[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early Aughts, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]
Closing Time: Business Hours Can Be Bafflingly Brief in a Seaside Town Bent on Work/Life Balance
“You only have five minutes to order,” cautioned the server at our neighbourhood Japanese restaurant to three newly arrived lunch seekers. “And then you have a maximum of half an hour to finish eating. We do close very soon.” As I gouged at my bento box with chopsticks at a table nearby, the would-be patrons weighed their desire for the restaurant’s good-but-not-great sushi and teriyaki fare against the time constraints and decided to try their luck elsewhere. They shuffled toward the exit, the server following impatiently inches behind. As soon as the last of the interlopers cleared the threshold, he crisply flipped the Open/Closed sign on the door to the latter.
Quickly, I finished the rest of my meal and signalled for the bill, lest I be physically hustled from the premises in the waning moments of the lunch service. While I waited for my total to be tallied, I checked the clock on my phone. It read 1:45 pm. The restaurant had been open since noon and would close, obviously quite promptly, at 2:00. After a few minutes, the server swept by and presented the bill with a beleaguered sigh. “Sorry for the wait,” he said breathlessly. “It’s been such a busy day.”
It’s a common enough scene around Portsmouth, the English seaside town my partner and I now call home, where many merchants take a profits-be-damned approach to business hours. Before moving here, I’d lived in big cities in the U.S. and Canada my entire adult life. The world I’d long known was one of all-night diners and convenience stores, of supermarkets and drugstores open well past sunset, of food trucks that I could count on to serve me a semi-edible chilli dog after I tottered out of a nightclub at 1:00 am. I took comfort in knowing that I could basically get what I wanted when I wanted it. That was the perk for putting up with the noise, the traffic, the pollution, and the endless checkout lines that came with living in close quarters with millions of other people. Relocating to Portsmouth, population 205,400, has introduced me to the flip-side of that existence. The perk is less hustle and bustle; the price is a bit less convenience.
Work/life balance is the order of the day among the local shopkeepers, labourers and paper-pushers alike. While this has resulted in a generally cheerful and easy-going populace – you’ll see few concrete jungle grimaces around these parts—the scales can easily tip in life’s favour, leaving consumers peering dejectedly into the darkened windows of the town’s abundant independent shops and cafés. (Chain stores, with their more standardized hours, are largely confined to a few demarcated shopping districts.) Need to pick up a prescription from the neighbourhood pharmacy? You’ll have to plan around the midday break, as the staff takes off for lunch from noon until 2:00 pm. Perhaps they all decamp to the sushi place. How about a nice leg of lamb from the butcher a few doors down? If it’s Wednesday, remember that he closes for the day at 1:00 pm—just because. Oh, and he’s shuttered on Sunday and Monday as well. If you’re hungry for lunch yourself, be aware that at the family-run café on the corner, the posted hours may read “Open until 3:00 pm,” but the kitchen stops cooking hot food at 2:30, or possibly 2:15 if that last sprint to the half-past mark proves to be just too daunting. Nothing but lettuce and water for you if you dawdle.
At least these establishments are accessible on a regular basis. Some places force customers to play a cruel guessing game with their hours. Our dry cleaner seemingly opens and closes whenever the mood strikes him. “Your shirts will be ready after 4:00 tomorrow afternoon,” he’ll tell us, and then he’ll be conspicuously absent for the next three days. We would try another cleaner, but our clothes come back from him expertly cleaned and well-pressed… eventually. There’s a mysterious bar a few blocks from our flat that doesn’t bother with posted hours and can be teeming with after-work tipplers on a Wednesday, then shut tight on Thursday, then lit up again on Friday night and dark on Saturday. We wonder if the owners decide whether or not they’ll open each night by flipping a coin. (Though we may see the place come alive more frequently during the summer months when seaside vacationers flood the area.) Next door to the bar is an Indian restaurant that never appears to be open. Yet we still get confounding menus for it through our letterbox.
It’s possible that the cheap property prices in our out-of-the-way, untrendy corner of Britain may help foster these undemanding schedules. People don’t have to work as hard to pay the rent/mortgage as they would in London or Brighton. Or it may be that this is not merely a local quirk but a European one. Europe is said to be less militant about workday structure than North America and my few excursions onto the continent have reinforced this. On our visit to Copenhagen, we noticed that shopkeepers took frequent and lengthy cigarette-and-Carlsberg breaks. Whatever the reason, I vow to stick to my American-born, screw-life-let’s-work sensibilities when it comes time to open my own shop, which has long been a dream of mine. It will be called Dugout Discs, like this blog, and it will sell a wide range of vintage vinyl LPs. There will be a small café at the front of the shop where customers can kick back, have a coffee and something sweet, and listen at their leisure to the classic records that I’ll spin as the DJ in residence. My shop will be open at least 10 hours daily, seven days a week, with no exceptions! Well, unless, you know, I have to nip out for a bit because it’s a nice, sunny day and the seafront beckons. Or I have to lock up early because friends have invited me for a pint or three at the pub. Or if I just take a full day off because I’m binge-watching the latest Marvel series on Netflix.
On second thought, maybe the sign on the door of Dugout Discs should read, “Business hours subject to the whims of the proprietor. This is Portsmouth, mate.”