In this town, less of a destination and more of a place-on-the-way-to-somewhere-else, I find myself beside a hodge-podge of goods spread out upon several sawhorse-supported boards in a dusty back alley. In trying to see things through the lens of the drivers with whom I rode, one of my research foci was upon what drivers carried with them each day (and why).
Laid out on in a semblance of organization is a mix of tools to support cooking, and construction, as well as driving and maintaining the vehicles I study. Interpreting my keen interest in her goods as readiness to buy, she bids me hello from her perch in the doorway across the street and rises from her wooden stool to approach and talk rope gauges and screwdrivers with me. As I probe for customer behavior, goods display tactics, and the authorities’ strategies to levy (sometimes arbitrary, sometimes legitimate) taxes and fees upon her informal shop, she presses me about my marital status, religion, and opinion on the Diaoyu Islands. Banter proceeds at a pleasant pace, and, our respective versions of thickly-accented Mandarin aside, I revel in the relative ease of conversing without having to simultaneously tap notes on an iPhone whilst careening down a potholed road and yelling over the roar of a diesel engine (as the previous week of cross-province long-hauls by agricultural vehicle/农用车 required).
After some shared laughs and artful conversational dodges on both of our parts, we move back to her stoop. A worn plastic thermos is produced, and another chipped tea cup is brought out to accompany hers while we sit amongst drying medicinal herbs (propped up by a brace that elevates the shallow straw drying-basket) and the doorstop that her neighbor (a pharmacy specializing in traditional medicine) fashioned from a cinderblock. An answer to one of my favorite questions for vendors that I’m continually surprised by (and presumably a question my store-owning subjects are equally flummoxed by) is their seldom knowing (or admitting?) what their most popularly sold item is. “People buy all of these things, or else why would I have it here?” is a common refrain. Self-evident, a truism, but I’ll never stop asking.
Think of what you’d like/need to have within arm’s reach, and how a store next to your home would look, versus how a store next to your work, versus a store next to your hotel in a foreign country, versus so on and so forth. Consider the blurry line between necessity stop and convenience, and how that would vary within cultural and contextual allowances.