In Copenhagen, it seemed like there was a bike shop on every corner. In Sydney, real estate agencies pop up like mushrooms. In Paris, it's a dry heat between the boulangerie and the pharmacy. In almost every big city I've lived in, there will be a type of store whose ubiquity surpasses function, a store whose omnipresence somehow captures some secret of the people who live there, a thread of their mythology, the daily story they tell each other about themselves.
If you live in Copenhagen, you travel by bike. It's one of the great pleasures of that city, swooping along with the rest of the bike traffic, past nineteenth-century buildings, and quirky little sculptures, stopping as one at a red bike light. And a bike always needs something done to it -- a wheel trued, a new seat, reflectors replaced -- so of course there are bike shops on every corner. But it's not as if utility and myth can't co-exist. For the secret purpose of the plethora of bike stores seemed to be, I thought, to hold out the promise of better weather. Let's face it, bike-riding, or doing anything, for that matter, in sub-zero weather ain't fun, even if you do have good gear. The shops may slumber in quasi-hibernation for six months or more, and isn't that a strange business model, but who cares? Their very presence is a constant reminder that spring some day will come. In Denmark, that's no small thing.
In Sydney, the myth is easier to parse -- it's home ownership -- a little parcel of land, a bungalow. There's a real estate agency on every corner, and almost all come with pretty displays of sometimes recent photographs of sale offerings. I can't think of any neighbourhood I've visited where I haven't paused to look at what's on offer, to imagine living in this CBD studio or that suburban McMansion. Here, it's the utility that is that much harder to grasp. Most people buying a home will use the internet and the paper. A pretty storefront for passing traffic scarcely seems to make much business sense; how many people ready to plunk down a million bucks are going to be captured by window dressing? And yet, there they are, glinty four-colour brochures and artfully shot fish-eye photos, giving every passerby the opportunity to stitch themselves into the narrative tapestry without which no Sydney dinner party would be complete.
The thing is, I've having trouble deciding what the shop is here in Amsterdam. I think I've decided it's lighting stores. In twee Jordaan, the lighting stores are kitschy ersatz-antique shoppes; in more modern suburbs there's more 'design', all hard plastics in primary colours and cantilevered globes dangling from nothing. I'm not sure what secret story is in operation with all the lighting stores, save that there's that whole open curtain "we-have-nothing-to-hide" mythology already in operation, and there's so many kitschy tchotchkes that deserve suitable illumination. And Rembrandt, yes, so maybe lighting stores it is. Though there do seem to be a lot of alteration / tailor shops around here. Hmmmmm.
What about where you are? Is there a strangely ubiquitous store that is the keystone to the locals' urban myth?