coupon dispenser. The Nepali Cold Store has none of those glitzy promos, or even shopping aisles.
Instead, we have a no-nonsense merchant sitting behind a large display dispensing all the daily necessities – along with some amazing niceties: chocolates from London, olives from Spain, table wine from France and fresh cheese in the round. Bandh-forbidding, we have fresh bread and 26 types of biscuits next to 7 flavors of Wai-Wai atop bags of fresh rice next to jugs of golden sunflower oil. Three-in-one coffees from Thailand next to fresh tea leaves from Illam, but we think nothing of that as we take a moment to decide on what flavor of cornflake to get – the banana, honey, or strawberry?
We are shoulder to shoulder with our neighbours who may be delivering the dal, as well as with the school kid who just wants a sweet. We take home our curd in clay pots...
These are not scenes ever shot for an action film or ones that ever make the nightly news, as shopping at the cold store is neither glamorous nor terribly exciting. It is simply commerce in the raw. You provide the rupees and the shopkeeper provides the goods, packed and handed to you personally by the owner/operator of that business – usually with a bit of chitchat before and after the sale.
Mundane, yet incredibly so in this day and age of 7-Elevens with automatic doors that swish open at alarming rates and then chime an odd defining tone, and inside so brightly lit that you feel like a goat in the headlamps not knowing which way to turn for your Pepsi and chips.
At the Nepali Cold Store you are never greeted by an elderly senior smiling and handing you a flyer that shows not only that beans are on sale but 52” LED TVs as well. Let’s call them the “hot” stores, these are the Best Buys and the WalMarts and the CVS’es of the world that require a shopping cart the size of your motorbike to navigate through, even if it’s just a tin of tuna fish you are after, and not a new chain-saw or discounted designer jeans.
The Nepali Cold Store has retained an old world atmosphere as musty as any museum or shed behind your barn. The floors are not waxed nightly, and the staff hardly exceeds one. Yet shopping is effortless as there was no need to find a close-in parking spot requiring coins fed into a meter. You just step outside your gate, and that is as far as you have to go.
My very first shopping experience in a Cold Store was in a small upstate New York village called Fishkill. The year: 1961. The Coca-Cola signboard was hand-edited to read “Joes Groceries: Where the Beer Is Always Cold And The Coffee Hot.” I was sent by my mother to get a jar of baby food for my little sister, and a can of tuna as well as a loaf of bread. I wasn’t sent with any money, as Joe knew my entire family and had known me since I was in Pampers. He simply recorded the transaction (about a dollar) into his ledger he kept inside the case of candy bars, mosquito repellent, and shampoo with conditioners.
Essentially, that first cold store is no different in style and character as the store in which I bought my Cheeseballs and Coke Light today, only the name on this store reads Jamuna Store, Dhobighat. The floors are stone and the light is dim, but there is that same book of credits with hash marks representing the paid-in-fulls under the counter. So another dollar was added there, again under my name and with a chat from someone who knows my entire family - even my dog Krypto.
Joe’s Groceries hasn’t sold a beer or anything else since 1984, as most cold stores in America are history, replaced by cold chains run by megacorps. So perhaps it’s these ordinary things that existed back then (and manage to thrive today) that capture our attention, as they remind us of a time when life was simple, direct, and to the point: 1kg of butter please.
So the next time we find ourselves complaining that the Internet is down and “dawggonit I left my shopping-list app on my smartphone at home,” just think “Nepali Cold Store” and your mind will ease... “See here sir, I’ll have one ½ kg of that cheese.”
Who the heck is he?
- Jiggy Gaton
- lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.