A Tale of Two Shops
Urban Crossroads #25

                                                                        Shops in Amman. (Jumana Bississo)

                                                                        Shops in Amman. (Jumana Bississo)

There are two small neighborhood shops located close to our home. One is a grocery store, and the other is a stationary shop. They both sell items that just about everyone in the neighborhood regularly needs. The former sells foodstuff; the latter sells stationary items, newspapers and magazines, as well as toys, and also provides photocopying services.

Although the presence of both shops is needed in the neighborhood, the stationary shop represents everything that a neighborhood shop should be, while the grocery store represents everything that a neighborhood shop should not be. The stationary shop is clean and well lit. The grocery shop is dirty and poorly lit. The stationary shop only has a small newspaper rack on the sidewalk (or what theoretically qualifies as a sidewalk). The grocery store takes over the whole sidewalk in front of it, where a large refrigerator for soft drinks and a number of empty crates are placed. The area in front of the stationary shop is clean. The area around the grocery store is littered with soft-drink cans and bottles, candy wrappers, and potato chips bags, all sold by the grocery store.

The difference between the two shops extends to include the quality of people that frequent each of them. The stationary shop attracts people of all ages. The grocery store is particularly popular amongst loitering teenagers.

The owner of the stationary shop knows many of his customers by name. Buying something from him always is accompanied by an exchange of pleasantries, and my two children have become loyal customers of his shop. If you want something he doesn't happen to have, he often will try to get it for you from somewhere else. In contrast, the grocery store owner is unfriendly and seems bored with what he does. I only go there if I absolutely have to.

In her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, author Jane Jacobs emphasizes the importance of the small shop in the life of the neighborhood. The book shows how these shops are much more than establishments that sell items that neighboring residents need. These shops are locations where social exchange takes place, and where the neighborhood comes together. The shop owner often becomes a trusted figure in the neighborhood who keeps an eye on the children as they walk by or play in the vicinity, and also keeps an eye on the neighbors' houses while they are away.

Such small shops have much to offer to our neighborhoods in Amman. What we do not want in our neighborhoods, however, are stores that are too large and cater to a clientele that extends considerably beyond the neighborhood, thus offering impersonal service and attracting too much vehicular traffic. We also do not want small shops that are a source of disturbance for their neighbors. Such shops range from the grocery store mentioned above to shops that sell music cassettes and disks, and insist on announcing their presence through blasting the music for everyone to hear.

It is true that shops are there to make a profit, but each shop also has responsibilities towards its community. Shops should not take over the sidewalk by selling or storing merchandise on it. They also should be responsible for the cleanliness of their surroundings. The boundaries of such surroundings would depend on what those shops sell. For example, it is not uncommon for some towns to allow fast-food franchises to open within their jurisdictions only if these franchises takes on the responsibility of cleaning a considerable area around them. It is not that the municipal authorities in those towns are trying to get those fast-food restaurants to do their work. It is because numerous customers of such establishments unfortunately are responsible for considerable littering. They throw the wrappers and containers for the food they buy as they walk or drive away from these establishments.

The residents of a neighborhood can play a role in regulating what shops exist in their midst simply by patronizing the shops they want in the neighborhood, and staying away from the shops they do not want. The concerned authorities also should put in place regulations and follow-up measures to ensure that the shops they license do not become sources of disturbance by attracting too much traffic, making too much noise, or littering. This way we will end up with more shops like the stationary shop mentioned above, and fewer ones like its neighboring grocery store.

Mohammad al-Asad

November 4, 2004