Dedicated readers of this column might remember that, about seven months ago, I lost a tooth. I have now written about the tooth so much that friends-of-friends refer to me as ‘the tooth woman’, and I’m expecting a medal from the Royal Society of Dentists for educating the world on the complex and gruesome mechanics of dental implant surgery. Lockdown went into effect as I was in the middle of the aforementioned implant, which meant that I have spent the last four months with no front tooth.
I found this fun at first. The novelty has, by now, worn off. Walking around toothless with overgrown split ends (when can we cut out hair again?? When??), no bra (can’t be bothered anymore) and a burnt forehead (ran out of SPF) makes me feel less like Scout Finch and more like Charlize Theron in Monster. My boyfriend, who has been getting homemade haircuts from yours truly, has not been helping my public image. He looks like a skinhead who's been partially lobotomised, and I think we’re one more public outing away from someone asking if I need a safehouse.
So you can imagine my delight when, this morning, the dentists were finally open and I resumed Operation Tooth. After my appointment – where I was not allowed to rinse or gargle, lest my spit begin another nationwide disease panic – I was on the streets of north London, witnessing a small miracle. The shops were open!
The shops, of course, have been open for a week in Ireland. The most-read pieces this week are about Penneys being open, so I realise I’m not exactly coming with a fresh take here. But, oh god, I’ve never felt so happy.
The big clothes shops were still closed, but the little ones, The Pokey Browsers as I call them, were tentatively opening their doors. Is there anything more gorgeous than a good Pokey Browser? The gift shops with several turnstiles of greeting cards, most of which are pictures of dogs. The shelf is an old armoire that is stuffed to breaking point with arty mugs, orange-scented hand cream and natural beeswax candles. By the till there’s a stash of handmade jewellery that falls apart on the second wear. On the walls there are slightly crap paintings that are far too expensive but that the shopkeeper’s elderly friend did. Kinsale is 75% Pokey Browser.
The point of the Pokey Browser is not what they sell, but how you feel when you’re inside them. It’s a rather complex set of emotions. It’s not like going into Brown Thomas, where the hope is that a Mac eyeliner or a Chloe clutch bag will transform you into the kind of elegant person who understands both quality and how not to spill on things. Penneys gives you that junk food feeling, slightly shameful if still spiritually necessary, like eating nachos in the dark at the cinema. Pokey Browsers have an expendable luxury to them. £20 is too much for a hand cream you don’t need, but you pay it anyway, because the woman is nice and because it was made in Achill. (I swear: if everything claiming to be made on Achill was actually made on Achill, it would be three times the size and on the NASDAQ). The clean, pleasant altruism of shopping in a Pokey Browser follows you around all day, like a squirt of free perfume. You don’t feel bad about overspending because you’re helping a small business – two small businesses in fact, if you count the hand cream wizards on Achill.
You don’t grow up in Cork without a love of Pokey Browser energy. Vibes and Scribes has it. Pinocchio’s on Paul Street is a definite Pokey Browser; my own family business, Sweet Heart sweet shop, is another. The English Market is the nucleus of Pokey Browsing. Whether it’s a cow’s cheek or a jar of raw honey, PB energy isn’t about what you’re selling, but how you’re selling it. It’s about being a bit of a character, knowing you’re a bit of a character, and playing up to it to make a sale. It’s popping an extra something inside the bag, because although an extra chocolate might cost the shopkeeper five cent, it will create a customer who will feel mildly indebted to the shop for the rest of time.
It’s this kind of sly friendliness, endless karma and relentless favour-trading that keeps Cork what it is: one of the last major cities in Ireland still putting up a fight against the Starbucks-ification of the high street. And this week, with the announcement of Zara closing 1200 stores, Cork shopkeepers must be feeling nervous. On the one hand, if big chains start to fold, it could leave an exciting gap for more independents to thrive. On the other, if people are coming into town less because they’re buying online more, the Pokey Browsers will lose their much-needed footfall. So get down to Cork Coffee Roasters, pick up a toy in Pinocchio’s, get a vibe going in Vibes and Scribes – show the Pokey Browsers you love them, and believe me, they’ll love you back.