I did not grow up in the land of shopping malls. A trip to Portland once a year promised riches at the local Meier and Frank, Oregon’s simulacrum of Macy’s. Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward (truncated to Monkey Ward in Oregon speak) were our connections to the great outside world of consumerism.
Still we in our small coastal town had our Safeway, we could boast a Penny’s nearby. You knew where to buy things; maybe they were distant, but once you traveled to those stores, you knew where things were. The world was a well-organized place, each aisle to a different good.
Imagine my surprise then when I moved to Vienna as a student and discovered a world of categorical imperatives vis-a-vis shopping. I actually had a premonitory dream about the place the summer before leaving for my college year abroad, imagining impossibly cobbled lanes edged by a plethora of cartoon-like gabled and half-timbered houses. And in one of these Hobbit holes they would sell the fruits of the Nicotiana tabacum: good old ciggies, coffin nails, fags, gaspers.
I didn’t even smoke then, yet I fancied such a tiny hole-in-the-wall establishment that sold tobacco along with newspapers.
I was close. Once in Vienna, I discovered that it was also at the local Tabak Trafik that you also bought salt, another state monopoly. And the streetcar tickets. And the lottery tickets. Right, and matches.
Vienna, I soon discovered, was pleasantly locked in the nineteenth century in many ways when I took up residence there from the late 1960s through the 1980s. Department stores had come late and hesitantly to the Habsburg capital; one of the earliest was Gerngross on the Mariahilferstrasse, but its opening brought reaction from the local shopkeepers. The emperor decided, in his wisdom, that such behemoths would not threaten the tradition of mom and pop shops that graced Vienna.
You want buttons? Go to the button shop. Combs? Take yourself off to the tortoise shell emporium. The same for watches, bread, milk, vegetables, even the houseware shop I frequented in the thirteenth district. Its theme of rubber-made goods led it to sell condoms, not found at the local druggist. There were paper shops, coal dealers, scarf shops, fur shops (which doubled as ice-cream parlors in the warm months), hat shops, underwear provisioners, candle makers, butchers, wine shops, key makers, shoemakers, tailors, hair salons—a wild profusion of niche products that would, in the U.S., have been sold under one roof but that, in Vienna, were cordoned off each to its own domain with an appropriate wrought iron shop sign overhanging the sidewalk—sold at the local ironmongery.
And the hours. Metal shutters rolled up at six in the morning, an alarm for those living in the same building, above these street-level shops. Closed for two hours in the afternoon, a Central European siesta time, and then the shutters rolled down again at six in the evening. Half-day Saturday. Closed Sunday. And that was the law.
You wanted some eggs or fruit or bread on the weekend after Saturday noon, you had to make your way to one of the little marts at one of the railway stations serving passengers disembarking. A nuisance, a damn inconvenience. Yet it was one more thing I came to love about stubborn old Vienna living in the wrong century.
All gone now, of course. Lost in the hustle and bustle of Vienna’s re-situation in the European Union once the Wall fell. Austria had been made “permanently” neutral as a result of the state treaty of 1954 when the Sovs agreed to end their near decade-long occupation following WWII. Permanence is not so permanent in the brave new world.
Last time I visited the city I was made inconsolable by the loss of almost all its small bakeries, replaced by the Wonderbread of the Anker chain.
Ah, but one saving grace.
The Tabak Trafik lives on.