Quirky Shops

In the centre of the historic first district of Vienna there is a small shop. It sits on a narrow and dimly-lit side-street not frequented by many tourists, or locals, and cars are either not allowed or simply don’t want to drive along the uneven cobbles. There is no shop sign outside, and the layer of dust on the items in the display window looks older than I am.

I must have walked along this street quite a few times before I stopped and read the yellowed piece of paper hanging in the window: a price list from 2009. Lightbulbs seemed to be their main product, along with some other electronic odds and ends. I assumed it had closed years earlier, but then saw a man coming out the door. As he left, I caught a glimpse of a woman, at least 70 years old, behind the counter.

Since then I’ve been wondering: How does a shop like this survive? Selling a couple of lightbulbs each day can’t even cover the electricity needed for their own lightbulbs!

I mention this because it’s not an isolated incident. All over Vienna I’ve come across shops which seem to be from an earlier time, from before the pressures of modern capitalism. Few products, fewer customers, and yet open and staffed every day. For example, it’s not uncommon to find a second-hand bookstore taking up a prime piece of real estate. What’s stopping these shops closing and turning into the next trendy coffee bar or estate agents or souvenir stall? Surely all these would be more profitable?

There’s a more ruthless feeling about the shops in London. If it’s not a big hit within 6 months, it’s going to close down and turn into something else. Repeat ad infinitum, unless something sticks. (This has even become a “feature” of quite a lot of shops, who only sign a 6-month lease and call themselves “pop-up” in an attempt to generate excitement.) Unfortunately, what sticks is often a supermarket or chain store.

There are exceptions to this of course, even in London. For a while I lived near a place called “The Egg Shop”, which only sold eggs. For 35 years! But, sadly, it recently closed down. And it’s that kind of harsh economic reality that I keep expecting to befall the strange shops of Vienna.