I was in Ballymoney recently for one of Roamer’s occasional talks about the on-going joy of compiling this page.
When I’d finished my talk - at the local Probus Club - a man from the audience handed me a book and a telephone number.
The book was called ‘Behind the Wooden Counter’ and the telephone number was the man’s wife and the book’s author, Pearl Hutchinson from Kilrea.
I leafed through it when I got home and was immediately charmed by the book’s array of old sepia photographs and evocative reminiscences of life in a country shop.
Some weeks later I chatted with Pearl about her childhood in a long-established rural store. Her conversation and her book were fashioned with the eloquence of a veteran storyteller.
She’s been deeply involved with local history for decades, has written six books and is on the committee of the Coleraine Branch of the N.I Family History Society and the Kilrea Local History Group. She’s also a Causeway Yarnspinner, a Friend of Garvagh Museum and has addressed hundreds of local history and heritage groups.
‘Behind the Wooden Counter’ has raised thousands of pounds for heart surgery for a little girl in the Philippines, and Pearl says her life-long love of writing and telling stories grew from “helping to attend customers in the shop”!
Published in 2004, she hopes that the book “will bring back nostalgic memories of a time when the shopkeeper stood behind the wooden counter ready to serve the customer.”
Times have changed dramatically! Today we manoeuvre metal trollies through a maze of crowded aisles with loudspeakers gushing latest offers from soaring ceilings.
Queues stretch and tangle, conveyor-belts jolt, cash-tills bleep, ray-guns flash and the expanse of parked cars outside hides the one we came in!
In vivid contrast, Pearl’s family shop was “a place for people to meet, to talk and to laugh…to share secrets or unburden grief. The shopkeeper was someone who knew about their situation and could be relied upon in difficult times when money was scarce.”
Her father, Charles Kee, owned the shop beside their home in Finn Valley, County Donegal - five miles from Ballybofey and Stranorlar.
“From our veranda window we could see both up and down the road,” Pearl remembers, “to the west was Altnapaste (mountain) rising 1,199 feet above sea level. Down the road John’s Brae (Shrove) was clearly visible. Beyond was St John’s Church. The main road to Glenties passed over the bridge towards Welchtown.”
This was the idyllic setting for the shop where Pearl was born and brought up, in the townland of Meenagrave, in the parish of Kilteevogue, Kee-family domain since 1733.
Pearl’s father’s uncle, Thomas (Tom) Kee, built the shop around 1890, aided by his brother Charles, with stones “carted from the hill.”
Initially the shop was in the family sitting room, in their delectably named ‘Paradise House’.
“Old ladies in black shawls came with their baskets tucked under their arms” on a horse and trap, or in a cart, though most walked. “In the shop there was a bench where they could rest their weary legs. Old and young liked to sit there while they were being served.”
They chatted and joked and sometimes argued. “If a row broke out Tom would chase the offenders up the road with a shovel!”
In 1895 Tom brought his young bride Elizabeth Stevenson to Paradise House, and merchandise to the shop by horse and cart from the local branch-line of the “wee Donegal” railway. “Sometimes there would be three tons of flour or feeding stuff.”
The house was draughty, heated by open fires and lit by oil lamps.
Tom and Elizabeth leased the shop in the 1920s and relocated to run a boarding house in Portrush.
They returned in the 1930s when Tom’s 21-year-old nephew Charles, later to become Pearl’s father, began his apprenticeship in the shop.
Charles took over the business in 1942 and soon became known as Charlie the Shop “as there were a number of Charlie Kees in the district.”
His brother Jimmy helped behind the wooden counter. Charlie married hotel-waitress Jennie McClean in 1945 and had three children, Dorothy, Charles-junior and Pearl.
Full-time homemaker Jennie “had great skills with her hands” from making clothes to carpentry and gardening and “my father stood behind the grocery counter” Pearl recounts “ready to serve the customer.” She has a remarkable shopping-list of evocative memories and anecdotes, enough to stack every inch of a supermarket’s shelves!
There was no fridge or a freezer in her dad’s shop.
The customers’ goods were laid out on the wooden counter for totting up; nothing was pre-packaged; everything was weighed, paper-bagged and “tied with a cord which hung from the ceiling over the counter.”
Pearl’s book lovingly reproduces old bills, shopping lists (“tea, sugar and butter were nearly always the top items”) sales dockets, receipts and invoices.
I’ve closed her book for now, merely a quarter-way through, but will open it again next week, with Charlie the Shop forever behind his wooden counter.
For a copy (£10) e-mail the author at email@example.com