From small seeds, flowers bloom: My childhood as a shopkeeper's daughter

I think I was about three-years old when I have my earliest memory of living above a shop. My parents owned the local grocer’s shop in Bramham, near Leeds, that served the whole village with just about anything they could need. 

I remember being fascinated by the large tins of dry goods which sat on the floor at a perfect height for a three-year old’s investigation. Each had its own shiny, metal scoop and I remember watching my parents measure out these goods into paper bags and cones, before swinging them round by the ‘ears’ to seal the bags for sale. 

I loved the way the budgie seed shone and slipped through my fingers and how gorgeous the ground almonds smelled, a smell I still enjoy today. These two tins, probably each containing around 10lbs of dry goods, happened to sit next to each other. One day I discovered how very satisfying it was to make a dry porridge by adding scoops of one container to the other one, and vice versa.  The result was two very large tins of stock which were of no use to either human, or budgie!! Not surprisingly, this was a one-off experiment, as the replacement tins were very hastily relocated to a shelf well out of my reach. 

Once a week, the day of the chocolate delivery was marked by the huge purple lorry which rolled up outside, with one word emblazoned on its side. To me, it looked like a giant bar of chocolate itself. The first word I learnt to read in joined up writing was the beautifully scripted word, Cadbury.

I remember my Dad in his brown warehouseman’s coat or jacket in the summer, or wearing his white cotton overall if it was the day he rolled the bacon. Great slabs of meat were rolled on the big table at the back of the shop, with a huge ball of twine and several very serious looking knives. Eggs were sold singly and hams were boiled and roasted in our family oven – I can still remember the delicious smell. 

In the school holidays, whilst still small enough to both enjoy the ‘adventure’ and fit in the boot, I would accompany my Dad as he delivered the orders around the village in a green Morris Traveller.  I got to sit in the back surrounded by cardboard boxes. Between the firelighters, the bread, jam and cheese wrapped in greaseproof paper parcels, was a little Silvine red order book in each box, containing the customers handwritten list of requirements and my schoolteacher mother’s handwritten numbers and ‘totting up’. Dad had a big apron pocket full of cash which jangled as he walked. It was a strictly cash operation and there were no delivery charges, even though we travelled several miles to remote gamekeeper’s cottages and farms to bring much-needed supplies.

I was born in 1963, about the time the A1 was diverted around the village of Bramham, rather than slicing through the middle of it. The road had effectively separated the shop from the village and the school opposite. I understand that Dad would often walk out into the middle of A1 and stop the traffic, to see his customers safely across. While the bypass was being built, there were several months of boosted trade, thanks to supplying sandwiches and ciggies to the men working on the roadworks.

The coming of decimalisation was a significant event and I remember my Dad returning from the bank with the new currency, pre-launch, with all the coins in paper rolls. These had to be unwrapped like a tube of Refreshers, and they came with a very basic board game, courtesy of the bank, to teach us how to do the adding up. All the price tickets had to be re-written and displayed in ‘old’ and ‘new’ money.  For a very long time my poor parents had to work hard to ‘acclimatise’ their suspicious customers to this significant change to their world!!

This was all before modern card payments and cash was the primary payment type. This meant a trip in the van to Wetherby on a Saturday night to drop the battered old leather money pouch into the night safe.  We had half-day closing on Tuesdays, when the shop would be cleaned from top to bottom, making it not really a half-day off, just a respite from customers. As I got older, Tuesday afternoons in the holidays became an opportunity for me and my Mum to take a bus ride to Leeds, or a coach trip to a stately home from Wetherby bus station. Holidays away were very rare, but these excursions and coming home to my Dad toasting teacakes on the fire for us, are some of my happiest memories of a cosy and safe childhood.

Real customer service existed then, even if no one called it that.  There was a recognition that in business you were to be relied upon. To be open when you said you would be, to be able to help meet your customer’s needs, to bring them the things they wanted and to show them some new things which they may have never seen before.