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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: One Kiwi's dreams sink - but that's the system

Butcher's tale shows gap between capitalism's ideals and reality

Every village needs a butcher, but we live in a world where the landlord and the supermarket are making it difficult. Photo / APN
Every village needs a butcher, but we live in a world where the landlord and the supermarket are making it difficult. Photo / APN

Like God, capitalism moves in mysterious ways.

I live in the Wellington suburb of Wadestown, a five-minute drive from the Beehive if the traffic lights synchronise obligingly. It boasts a retail cluster which is sometimes referred to as Wadestown village, as if being just over the brow of the hill and having a few shops makes the suburb distinct and self-sufficient.

There are a couple of takeaway joints. There's a dairy which, like most dairies nowadays, essentially functions as a purveyor of last resort for people who can't be bothered making a list before they go to the supermarket and get home to discover they remembered the prosciutto and pomegranate molasses, but forgot the milk. There's an all-purpose hairdresser and some kind of beauty salon that has a makeover as often as Lady Gaga.

There used to be a chemist, but he couldn't make a go of it despite being next door to a doctor's rooms and despite the middle class appetite for pills, potions and perfumes (and Wadestown is nothing if not middle class).

Rightly or wrongly, one had the vague impression that the whole Wadestown village concept was slightly parlous, perhaps by virtue of being too close to town and sandwiched between suburbs with large supermarkets.

Based on my experience in England, a village needs two things: a pub and a butcher. The pub is the social hub; the butcher, invariably apple-cheeked and wearing a straw boater, in a sense validates village life by harking back to a bygone era before the social interaction of local shopping gave way to the convenience of having everything under one roof and the artificiality of disengaged teenage check-out staff droning "have a nice day".

Then Wadestown village got a cafe, coffee culture's version of a pub. A couple of years later, Corey the butcher opened his doors. There was no sawdust on the floor, but otherwise he was the village butcher from central casting, right down to the rosy cheeks and straw boater. He started early and worked late, which meant you could eat what you felt like eating that night, not what you thought you might feel like eating when you were at the supermarket three days earlier. And the meat was top quality.

Even so it was tough going that first year, to the point that he could barely pay himself. But he had a six-year plan, and by midway through year two he was on target.

Most of the shops in the village are on the same title; late last year the property changed hands via a mortgagee sale. The new owner assured the tenants that he wanted to roll over their leases.

But shortly before Christmas, Corey was advised that his rent was going up. He did the sums. In the short term it would mean going back to working for next to nothing; the six-year plan would become an eight-year plan, assuming he could get to the point of selling enough meat at a good enough margin to cover his costs and make a meaningful profit. It did mean that two years of hard slog was really just running on the spot.

Around the same time, the manager of a supermarket a few suburbs away offered him a job, working nine to five, earning more than he was used to taking home at the end of a particularly good week.

On one side was his dream of being an independent butcher, the freedom of being his own boss and his substantial investment in equipment and customising the premises.

On the other were his kids, freedom from bottom-line anxiety and a nagging feeling that he'd always be pushing it uphill. Even if he got through this, it wouldn't be the last time the goalposts were shifted.

On Christmas Eve, Corey closed his doors and walked away from the enterprise into which he'd put his heart and soul and a fair chunk of his savings.

We like to think that the Kiwi way is to get off your arse and have a go. We're always being told we should admire the entrepreneurial spirit. We have supposedly embraced a whole philosophy of consumption based on freshness, authenticity, craft and producer integrity. We like that sense of being part of something beyond our own quarter acre.

Yet we have a system which in the name of efficiency and return on investment often seems at odds with these ideals and aspirations.

And two months on, Corey's old shop is still untenanted.

- NZ Herald

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