Read CHAPTER XIII of A Tale of One City: The New Birmingham, free online book, by Thomas Anderton, on

New and old style trading.

In an earlier part of these chapters I referred to the new style of shopkeeping that has developed in Birmingham with the growing size and importance of the town and city. I now return to the subject again for the purpose of showing that although Birmingham seems to be much to the fore in the matter of up-to-time shopkeeping, there are still a limited number of traders and shopkeepers who keep pretty much to the old lines, and evidently desire to carry on their businesses in the way that their fathers did before them.

And in touching this question it is worth while considering for a moment how differently two men or two firms in the same trade will carry on their businesses, and yet both succeed. To put it more plainly, one firm will bombard the public with “fetching” advertisements, and get business, so to speak, at the bayonet’s point. Another firm in the same line of trade lays siege to its customers in a quiet, systematic way, does its best to prevent any sorties in the direction of rival camps, and is content to keep its connection well guarded and do business in a quiet, undemonstrative way.

Of course the man who goes in for publicity wide publicity and assaults the public with “loud” advertisements in all directions, drives the roaring trade, or the trade that roars loudest. He gets larger returns, and if his business is well managed he should secure larger profits. Beside these trade Dives’s the humble, quiet, unostentatious Lazarus seems quite out in the cold. Not so, however. The latter picks up some good crumbs, if not some pretty substantial crusts, which he puts into his wallet with a gentle, unostentatious satisfaction which quite contents him.

I could give chapter and verse for what I am now saying, and without hesitation or difficulty could name two firms in Birmingham that are carrying on the same trade, making the same everyday articles of consumption; yet, while the name of one firm is in everybody’s mouth and is known to the ends of the earth, the name of the other is hardly ever seen save upon the productions they turn out. Yet I know for a fact that this latter firm make some nice solid profits out of their quiet business, though nothing perhaps at all comparable with their more enterprising rival. It is a case of thousands in one case and tens of thousands probably in the other. But enterprise should, of course, bring its own reward.

I fear I have indulged in a rather full-blown parenthesis, but it was somewhat necessary before going into certain details concerning the two utterly opposed modes of trading and their exemplifications in Birmingham. As I have mentioned before, we have in recent years seen the rise and development of huge establishments and trading concerns that deal in anything and everything. Cutting and competition have gone on till there is nothing left to cut, or no weapon left that is sharp enough to cut finer. The results of all this has been the whittling away of a good many old-fashioned shops and traders; but they are not all gone, and some long established businesses still survive and prosper in our midst.

I will just mention one or two. If the reader of these lines will walk down the Lower Priory, which leads out of the Old Square or what was the Old Square he will see at the bottom of the said Lower Priory, on the right hand side, a sedate and solid brick building. He will see a brass knocker on the door and a brass plate bearing the name of Smallwood and Sons “only this, and nothing more.” This is the business house of the oldest firm of wine merchants in Birmingham, and I believe that these premises in the Lower Priory have been in the possession of the Smallwood family since the days of the Commonwealth; and, further, that the present active members of the firm are the fifth and sixth generation of Smallwood and Sons, wine merchants. There is no big shop window full of bottles of cheap heterogeneous wines and spirits. It might be the house of some good old doctor, or the office and home of some ripe old lawyer. If you step inside the office, you see few signs of Bacchus or his bowl, but you do see some antiquated rooms, some quaint furniture, and a nice dry, well-seasoned appearance that denotes age. There are full and capacious cellars on the premises of course cellars containing a sort of well in which the books of the firm were buried at the time of the Birmingham riots; but, so far as outward appearance is concerned, Sir Wilfrid Lawson or the top Major-Domo of the Band of Hope might pass by the lintels of the doorway in Lower Priory without a sigh. With regard to Messrs. Smallwood’s cellars, their subterranean premises are honeycombed with catacombs containing the remains of some grand old spirits and big bins of choice vintage and various other wines.

It might be thought that such a very unbusiness-looking place would be quietly draining away, especially in face of the flaring competition in the wine and spirit trade. I am, however, glad to think and know that such old-established houses as Smallwood and Sons can bear up against the levelling down processes that characterise the more pushing branches of the wine and spirit trade. There are still a fair number of people who like to buy their wine from dealers who seem to have inherited certain trade instincts and experiences, and who can be relied upon to supply what they know to be good wines and spirits, such as can be consumed with pleasure and taken without risk. We do not all yet care for Chancellor claret, Hamburg sherry, petroleum champagne, and Dudley port, sometimes called “Bilston pit drink.”

Bottled red ink and cider champagne does not suit the taste of those who have a taste worth owning. They prefer to pay a fair price to have a good article, and they consequently go to old firms who are experts in their business.

The most serious form of competition that knocks the legitimate liquor trader on the head is the grocer wine and spirit selling. It may be very convenient to the public to be able to buy a bottle of wine or whisky when they are buying their groceries, but this convenience has been purchased, I fear, at a cost that is not pleasant to consider. I fear it would not be difficult to prove that female home-drinking has been fostered by the grocers’ wine and spirit licences. This is a serious matter to contemplate, and if I were a zealous temperance advocate I should strive to get those grocers’ licences wiped out.

Besides offering facilities that are calculated to encourage secret home-drinking the grocers’ licences operate in another way that is not exactly conducive to morality or integrity. I will explain what I mean. At Cambridge I knew an undergraduate who had a somewhat parsimonious pater. The latter limited his son’s allowance, and scrutinized his bills pretty closely. But my Verdant Green circumvented the supervision of his male parent by the opportunities offered by the grocers’ shops. Although my undergraduate friend was, I knew, kept pretty “short” in the matter of cash supplies, I noticed that he never seemed short of strong drink. He let the cat out of the bag or let me say the cork out of the bottle when one day he innocently remarked to me, “I get all my liquor from the grocer’s; the governor never looks much at the grocer’s account.”

Leaving the question of wines and spirits, I can illustrate my preference for dealing with men who “know you know” what they are selling, and are, indeed, experts in their trades. Although I am not a good or bad Templar, nor yet a small brass Band of Hope, I confess to a large weakness for tea good, nice, well-flavoured tea. I have, however, found it somewhat difficult to obtain. Occasionally I taste it at the houses of friends who buy their tea in chests at a time; but as for getting such tea at the usual grocers’ shops I have found it difficult, if not impossible. Yet I have been willing to pay up to get some real prime Souchong, Assam, Orange Pekoe, or what not. I do not expect to get a one and twopenny tea with a fine two and ninepenny flavour. Bather recently I have paid 3d. a pound to get my little luxury; moreover, I tried many and various shops, but all more or less in vain. At last, however, I found salvation by going to a house a retail shop indeed that dealt in scarcely anything else but tea. And I now get tea full of delicious fragrance and flavour. It breathes such a splendid aroma before it is tasted that it almost seems a sin to drink it. When, however, I do taste a well-made cup of this infusion I am so happy and benign that (to paraphrase some words of the late Bishop of Oxford) my own wife might play with me.

I fear, however, I am getting rather rhapsodical on this question of tea. There are other what I will call specialist old-style traders besides those in the teetotal and unteetotal line to which I wish to refer. But these must be reserved for another chapter.