In the almost fairytale-like story Once Upon a Shop of a small fruit and veg shop Jeanette Winterson takes us back in time to the magically enchanting and nostalgically charming streets of Spitalfields, London. Her loathing and revulsion toward cooperate chain supermarkets, who she feels favor profit over more important matters like food quality and sustainable farming, cause her to open her own niche shop with a business partner. Together they let their happy and healthy approach to life shine trough the store showcasing their love and devotion to enriching peoples lives by selling quality food. Together they spread happiness all the way out on the street through the front door.
Jeanette Winterson’s tale about her beloved store begins with the description of the region where the store is located. From the very first paragraph “I opened my first fruit and veg shop in Spitalfields in 1805…” (page 1, line 1) the reader is sucked straight into the story. This is apparently not just some normal store since Jeanette Winterson wasn’t born about 150 years after she claims to have opened her shop. In the next sentence this strange thought is never the less dismissed with Winterson proclaiming “At least that is how it feels…” (page 1, line 3). Then she goes on telling about the history of Spitalfields. It seems like some sort of hidden underclass part of the city. Here you can find all-night pubs, street vendors fighting each other and working class men drinking Guinness beer (somebody while eating raw onions suggesting it to be “better than antibiotics”). It seems to have its own charm though since Jeanette Winterson’s description isn’t degrading the neighborhood. Rather it’s embracing it.
So when a coffee company wants a lease for Winterson’s building she denies after doing some research about the firm. Here she finds out that the coffee is the wrong kind and the firm employs “the wrong politics”. We are told about how Winterson is very attentive to factory farming and how food is grown and harvested. So when she buys her rat infested house that is almost falling apart the first two years are spent fixing the building and finding out about food supplies. But her hard work pays off hence she can open her own shop Verde as soon as the house is ready.
Jeanette Winterson has written her story for two reasons. The first reason is because she wanted to chronicle her experiences in being her own boss so other people can read it and maybe learn something about life. The other reason is because she wants to convince the reader of her own beliefs about quality food and ethical eating. She has a very strong belief in that when it comes to food no one should spare their money as emphasized in line 186: “There is no such thing as cheap food – there is the real cost, and then there are subsidies or mark-ups.”. How much these beliefs mean to Winterson is seen in line 76 when she bases the reason for passing on the offer from the coffee franchise on the grounds of “really believ[ing] that the small decisions we take profoundly influence the bigger picture.”. She obviously isn’t influenced by public opinion because she feels that as long as she stands her ground she will already have changed much more than by simply agreeing with the rest. And the way she presents her beliefs is very compelling to the reader since she manages to appeal to the ethics without sounding annoyingly persuasive. This gives her a lot authority and believability.
The title Once Upon a Shop bears an utter resemblance to the first sentence which fairytales usually begin with. And this fairytale theme is actually recurrent in the entire text.
“The pyramids of oranges, gassed lemons, King Kong-size bananas, forests of parsley, potato towers, and crates of peas (…) all as creatively piled as anything in Tate Modern..” 1
In this quote Jeanette Winterson describes the market that used to be located in Spitalfields by compiling a long list of different, available fruits and vegetables each accompanied by an adjective. These adjectives all connote to objects typically found in fairytales or other fantasy literature. This way the author manages to set a adventurous and magical feeling about the entire environment. Pyramids, King Kong, forests and towers, are all exotic objects or locations that wouldn’t have made sense in Once Upon a Shop if it had not been for the recurring fantasy/fairytale theme.
For all the alliterations, fairytale themes, metaphors, etc. Winterson incorporates in her writing the most important part of this text must not be forgotten. The message Winterson is trying to convey. This is probably the main reason why she wrote this text.
Winterson knows she may be a minority in her believes. Most people probably feel sustainable farming is important but when they’re shopping for groceries most will still choose the cheapest flour as an example. But Winterson is not like most people. Spitalfields is described as “something of a lawless land” by Winterson which can be interpreted as the land of the rebels. She goes against the profit hungry supermarket chains and wants to sell quality food, because she thinks people deserve it, while being rock steady in her belief that the food has to be reasonably priced so the farmers also get their share.
Jeanette Winterson is well aware she has a long road in front of her if she really wants to change something. But insisting on doing the right thing and writing an interesting essay could be just what is needed.