“You bring your days to rest, / Remain a living soul. / In time of hate and waste, / Wars and rumors of wars, / Rich armies and poor peace, / Your blessed economy, / Beloved sufficiency / Upon a dear, small place, / Sings with the morning stars.” –Wendell Berry
My bike guy works on Bridge Street, near the foot of Castle Hill. He pedals in each morning at 8:30, give or take, and, if no customers or carry-over jobs meet him, he begins puzzling through the Times crossword. I know this because I—who am the proud owner of an ever-breaking, rickety bike—am often stationed at his door when he rolls in. And, over the past year, we have come to know each other, he and I. Our meetings work on strict ritual and settled ceremony. He greets me with a “Hiya,” as he unlocks the door. I respond with a “good morning.” We step into his one room shop smelling of grease and must and rubber and time—filled with used bikes, disused bike parts and various sale items shelved on the north wall. Either he or I will comment on the weather. The last time, it was my shift:
“It is,” he agrees. He always agrees, “and possible thunderstorm tonight; I like a good thunderstorm.” I agree. I always agree. We then proceed to discuss my bike’s newest fracture or bend or puncture or loss. He tears off a ticket with a number, hands it to me, and asks, “What time would you like to pick it up?”
“What time will it be ready?”
“Oh, say, midday?” It will always be ready at midday.
“I’ll come back around noon, then.”
“See you then.”
I work away the morning in a café or the Christ’s College Library and walk back up Bridge Street at noon, over the bridge at Quay Side, past Magdalene and The Pickerel, to the bike shop door. He greets me with a nod, and explains the damage—holding up a glass shard he extracted, some stripped bolt, or a frayed gear cable. They are his temporary trophies and my temporary hassles.
While I pay, I ask him the same question, “Did you finish your crossword?” For I have learned that he judges his days by that puzzle. It is his reference point, his barometer. Business is middling if it’s finished by lunch. Business is less than satisfactory if he tears through it in an hour. Business is good if he has yet to finish. Last Tuesday, he told me he had been stuck on a clue for two hours that morning: “‘flier,’ five letters, started with a p.’ I thought for a few seconds.
“Pilot!” he blurted, “Couldn’t believe I couldn’t think of that—just couldn’t believe it.”
“I wouldn’t have thought of it—terrible at those things,” I replied, tearing off my own receipt and examining the total. Every now and then we’ll discuss other things—his Royal Family calendar, politics, BBC4 radio shows, and, once, Mozart, but that discussion always happens while I pay, never before, and it cannot carry on too long. He has his work, I mine. I usually end by saying, “Welp, I’m off. See you soon, I’m sure.”
“Hopefully not too soon,” he says. I laugh and shove my bike out the door.
A trip to the bike shop has become one of my great joys. It is a local ritual—a living and growing tradition, a rhythm of participations that has little to do with progress and its pretensions. In a real sense, it is progress’s foil, for it moves forward by returns to the old and not by blind leaps into the new. It is my way into a kind of membership here,** and membership, it seems is a thing of months and years not of minutes. It requires repetition and ruts and symbolic gestures and verbal ceremony and tacit understandings. It settles on one and makes one supremely settled. Membership ages no faster than wine. It is rarely a business of asking or telling; it only shows up and plays its part until the play somehow needs its part. Membership is the way into a town and this shop is my way into a membership.
I have begun to frequent other shops—one a tailor on Victoria, owned and operated by a gold-chained, barrel-chested, Russian immigrant, his family sewing around him, his relatives popping in and out for tea. He is a brusque man who dictates and cares little for offending customers: “Why didn’t you come out at look at yourself in the mirror?” he asked me once with scorn, “Next time you do.” I nodded and paid.
We buy our wine from a neighbour’s establishment down Holland Road—a red-fronted, tall-ceilinged upstairs cellar, wooden from floor to shelf and dusty in the right places. We tell them the dish—its meat and its spices—the occasion, the price point. They search the shelves, bring out two or three, drop words like lush, brave, oaked, toasty, jammy; one learns to wait and to anticipate the next rich word perhaps as much as the next rich wine. In trust, we buy. In joy, we drink.
Others will follow. Rumours have reached us of a cheese shop on All Saints Passage, of a butcher on Victoria, of a grocer and a baker on Chesterton. In time we may begin to patronise these and make our town larger by making it smaller—not for reasons ecological or sociological or economical or environmental, but for reasons sacramental, which subsume all the others and put them in their proper place, namely, the second place.* For the primary fact of small shops is that they have a greater capacity to bring one joy, and, of course, as is true of all the greatest things, to bring one woe. A grocer or a butcher or a barber or a bike man or a tailor may tell one off or turn one out or laugh at one, for he is a man, and whatever else man is, he is not safe. The grocery store or buy-it-all emporium holds no such dangers; it will not expose one to hazards but neither will it bring one much joy, only a mild amusement or dull annoyance.
Yesterday, on my way home from a grocery run, I crossed the Jesus Green footbridge, spanning the lock. The store had been clean, well-lighted, wide-isled, soft-musiced, low-priced, safe, and my satchel was heavy. I thought little of food or shops but absently surveyed the river and its clientele as I dismounted and led my bike along the uneven boards. As I walked, my gaze fixed on a sandy-tan moving object on the uphill slope of the opposite bank, just under the large bushes there. As I neared, I saw that it was a man—an old man in a linen suit and a panama hat, holding a small bucket and reaching into the bushes. He plucked and dropped, plucked and dropped. It was then that I remembered, there are shopping places more primeval, more public, even than the shops.
R. Eric Tippin
Corner House, Cambridge
August 27-30, 2016
Poster Paint on Cardboard - c. 1900
* This construction is stolen from the subject of my Ph.D.
* The idea of ‘membership’ has been appropriated (with a difference or two) from the author of this post’s epigraph.