Refrigerators were a rarity in homes; pests such as rats and fleas were not.
And so, by the late 1800s, the local baker and butcher found themselves with a new neighbour.
As time went on, politics and economics would shape the corner store, around the world.
Large-scale migration to cities drove an early boom in the UK; the influx of Jewish immigrants before and after World War II drove the spread of the deli in New York City; a rush of Cubans and Puerto Rican immigration drove the growth of the bodega in the ’50s.
Around the world, corner shops have tended to have some things in common (and still do): Jars gleaming with colourful sweets; staples such as eggs and bread; snacks and fizzy drinks; preserves such as jams, biscuits and sauces. And often, a friendly face behind the counter, unchanged for decades.
Their shelves remain a key socio-economic barometer: What do things cost? What things are unavailable? Even: What do the local demographics look like, and how friendly are people to outsiders?
How far back can we trace it all? Take a tour.
In the UK
One of the earliest general stores in the UK is still around. Sainsbury’s started out, in 1869, when a dairy store owned by John James Sainsbury and his wife Mary Ann Sainsbury also began to offer milk, bread, eggs, tea and sugar.
By 1882, the couple had expanded to three such outlets. By 1884, they were selling their own brand of bacon and sausages too. Sainsbury’s is now one of the largest British supermarket chains, with more than 1,400 outlets across the UK and Ireland.
This remained the template of the English corner shop for about half a century. Until, in the 1940s, a rush of immigrants began, as people from countries economically drained or otherwise destabilised by British imperialism began to use their citizenship of the Commonwealth to move to a more stable economy and try to build a better life.
England was in dire need of labour as well, to rebuild after the ravages of World War II, writes British newsreader Babita Sharma, in her book The Corner Shop (2019).
To supplement their income, particularly in the early years, the new immigrant families often used the fronts of street-facing homes to sell little items of daily use: bread, milk, eggs, biscuits, sweets, safety-pins, matchbooks, newspapers, condiments.
In this way, immigrants from erstwhile colonies in Asia, East Africa and Eastern Europe became, and remain, the face of the English corner shop. Sharma’s mother opened hers in the ’70s. “It provided a living space that transformed into a working one,” she writes. “When the bell rang signalling the arrival of a customer, Mum would be able to leave me, a newborn baby, in the back of the shop for as long as it took to serve a customer.”
In the US
In remote parts of the Midwest, dating to the late 1800s, a single general store was often the only such establishment for miles, and so, “a small enterprise in a roughly 800 sq. ft. building… sold everything from coal to candy,” archaeologist Paul R Mullins notes, in an essay in the 2008 book Living in Cities Revisited.
These shops were also where the stage coach halted, and mail was deposited; where telegraph messages arrived and incoming goods (from fabrics to lumber) were dropped off.
In the larger cities along the coasts, Blacks and European immigrants set up shops to serve densely populated communities. This kind of entrepreneurism “was a mechanism through which [these] citizens could secure social and material empowerment in a society that valued the self-made entrepreneur, individual ambition, and materialism,” Mullins writes.
The 1920s were a turning point. In Dallas, Texas, an ice-store manager named Jefferson Green wrote to his parent company, Southland Ice. The general store next door had shorter working hours, and he could see paying customers walk away disappointed, he said. His outfit was open for at least 11 hours a day. Could he stock a few staples such as milk, bread and eggs?
The company gave him the go-ahead in 1927, and saw instant success. By the 1950s, spurred on by new policies to promote highways, Southland Ice also began to add gas stations to its stores. The model was replicated in Florida, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania.
By the 1960s, they were no longer Southland Ice stores, but a separate division: 7-Eleven, named to indicate number of days, and number of hours per day. Today, there are about 84,000 7-Elevens across 20 countries.
As in the UK, World War II would act as a turning point, particularly in the US’s main port of arrival for immigrants: New York City. Jews arriving here began to set up establishments where they served pastrami sandwiches, bagels and kosher pickles, alongside staples such as eggs, pulses, tinned vegetables, stocks and sauces. Thus, the delicatessen or deli (from the German for ready-to-eat delicacies) was born.
The bodega came to the city around the same time, via immigrants from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The Cubans were fleeing Fidel Castro’s newly communist country in the 1950s. The Puerto Ricans were new citizens (the island was incorporated into the US in 1917). These being former Spanish colonies, the shops offered staples such as dried codfish, guava preserves, plantains and chorizo, and expanded to groceries, cigarettes and snacks.
Across the US, of course, there are a myriad smaller communities represented in the corner store — Italian, Greek, Indian, Chinese, Korean. As in the UK, these serve as hubs of community activity, culinary comfort, and steady supplies of rare ingredients from a now-distant home country.
This is a country of marketplaces, so the standalone store is a recent development. The koshk (from the French kiosque) is a small shop that sits on the side of the street, looking a lot like India’s erstwhile STD / ISD / PCO kiosks.
One can find SIM cards at an Egyptian koshk as well as packaged foods, snacks, aerated drinks, staples and cigarettes.
The format was defined by law in the 1950s, under President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s socialist rule, says artist Jasmine Soliman, who runs an online photo archive called The Koshk Project, to showcase the stories of the people behind the counter.
As in India, where preference for an STD booth was often given to the differently abled, koshk permits were reserved for those battling special challenges. In Egypt, these could include physical disability, a serious illness, single parenthood, orphanhood, or recent jail time.
The corner shops of Singapore have a very direct south Indian connection. They’re run by Tamilians and called Mama Shops (Mama being Tamil for Uncle).
These are usually shops built at street level, as part of high-rise residential buildings, in a template formalised by the country’s housing and development board in the 1960s. They were typically run by Tamilian immigrants from India and Sri Lanka.
Mama Shops sell kitchen staples, packaged foods, snacks, cigarettes, newspapers and magazines. In 2021, the National Museum of Singapore even created a digital version, as a temporary installation. At the Mama Shop of Memories, visitors could explore a typical store through an interactive website and share their own Mama Shop memories in the comments.
“The name Black & White was a sarcastic reference to a brand of whisky,” historian Leonard Janiszewski and documentary photographer Effy Alexakis note in an essay published in the book Greek Research in Australia (Flinders University of South Australia; 2011). Janiszewski and Alexakis are also authors of the book Greek Cafés and Milk Bars of Australia (2016). The original store offered milk in different flavours. The approach worked, and was replicated by Greek immigrants and others, across the country. Many added newspapers, bread, tobacco, ice-cream and candy. At their peak in the 1930s, there were an estimated 4,000 such stores in the country.
(Do you have a beloved bit of local corner store trivia, or a favourite corner store memory? We’d love to hear about it. Write in to email@example.com)