years ago they were generically known in parts of Australia as “Dollar
Shops”, and they promised untold advantageous and inexpensive purchases
for even the most cash-strapped of families. Originally, of course, such
establishments didn’t necessarily sell just Korean or Chinese goods as
they seem to do today. Indeed, their Aussie forerunners (the older
Woolworths and Coles) were modelled on the US "five-and-dime" stores of
the 1870s — which prided themselves on locally created goods — and their
later manifestations, like the Kress, Mott and Zahn shops . . .
holding forth along these lines to Sleepy Jack Hanrahan the other month,
and inexorably true to form he had something to add on the subject.
know, Roy, inflation has put paid to all that dollar nonsense, and
bargain stores are now called “two-dollar shops” in Sydney. Even so, the
one near us hasn’t kept up with its macro-economics and blithely
announces itself as “Your Hot Dollar Dazzler Discount Dealer”. Not that
it restricts its odds and ends to a cost of one dollar the way the Yanks
were able to do in the 19th century with “nothing over ten cents”. Far
from it — these days there are treasures galore on offer at as much as
$39.95. For the affluent poor, presumably. Nor must you shade your eyes
against the sizzling, glittering prizes, despite its name. Best if you
don’t, really, else you’ll trip over a pile of them in one of its
narrow, dimly lit aisles.
decoration and customer safety aside, however, I dare say such places
serve a useful purpose, particularly for the hard-up teenager buying dad
a birthday present. Provided of course that the latter doesn’t mind
getting a screwdriver that’ll fall apart the second he applies torque to
it. And as for Mother’s Day — well, it’s every girl for herself. (“What
am I to do with all these doilies?”)
most useful purpose of the two-dollar shop, though, is as an
inexhaustible source of dialogue for the budding fiction writer. Talk
about verisimilitude! Ask your writer friends the following questions,
want to soak up the hidden meanings of trivial conversation?
need to learn how to build discourse tension in their masterpiece?
they frustrated in their attempts to hear it in their own heads?
them to look no further: dialogue salvation is at hand. Half an hour
hanging about with pen and notebook behind the shelves in a store like
this and they’ll have enough ordinary language to fill a whole trilogy
professional life as a linguist I myself performed this loitering duty
many times, in many locations. I was making an in-depth study of
language variants among different people in different situations. As you
can imagine, in the same two-dollar shop the well-heeled out slumming it
can sound poles apart from shoppers on the breadline making essential
purchases. The contrast will be equally sharp between the articulate and
those able to communicate but poorly.
for articulate children, the mind boggles. I blame it all on the
never-ending stream of books that offer advice on child-rearing. They
keep suggesting that talking with your child from a very early age is a
sure-fire way of forestalling aggressive behaviour and minimising
adolescent rebellion. That may well be so, but fluently communicative
youngsters have their disadvantages — especially in two-dollar shops. In
fact, for what it’s worth, my advice would have to be this: never, if
you can possibly avoid it, take small children who’ve been brought up
this way into bargain stores. Lurking novelists aside, the whole
experience is tempting enough for eloquent kids who can read the cheap
price labels. Even more so for those that can’t.
give you a potent and compelling example of why I say this. The true
events I’m about to relate I had occasion to monitor and document one
Sunday afternoon in my ever reliable local cut-price emporium.
are three of them — a most drained and wretched father, a six-year-old
girl full of beans and her rather studious looking brother of about nine
years. Up and down the aisles the girl squeals, to the ongoing paternal
accompaniment of the following sort of thing:
that ridiculous kitsch vase down, Mary . . . Carefully!”
Mary, we’re not buying that useless contraption.”
you have no earthly need of those R-rated videos.”
heard me, Mary.”
sudden her bespectacled brother, who’s been content hitherto to keep a
low profile and silently explore the nooks and crannies on his own,
makes his strategic move. Fully confident of a foregone happy
conclusion, he advances and with an eager smile presents the frazzled
parent with the object of his desire.
hopes are immediately dashed.
stuff is false economy, James. You know that.”
why did we come in here in the first place?”
James; that miniature radio is inappropriate. Kindly replace it where
you found it.”
wouldn’t call a mere $3.95 inappropriate, dad.”
will fall apart the moment you try to change stations.”
it. No, I need it.”
have heard my final word, James.”
a final word, too. I ask you again, dad. Please buy it for me.”
persistence would be admirable, James, in other circumstances. But that
thing is quite worthless.”
worth something to me. It’s got AM and FM.”
the colour matches the décor in my room.”
essential that I have it. My psychological well-being depends on it.”
trio passes from the store, James may be defeated, but he is still
adamant. To his sister he explains his position:
get hold of an idea, I don’t let go of it. Is that clear?”