A few years ago, one of the oldest inhabitants of the village died in his 90s. He was an enthusiastic local historian, and I had long meant to ask him the histories of many of the buildings in the village; especially the recent history, much of which he remembered personally. I'd even taken pictures for him to annotate. But before I got around to taking them to him, he died. His name was Raymond.
The day I wrote this, I found out that what is now the Coop mini-supermarket was once a garage. I learned this from the person from whom we bought our house: he served his apprenticeship there, as a mechanic. He also worked on the first tractor to be used in the area: until after World War Two, all the local farms were worked with beasts. Then, as I was walking back from where I met him when I was out taking pictures for Tous Commerces, I remembered to photograph this:
It's a private house now. The writing is faded almost beyond readability, but it says "MAREE PRIMEURS" and "PRODUITS CLOCHE D'OR"; as born out by the golden bell (cloche d'or). Marée is sea-food; Primeurs is young, fresh vegetables, and by extension anything fresh and first-rate; and produits are products. Cloche d'Or is a (fairly) local company well known for its cheeses, and they are still in business, so this may provide an explanation, or there may have been some other long-gone enterprise under the same name. A combined cheesemonger and fishmonger seems unlikely, but it's far from impossible.
Now, I'm told that there was another sea-food shop next door to where I live, and I know that there were at least two butchers in the village; though as with the fishmongers I'm not sure whether they were contemporaneous or sequential. Both are gone now. We still have one hotel in the village, but at the other end, near the railway station (now closed, and also a private house) there was another. It ran as a B+B for a while but then the owner gave up so now, yes, it's another (big) private house. According to Raymond there were once four or five cafés, bars, brasseries or similar places of relaxation. I don't know if there was a local cordwainer-cum-shoe-repairer, but I suspect there was: in the next village, there's still a sign for one over yet another private house.
Probably, even at the best, none of these businesses earned a fortune for their owners. On the other hand, most of the time they presumably earned a living, and they were within walking distance of not just the village, but also neighbouring hamlets and maisons isolées, lone houses in the countryside. Today, there are probably similar numbers of people employed in the supermarkets and other markets of nearby Loudun and Thouars. Or maybe there aren't, and even if they are, they must either live in Loudun or Thouars, or drive to work.
The really important part, though, is that the consolidation of all these small shops leaves us with far less flexibility. If one of the two butchers closed, whether for a holiday or because of a death in the family or for any other reason, the other could take up the slack. If you couldn't get the cheese you wanted, you could try another shop or shrug and wait. There was a weekly market, too: our house faces on what was once the market square, and up the road there's a little street called the rue des Halles. I assume it ended in a market hall or Halles. Now, if the Coop closes, as it recently did for a couple of weeks' holidays, that's it unless you can find what you need in the few narrow shelves of groceries in the Donjon café-bar. Or go into Loudun.
It is possible, and indeed easy, to over-romanticize all this. The standard of living even 50 years ago was far lower than it is today. Fewer people owned cars, so they had to rely more on walking to local shops, where prices were often high and choice was often limited. Prices were not always marked, either: you had to ask how much (for example) lamb might be today. This is why supermarkets have been so successful.
On the other hand, the baby has to some extent been thrown out with the bath-water. It doesn't have to be a binary choice between a crabbed, expensive, inward-looking village, and a dormitory-cum-retirement-home wasteland that is wholly reliant on supermarkets in the nearest big town. Slowly, the population of the villages is rising: the desertification of La France Profonde is gradually being reversed. Endless growth on a finite planet is not a sustainable model: the villages may well be the future. Sooner or later we shall all have to learn to live with less, or at least, with what we have: without more and more. There will come a point when we will be grateful for such village shops as have survived.
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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016