At any time of day Rita and Lallos fruit and vegetable shop was the place to meet everyone in the village. It was the social centre. All sorts of people the locals, the second-homers, the cook from the trattoria on the other side of the street or his kitchen helper, ex-pats, foreign workers (Poles, Romanians, Bangladeshis), the richest lady in the village and the poorest, the pensioners theyd all turn up there at some time during the day.
While they picked through the wooden crates of wilted or fresh salad or leafy vegetables, theyd chat, and Rita would always join in even while she weighed and added up another customers items, counted change or cut up mixed vegetables for minestrone. She loved to participate, always keeping an ear for the latest gossip as the customers inched through the narrow line of open crates containing oranges and apples, the bananas at different stages of ripening and examined the onions one by one to make sure they werent sprouting, lifting and putting back a sad head of lettuce and picking through the carrots for the fresher ones. Rita often left the rotten with the good, the wilted with the fresh, and youd have to examine every item. Everyone knew that they could find better-quality fruit and vegetables, and fresher, at the supermarket outside the mediaeval walls that enclose the village and of course theyd end up there occasionally but it didnt matter. Theyd go to Rita just for a lemon or a garlic, and a gossip. It was a ritual of the day.
There was always talk, too, with Lallo as he came in and out to replenish supplies, or to remove the old stuff. He kept a pig in the country, so nothing from the shop was wasted. He knew everything that was going on in the village and had plenty to say about the latest story of scandalous behaviour and local corruption or about a break-in or a robbery.
The shop closed last month. After 40 years they were tired Lallo of getting up every morning at 03.00 to drive his truck to the wholesale markets in Rome, loading, unloading, lugging crates and stacking them, Rita of gleaning the rotten vegetables from the fresh, preparing her mix of fresh minestrone and moving fast to take care of all the customers as they filled up her little shop.
Everyone knew they were closing. They didnt keep it a secret, but it was too awful to contemplate that the last centre of the community would disappear. It was the last shop to close on the main street.
In Anguillara in 1962, on its main cobblestoned street which consists of a short walk uphill ending with stairs at the top, there was every shop you could need. Going all the way up and starting from the main piazza, there were two bars, a tobacconist, a dry-goods store, two fruit and vegetable shops, two butchers, two grocers, a seller of fresh milk straight from the dairy (youd have to come with your own bottle or pan), a hardware and electrical supplies shop, a hairdresser and shoe shops. There was also a trattoria, and an osteria where the locals gathered to drink wine and play cards. Everything was in the old town and within walking distance.
All these shops went one by one. Now they are all closed, except for the shoe shops, two trattorie and a bar in the main square. The grocery has been replaced by a trendy organic and bio-supplements store. For the daily shopping, everyone now has to walk a long distance or drive to the supermarket. This means going out of the town gate and into the traffic of the road to Rome, out of the lost intimacy of the the village.
It all started in 1970, when Elda announced that she was closing her dry-goods store and opening a supermarket outside the old town, beyond the walls. The word supermarket sounded the death knell to every merchant on the main street.
Everyone knew that Elda was the richest person in town and owned land all around town. She had a reputation for driving a hard bargain. Elda was a huge woman behind the stores cash register, in a black dress (which everyone said she never changed), grey hair in a tight bun, cleaning chicory while she pronounced the price of every dish towel and frying pan selected by the customer, shouting instructions to her cowering salesgirls in her deep booming voice. There were no price tags and no one knew the price but Elda.
She was the first to smell the success of supermarkets. Anguillara had spread outside the walls of the old town, and was growing fast (from 2,000 inhabitants in 1962 to 15,000 in 2004). The customers were out there, in their housing developments, new villas and bungalows drab suburban mediocrity verging on the main road to Rome.
For several years Elda was in her new supermarket, still ensconced behind the check-out in her black dress, cleaning chicory. Eventually it developed into the department store Upim, and her daughter-in-law took over the running of it when Elda departed from this life. It is now a flourishing GS. Other big chain supermarkets opened one by one, and one by one the little shops closed. They couldnt compete with the prices offered by the big multiple retailers. The village has turned to the car culture. When they need a light bulb or a nail they have to get in the car and drive.
The closing of the small merchants in Anguillara is the story of every town in Italy. And of every city.