I worked in a corner shop
Something about these shops always fascinated me. From familiar sweets to unusual treats, bus cards to SIM cards and clunky blue lottery machines. The way I see it, corner shops are brilliant ways to read a place. It's an alternative lens into the culture of a community — what they liked, or did not quite, what was convenient to them, or what they weighed in as ‘ordinary’. It is often the common things; the ordinary goods, that sheds the brightest light on the mundane cogs of our everyday life.
This fascination fueled a desire to engage with the deeper cultural fabric of corner shops in my area. And with that, I turned down my summer internship at a design studio in London to hunt for an opening in a corner shop instead! I know, I know. Isn't that a stupid thing to do? Such a wasted opportunity! Blah blah blah, I’ve heard it all. For those who have known me, I’ve been one to embark on pretty unconventional journeys in life (haha). Come on, there isn’t only one way to ‘adult’ in our society is there. This was my way of fleeing the halls of institutionalised education or organisations to instead claim the streets as sites of study. So after swallowing a huge dose of courage and bracing 5 other rejections, I was officially convenience store girl.
It has been 3 eventful months since that very day. I shall not bore you with the details, but here are a few thoughts that I would love to share with you as I end this delightful chapter of mine:
Everything is owned by Mondelez International
Remember those superhero shows we watched as kids, where one crazy villain tries to take over the world? No kidding, but that's Mondelez International! They are taking over the whole world, or already have. Whilst attempting to catalogue all the different confectionaries in the shop, I slowly began to realize that they were all owned by the same company. On one hand, I applaud their extremely successful attempt at diversification. But on the other, I found it extremely unnecessary. There was a particular flavor of chewing gum manufactured across 3 different brands, but essentially all under the exact same organization — Mondelez International! The manufacturer of want. Market diversification for its sake contributes to fostering a generation spoilt for choice and constantly dissatisfied. Have you ever thought if people chooses their product, or if the product chooses its people? I'm really beginning to think the latter.
Welcome to modern day slavery
Gone were the days where slavery alluded to half naked men working the mud for nothing. It has been modernized — now taking the form of unpaid internships and jobs like mine. For a start, I am paid peanuts (50% of London Minimum Wage) for incredibly long hours. But slavery extends beyond pay. The crux of it boils down to how we are treated as a person. In this case, I have 12-hour shifts daily without a single break in view. I’ve never felt so desperate for a decent stool when my legs grew weary, or a toilet when nature calls. On my second week, I was heavily berated for visiting the loo because it was causing the shop to 'lose business'. The ordinary things we take for granted. As part of the urban underclass, you also have to start getting used to the unbelievably condescending tone others subconsciously take with you. It's really funny when people automatically assume that your life is miserable just because of where you are, or what you do.
A space of encounter
I've always told others that I enjoy engaging with design as a research practice. But I actually don't fully know what that even means hahaha. I was determined to define that for myself in these 3 months — with a main objective to make sense of the relationship between people and place. I scrutinized their behaviors, choice of purchase, conversations, befriended all the suppliers, road sweepers, construction workers. And came to a realization that corner shops functions more like a public space that a business enterprise! Strangers have more conversations in here than in an actual public space (say, a park or a bench). Apart from selling the common goods, I've also charged people's phones, had multiple book exchanges, shared my lunch, stored customer’s baggages, and took in specific product request that got stocked the very next day etc. It's like shopping for the community, and also everything else in between. Corner shops are like 'fillers' of the streets. They don't just provide you with life's essentials, but it’s a space for absolutely anything — a public space of encounter.
I believe that knowledge should not only be taught or read, but can also learned physically. In fact, some knowledge can only be learned physically. Like riding a bike, or learning to drive. This experience expanded my visual literacy through critical observation. The challenge was to see through the habitualised veneer of our everyday in order to inquire and imagine ways to be different. To not only answer questions (briefs) but to become that very form of enquiry and ask — 'What if?'
What if ordinary goods did not mirror bureaucratic structures, so that consumption could be more transparent and empowering for local communities? What if the jobs of the urban underclass becomes fully automated, how can they still become useful to society? What if corner shops takes advantage of its modularity and radically redefines convenience?
All design activity is ultimately social in nature. And if we continue to use design as a productive social and political tool, we could tend to the world really differently! Although design today is still predominantly invoked for the sake of commercial gain, I really hope that my current (and future) practice will always create spaces for critical inquiry. As for now, I will attempt to generate even more conversations and design a response to the speculated possibilities above over my final year of study—please don’t hesitate to hit me up if you’ve got any thoughts!
Lastly, to those who have supported and listened through my ramblings the past 3 months, I can't thank you enough. You guys preserved my sanity and your prayers have literally kept me alive hahaha. You know who you are! (names of people, organizations and places have been kept anonymous in the interest of those involved)
Research continues on here as a visual archive.