Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Goodbye to the Asian corner shop

'My son, the consultant for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, is what Mr and Mrs Patel the shopkeepers have craved all these years'
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Driving down Uxbridge road between Acton and Shepherd's Bush in west London at 7am yesterday I counted 11 shops which were already ablaze with light and activity. It was miserably dark and foggy and the thick, sticky air choked up my lungs as I went into one to buy the papers. Mr and Mrs Khan who run the shop were not full of smiles it is true (but then they had probably only had five hours of sleep as these shops don't close before midnight), but they did kindly suggest I should have haldi (turmeric), honey and hot water for my wheezing chest. Then their young son showed me where the haldi and honey were on the shelves, packed to bursting like third-world busses. I had to buy.

Every single one of these businesses is run either by British Asians or by Arabs who are beginning to open shops selling general goods as well as olives, feta cheeses, nuts, and wonderful, freshly cultured yogurts. City life as we know it today would be impossible without these shopkeepers and their families who make sure that they have enough fresh coriander for foodies whenever the Delia strikes at their longings. And cheddar and breads – occasionally growing grey green fungus, long past their sell by dates – for those of us who are always caught short. It is irksome to be cheated so flagrantly so often but yet I feel an inordinate sense of gratitude to these people for doing what they do at enormous cost to their family life and not for vast profits.

Now comes the scare that these stores which have penetrated every corner of this land and our lives, may soon disappear. According to Professor David McEvoy of Liverpool's John Moores University, the number of these shops has dropped by 23 per cent in the last 10 years and the downward trend is accelerating as the supermarkets set up all night shops in residential areas. Professor McEvoy thinks that the competition from voracious big businesses is only one of the reasons for the dramatic reduction of outlets. He believes that another factor is the growing reluctance of young British-born Asians to go into family businesses which demand relentless commitment and long hours. Three years ago, I interviewed 30 such shopkeepers in west London, all of them immigrants from the subcontinent, to find out why and how they carried on with such depleting life choices.

None of the interviewees had ever had a weekend off except when there were serious health problems. Only four had taken between a week and 10 days off for the summer, although a number had gone back to their homelands for up to two months at least once over the previous 10 years, mainly to meet their obligations to the extended families there. "That was worse than the shop," said Ram, one of the shop-owners, who at 49 had already had two minor heart attacks. "Everyday, satisfying the family members, all wanting money and help because they think here in the UK we are living like maharajahs. They don't know how hard it is. The small profits and idiots who came to buy milk and treat you like an animal calling you Paki and shit, that kind of language."

Racist abuse, violence and crime against Asian shopkeepers is rife and the perpetrators are black and white. The children in these families have witnessed both and so it is not surprising that this is not a burning ambition for too many of them.

But I think the professor needs to re-examine the pessimistic future he is forecasting. This niche was noticed and filled by enterprising Asians who arrived here from East Africa and the subcontinent in the mid sixties and thereafter. They understood the 24-hour-day before it was a twinkle in the eye of self-important forecasters of trends. They found it astounding that the indigenous small business population had failed to spot the potential for shops which did not lock up at 5.30pm sharp.

As one successful friends put it: "The streets were not paved but sprinkled with hidden gold, but you had to get down on your knees and pick it up with your fingers, slowly and painfully".

Many qualified professionals were pushed along this route because racial discrimination prevented them from taking up their careers. Civil engineers, pharmacists, maths and physics teachers and even doctors realised that they had to create an independent economic base for themselves in order to survive. Research shows that banks traditionally offer worse deals to non-white Britons than to white customers, which made it harder still. Families had to pool resources. They lived 30 to a house – some even having shifts for bed and room use, saved and saved and within an astonishing 25 years made themselves enviably well placed in this nation of shopkeepers.

Their dreams for professional success were kept alive and passed on to their children. Many spent their hard-earned cash on private education for their children, who today are high achieving professionals taking up the places that were denied to their parents. "My son the consultant with PriceWaterhouseCoopers" is what Mr and Mrs Patel have craved all these years. It is what many ambitious immigrants yearn and strive for, for their children not to have to go through gruelling lives of low returns and continuous anxiety.

These families are not suffering the terrible loss and disappointment of farmers here and in places like Poland, whose old ways have been so broken by economic circumstances that their children have no choice but to leave the business which they would, in the past, have taken over.

This new trend may not necessarily be bad news for consumers either. These shopkeepers are canny. They follow needs and desires like well trained eagles and can change direction quickly. As soon as Häagen Dazs was marketed as sex food for twentysomethings, the disapproving corner-shopwallah was filling his freezer with the stuff and selling out on Saturday nights. New ethnic groups are always waiting to take up vacated spaces which white Britons would find unacceptably wearying.

Where I live the local parade has eleven corner shops, including a chemist, two newsagents and a mini-cab company. Most of the premises have been refurbished and expanded this last year. The majority are owned and run by Asian families but some are now in the hands of Middle eastern families. The video shops have gone (Blockbusters did them in) but the owners have replaced these with old fashioned delis and are aggressively promoting overseas telephone services at competitive prices and lucrative money-transfer facilities.

Hungarian and Polish ladies using these monetary services have started to use the shop windows to advertise "satisfying" massages and I have noticed recently a number of beautifully written cards by Polish gardeners who are seeking work in the area. The shop owners are delighted with this unexpected expansion. The mini-cab drivers are recommended by the pleasuring ladies to their potential customers when they call. The corner shop in one form or another is likely to be around a good while longer, giving us nicely greying cheeses but also good advice on haldi and honey.