The small-framed lady trained her beady eyes on me.
“Reckon I’ll have to run around outside naked with a big cardboard sign hangin’ ’round my neck, yellin’ ‘Fish ‘n’ chips! Get your fish ‘n’ chips here!” she said wryly, her weathered voice exuding the kind of grit only a seasoned small shop owner can.
When tested, the entrepreneurial spirit is inspiring, to say the least.
She turned back to a half-filleted fish lying atop a wet chopping board. Her knife remained poised above the pinkish-white flesh, ready to resume a work it has done for the past twenty-three years in that very same, cluttered back-kitchen.
“Waddya think?” she asked, arching an eyebrow towards me. She waited, giving me just the right sliver of time to calculate whether a decent amount of streaking would keep her struggling business afloat. I quickly pictured the scene (careful not to do so in too much detail), weighed the odds and made a call.
“Give it a go, I reckon,” I responded, finally. She gave a slight nod, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as she slid the blade back into the fish. I found myself smiling back. The absurdity of the idea was not lost on either of us. Neither was the absurdity within the absurdity – that although baring skin to sell fish and chips was 99.99% a crazy idea, the desperation of her situation still imbued it, oddly enough, with a 0.01% whiff of practicality.
The tough economic conditions giving rise to such absurdities are no smiling matter. That same day, I perused eerily quiet ma and pa shops one after the other, hearing the same conversation played out in lowered tones everywhere: No one’s spending any money.
At least, they’re not spending enough to ease the deadly chill that has crept into the bones of the small business community in the last few years. Even with rent reduced by more than half, shops are doing it tough. Many have closed. High unemployment, low wage growth and constrained household incomes are the big culprits. And it doesn’t look like things are going to get better anytime soon.
So are we all in for a shocking display of skin as shopkeepers are forced to ply their goods in ‘innovative’ ways just to survive? Not yet, according to one bold, knife-wielding, fish-filleting owner. “I’ll probably wait ’til winter’s over. Still too cold.”
Either reprieve comes before then, or winter after the winter is coming.
Cover photo: slimmer_jimmer