Lessons Learned from Running Errands like its 1890
Updated: Aug 4
When I lived in France I was completely charmed by the ever-present stores that sold one very specific thing or performed one very specific service. It is a trope that is totally true. French people really do buy their meat from the butcher, their bread from the baker, their flowers from the florist, and their medicine from a pharmacy that actually only sells medicine (You can't get cigarettes, greeting cards, or candy at French pharmacies it turns out.). Not every French person shops like this - going from store to store to check items off their list. Many, many (most?) people go straight for the supermarket. My host mother in high school took us to E.Leclerc pretty much exclusively, and when I lived in Paris I would do most of my shopping at Monoprix (because i'm fancy) or FranPrix (because Monoprix is not sustainable for your budget). Those are all supermarkets that would be very familiar to Americans, and they are definitely a part of life in France. Nevertheless, the idea of going store-to-store for meat, fish, cheese, etc. is not foreign to most French people, and it's not considered quaint or classy. It's just another way to get your (often higher-quality) goods.
Ok, maybe it is a little classy. My French girlfriend when I was living in Paris wouldn't let us do store-to-store shopping because she didn't think we could afford it. Maybe that is why I am now a superfan of the idea of completing errands with the help of specialized stores. Rachel and I just bought a house near Philadelphia's Italian Market, and part of the reason is because we are excited about the food-buying options that surround the place. Bakers, butchers, and mongers of all sorts are a common sight in our new neighborhood. But it's not all about food (a sentence I never thought I would say)! I am also a frequent customer of stores that offer specialized services that one would assume vanished with steam ship transportation.
When you flit from shop to shop supporting local businesses, not only do you get to pretend you are European, you also tend to get higher-quality goods and services from people who really know what they are doing. Hashtag apprenticeshipsmatter, you know? Here's another thing - there can be wisdom in the old ways. I want to share with you Queer Martha's favorite places to run errands like it is 1890 and the lessons that each place taught me. Some of the lessons contradict each other, so you take from this what you need to hear. Here goes.
1.) The Cobbler
Number one on my list is the shoe fixer. What would I do without the shoe fixer? I wear my shoes really hard. The soles of my shoes often don't last more than a year. What can I say, I like my shoes like I like my women - worn out and molded to my feet. Just kidding, that is totally weird. But the great thing about good shoes is that they do stretch to fit your feet, and it is such a bummer when you finally break a pair of shoes in, then you get a hole in the sole and you have to throw them out. Or you don't have to throw them out because you have a cobbler friend who can fix all your problems!
I have been a fan of cobblers ever since my first one repaired the amazing purple and chartreuse stilettos I bought for $20 in NYC in high school. Those babies are still going strong. Unfortunately, this first cobbler turned out to have troubling political views and I had to stop seeing him, but he taught me that you don't have to throw things away. You can often make them better than new.
Lesson: Restoration is a virtue.
Cobblers, it turns out, are not cordwainers. Cordwainers make shoes whereas cobblers mend shoes. The more you know!
2.) The Lingerie Specialist
The first time I met Mona, the owner of Coeur, she told me to take off my shirt, she glared at my boobs, and she came back with a bra that fit better than any I have had before. The lingerie specialist will not only put you in a bra that is the perfect size for your body, they will also give you a garment actually engineered to make you look good (which we can contrast with mass-market bras that are engineered to look good sitting on a shelf).
It might feel like luxury to spend a lot on underwear, and I am not going to say that it is not. Sometimes, however, you have to spend more to build a solid foundation, and your underwear is the foundation of your outfit. My Mona explained to me that bras have a job to do, namely, making your boobs look like the best version of themselves, and a poorly constructed bra (like the ones you buy in most mass-market bra stores) aren't doing that job well. Fire them.
Lesson: If you are not buying quality, why are you buying at all?
3.) The Jeweler
Having a jeweler you trust is not just about buying new jewelry - though new jewelry is never a bad thing. Having a jeweler you trust is about making sure you can take care of the things you love. My jeweler is Henry David and the super team at Halloween in Philadelphia. His shop looks and awful lot like the Cave of Wonders from Aladdin. Antique gems glitter from every corner and wall and ceiling. Brass statues peek out from behind ropes of pearls. It's magical. You should definitely check it out the next time you are in Philly, even if you are just looking around. It could have been featured in my secret Philadelphia post, but unfortunately it is down stairs, not up stairs, so it didn't make the cut.
Anyway, Rachel and I bought our wedding bands at Halloween, and I would be lying if I said there wasn't a pair of massive green quartz earrings that I have been lusting after for a couple of years in the display case, but the main reason I visit the jeweler is to repair the jewels that I already own. The string holding together my mother's pearl necklace broke a few months ago, and Henry David put it back together. The stem of a vintage rose brooch I bought on a romantic weekend with Rachel snapped soon after, and I brought it to Halloween to be reattached. I love this brooch. When Henry David told me the cost of repair was probably more than the value of the brooch, I told him it had significant sentimental value, and he was like, "Baby, we're going to fix this cheap piece of junk!" He didn't say quite that, but he did fix it for me, and it was worth every penny.
Lesson - If you love it, it has value.
4.) The Framer
I talked about my love of framing here, and let me assure you that it is still going strong. I think Framebridge is great, but I think it's important to have an in-person framer that can design something to match your style and the soul of your really special pieces. Here's the thing - if you have artwork you think is beautiful or a photo that brings you joy or just something random that deserves to be displayed, then it deserves to be displayed in a way that celebrates it, dammit! Much like your brassiere is the foundation of your outfit, your frames make your shit look good. This is true whether you are framing your wedding invitation, your napkin doodles, or artwork you bought using real money.
Find a framer that suits your style. I use Flying Pig in Philadelphia because I like their selection of vintage frames and reclaimed wood. Take your special items to the framers and watch them pinpoint the soul of your piece and explode it all over your wall by giving it a skin that really fits. Emphasis on "special," though, cause this shit's not cheap.
Lesson: Presentation is 9/10 of the law.
5.) The Pharmacist
There is something inherently unhealthy in walking through aisles of candy and greeting cards to pick up your prescription. I mentioned that French pharmacies still only sell drugs, for the most part (does face wash count as a drug?). It turns out that there are still pharmacies in America that do, too! My life in America changed a little bit when I started sending my prescriptions to my neighborhood pharmacist. It is a totally different experience, and I highly recommend trying it out. We are moving to a new neighborhood soon, and one of my first Google searches was the neighborhood pharmacy. Maybe it is just me, but I feel like I can trust the pharmacist more when I don't have to pass seasonal decorations on my way to the counter. Strangely, not having aisles of nail polish splayed out in front of me puts a little bit of joy into picking up pills.
My hope is that as people start rediscovering letterpress and artisanal honey and stores that sell only hats, some hipster pharmacist coming out of Pitt or something will start an old-timey pharmacy that only sells drugs. And maybe their own special blend of soda pop.
Lesson: There is joy in purity
6.) The Reupholsterer
I have never actually used a reupholsterer because I can't afford it (maybe I spend too much on frames and lingerie?), but i really, really want to. Watch out, reupholsterers of Philadelphia. You are next on my list.
Lesson: Upholstery is freaking expensive.
What are the surprising services that you can't do without?