Tuesday, 3 April 2012

For want of a nail

There used to be a hardware shop called Gill's Ironmongers down a tiny alley called Wheatsheaf Lane in the centre of Oxford. The entrance to the alley was no larger than a doorway and on either side the brick walls were high and crooked.
On your left, you went down a step through the doorway into Gill's and inside you had to pause to attempt to take in the visual overload, there was so much paraphanalia on all side. Kettles, pots and pans, sieves, saws and spades hung from the ceiling at various heights. Shelves were stuffed with knives, tin-openers, bottle-openers, screwdrivers, spanners, bicycle repair kits, pumps, colanders, doorbells, spare handles, latches and hooks, glue, filler, varnish, floor polish, brass polish, silver polish, shoe polish, slug pellets, ant killer, coarse string, fine string, green string, fisherman's twine, curtain hooks and curtain poles. There were lots of little drawers, each containing different sorts of nails and screws, nuts and bolts, plugs and washers, brackets and fixtures for attaching anything to anything else. You could rummage through them until you found just what you wanted, and buy just one or two, without a plastic bubble. In the centre of the shop were two large revolving display racks full of packets of vegetable seeds.

It was cramped and crowded, and rather magical, like the wandmaker's shop in Harry Potter. Gill's was not just a shop, it was an emporium. Every time I went there, and stepped down through its creaking door, making the small bell tinkle, I felt a sense of amazement. It was nice to go in there and just buy a box of matches. Simple old-fashioned matches, in a little box with a ship on it, or a bigger box with a picture of a sailor smoking a pipe.

I was sad when, about a year ago, I suddenly discovered that Gill's was no more. It had closed, after more than a century of family business. For quite a while the space was empty, then last week, I was pleased to see a sign appear at the entrance to Wheatsheaf Lane, saying "Oxford Nails".
Could it be that someone had opened another ironmongers where Gills used to be? Would there again be shallow drawers full of little metal bits and pieces, household wares?
No, in fact it is a beauty parlour. The interior is completely transformed, with bright white walls and clever lighting. A Chinese lady and gentleman wait to give you a superb manicure and display a range of eighty different colours of nail varnish.
Ah, well. I just wish they hadn't raised false hopes by calling it "Oxford Nails".

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