The thing about shopping for food in small stores is that you have to walk from one store to the other. Are people really willing to do that much walking, outside in the weather, nowadays? Do they have time?
Everybody works, and by that I mean that in most modern couples both people have jobs. Fewer and fewer couples have the luxury of having one member of the household free to spend time shopping daily — not to mention cooking daily. We all know this.
Maybe we should set up a society in which there are dozens or scores of little drive-thru specialty shops. We could just drive from one to the other, ordering a nice head of lettuce and some carrots in first one, a chicken in the second, a bottle of wine in the third... Oops, what about the energy costs involved in all that? In this end-of-oil era, it's too late for that kind of progress.
Not only does it take a lot of time to walk from shop to shop, you have to stand in line in each shop and wait to be served. The food really has to be significantly better for customers to be willing to do that. And then you also have to carry all your purchases home with you. You can't buy much. So day after day, it's the same routine. Where's the romance in that?
We had a neighbor in San Francisco who was of Italian extraction. Hers was an interesting story.
Diana's father had immigrated from Italy after World War I, learned some English, and decided he wanted to stay. He returned to Italy, married his childhood sweetheart, and brought her back to San Francisco to live. They ended up running a neighborhood grocery store in the city's Marina District, and living in an apartment over the store.
The neighborhood we and Diana lived in had been a blue-collar area where a lot of Italian (and other immigrant) families settled and raised families. Diana bought her house, new, in 1965, and still lives there, as far as I know.
She would tell me about "those old Italian peasant women" who lived in the neighborhood early on and who would trudge down a very steep hill for half a mile or so, do their shopping, and then lug bags of groceries back up that steep hill — maybe not daily, but several times a week. She admired them, but didn't want to emulate them.
Who is willing to do that any more? Nobody, now that we all have cars. Diana had a small Cadillac, in fact. She wasn't wealthy by any means. She had been in the neighborhood long enough to raise her sons and then watch the area "gentrify" — to see people like us, not blue collar but professionals, arrive in large numbers. There weren't many children in the neighborhood any more. Families had moved to the suburbs.
In Saint-Aignan (pop. 4,000, with another 6,000 in a radius of about 5 miles), the weekly market serves the needs of a lot of older people who live in town and don't drive. It also draws in people from the surrounding countryside, who drive to town and park. There are markets nearly every day in neighboring towns and villages, within 10 or 15 miles, but you have to drive to them of course. It can be fun to go to the big outdoor markets in Selles-sur-Cher, Loches, or Amboise on warm, sunny days, but it's more for the excursion and the "tourist" experience, and not a weekly or even monthly activity.
There are very few food shops left in the town of Saint-Aignan — the one I miss most is a good cheese shop, but there's a great cheese vendor at the Saturday market — and there is only one small supermarket in the town center. Another went out of business a few years ago, just as the two charcuterie (delicatessen) shops recently have shut down. It makes you wonder how much longer the butchers will be able to stay in business.
At least two bread bakeries (boulangeries) have also disappeared over the past five years. Two have remained, and one bakery that was a pâtisserie, a pastry shop, was taken over a year or two ago by a boulanger, a bread baker — so that makes three bread bakeries in town. Plus four more within a couple of miles.
There is a new chocolate shop. Luxury products are the last refuge of small merchants who want to stay in business, I guess. For a while between 2004 and 2007, there was a shop specializing in locally grown, organic produce and local wines, but it only stayed in business for a year or two.
Meanwhile, a boulanger started a new business out in the vineyards, baking bread in wood-fired ovens in a new building. His shop is two or three miles from town, and a mile or two even from our village (where there is also a boulangerie — the one that delivers our bread).
Many wondered how the boulangerie in the vineyards would manage to survive. Well, the man wasn't crazy. It turns out that the little road he set up business on is on what passes for a major "commute route" in the area. There's a big home for mentally handicapped children just to the west, and a lot of the employees there come from Saint-Aignan and pass by the bakery every morning and every afternoon. There's ample parking.
The commuters, along with the occasional customers drawn to this baker's high-quality, out-of-the-ordinary baked goods, seem to be spending enough to keep him in business.
You still see older women on bicycles riding along the main road into town. But not many. Everybody drives. Even on a bicycle, you can't carry a lot of stuff home. So you have to make a lot of trips to the stores. There is no public transportation any more — not since "everybody" can afford a car.
One good thing is that so many people around here, like us, have vegetable gardens in the summertime. With a few specialty shops, a good number of bakeries, and our gardens, we have easy access to all the food shopping points we need. But mostly by car — and that of course includes supermarkets.
By the way, I think the French invented the big-box combination store concept — stores selling sundries, hardware, groceries, meats, fish, cheese, and produce. Here such a store is called a hypermarché, a "hypermarket" (as opposed to a relatively puny supermarché). It was Carrefour that started the trend, I believe, and in America WalMart copied that with its supercenters. I may be wrong about that... We don't have WalMart in France.