Paul Rowe has served the Shaftesbury public his last parsnip, potato or pomegranate. The owner of long-established Abbotts Greengrocers handed over the keys to employee Ross Townsend today.
Paul has worked in his family’s Bell Street shop for 51 years. He shared some of his memories with ThisIsAlfred, including a story about his smallest sale.
Abbott’s really is a family affair. Paul Rowe’s grandmother, Rachel, founded the greengrocers in 1954. She started by selling the flowers that she had delivered from Southampton, on a stall on Gold Hill. In 1955, the business moved to Bell Street. “My grandmother had it for a year and she struggled. So we came down from Kent and dad decided to give it a go,” said Paul.
Paul was a teenager when he started his employment at Abbotts in 1967. “I never worked at the shop as a kid. I never had a Saturday job. I started at 15,” he said.
Paul has probably been asked dozens of times what he intends to do in his retirement. But he’s clear about how he won’t be filling his time. “I won’t be working at the Tourist Information Centre,” he said, with a comment clearly directed at one of his customers, who started laughing. “I start early in the morning. I mean, they don’t start until 10am,” Paul laughed.
The inside joke clearly amused the shopper. I got a sense that many of Abbotts’ regulars enjoy the daily or weekly chat and banter. It’s the personal touch that makes this business. “I just love the shop. I love coming here. I love starting up in the mornings. It’s no bother to me at all. I just like being here,” Paul said, adding that he will miss interacting with people.
I still hadn’t found out how Paul will spend his new found free time from Monday. Noticing faded photographs of massive, possibly award-winning marrows, on the shop wall, I asked whether gardening was one of his passions. “I tried it once and once was enough,” Paul laughed. “When I moved to the sticks, I thought, ‘Right, I’ll make a garden and plant my veg’. Never again.”
I could see why it didn’t appeal. Vegetables have surrounded Paul each working day. “It’s like coals to Newcastle. It’s much easier to go to market and buy it in a box,” he laughed.
Whatever Paul does next week, I hope he will have a lie-in. For over half a century, he’s been regularly hitting the road when most of Shaftesbury is asleep, so he can get to the market in Southampton. “I leave home at half past midnight. I love that. That’s the best bit,” he said. “If you’re buying and selling, then that’s the buzz. You go to market, see what’s there and what you like the look of. You think, that’s good. I’ll have some of that.”
Paul says that he will miss some of the friends he’s made at the market. “There aren’t so many people down there these days, as there used to be. There used to be two or three greengrocers in each town. Now there’s one greengrocer in the county, almost,” he laughed.
As we chatted, snow and ice lay along the pavement outside on Bell Street. I asked Paul whether bad weather had caused problems for the business over the last fifty or so years. “We have gone to market in bad weather. I can remember my dad shovelling a whole load of snow onto the back of the lorry to give him some grip, to put a little bit of weight on the back,” he said. “We had some hairy trips in the snow and the ice going up Pepper Box Hill, swerving all over the place. When you’re self-employed, that’s what you do. You don’t stay in bed. You go and give it a go.”
Paul said that once he got to the south coast port, he wasn’t so worried about driving home to Shaftesbury. “Once you’ve got your lorry or your van loaded, you can get back pretty safely because you’ve got some weight on your driving wheels. So you’re pretty safe to get back.” But he recalls the one short period when the shop was without stock. “In 1963, the really bad winter, I was at school but I think dad didn’t go to market for nearly a month.”
Looking at old pictures of the store on the Abbotts Facebook page, the shop doesn’t seem to have changed, which is nice. “It’s exactly the same as it is now, more or less.” But the range of produce is different. “People’s buying habits have changed. Back in the day, people would always ask for five pounds of spuds, two pounds of carrots, cabbage, a cauli. Now people hardly buy potatoes,” Paul said.
Paul can’t recall any fruit or vegetables that have completely disappeared from display during the decades, but there have been plenty of new additions. “Things have been added to the shelves. The exotics – like mangoes and avocados. People’s habits have changed.”
The campaign against single use plastics has helped Paul’s business to some extent. “We notice the impact of the packaging. People are using us because it’s not packaged. There’s no plastic, well hardly any apart from soft fruit, which has to be in a packet. We’ve gained quite a few customers because of the packaging thing,” said Paul.
“And you can buy single items, which is good if you’re cooking for one,” continued Paul, before laughing as he recalled his oddest transaction. “I have sold one sprout before now!” He doesn’t know why someone bought just one of the vegetables. “One onion is quite common though,” he added.
Paul says that his choice makes a difference, too. “What I buy is not the same as the supermarket would have. It’s slightly different. I think it’s a little bit fresher and it hasn’t gone somewhere to be packed. It’s from the market and straight into the shop.”
Shaftesbury has grown significantly since 1967. I assumed that more people would be good for Paul’s business, but that’s not necessarily been the case. “I don’t think many of them are coming to the shop. They buy out of town or in Tesco probably. A lot of people are just used to buying in a supermarket. They’re not used to coming to a greengrocer. We’ve gone out of fashion,” said Paul. “We have a hardcore of conscientious people that like to come in and buy what I buy from the market. We might sell quite a few things that you wouldn’t necessarily get in a supermarket.”
Paul occasionally takes orders. “It all depends. If people say they want salsify or okra, I usually tell them ‘no’ unless they’re gonna buy the box. That’s because ‘queer gear’, as we call it in the trade, won’t sell. We wouldn’t be able to sell the rest of the box. Okra goes off in about two days. If I can sell the rest of it then I’ll do it, but if I can’t, they’ll have to buy the box.”
Jerusalem artichokes are also considered ‘queer gear’. “They’re very popular at the moment for soup,” said Paul who adds that the term refers to exotic items, “like dragon fruit, the Indian and African sort of stuff,” Paul said.
Whether the fruit and veg is exotic or not, Paul makes the most of it in his displays. Any first-time customer will notice how the produce is carefully arranged in an eye-catching way. “I try to make it as good looking as possible. I put different colours next to each other. It’s really an art form,” he said.
Ross Townsend will be in charge from Monday. ” He’s worked for me for eleven years and he’s keen. He’ll be alright,” smiled Paul, before he added a tip for anyone who wants to become greengrocer. “The secret is not buying too much. Buying enough. You have to cut your wastage down. There’s no point buying loads of stuff because it doesn’t keep,” said Paul. The advice wasn’t directed at Ross. After a decade working at Paul’s side, he knows exactly what to do.
The business will move temporarily, but don’t worry. It will be back. The landlord is undertaking some work on the Bell Street property. “The building is going to be developed either later this year or early next year and Ross will have to move out for a while. But I think they’ve made arrangements so he can use another premises,” said Paul.