San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Taking care of business

There’s a very old store in the heart of Cartago, you know, the kind with stamped metal ceilings, narrow aisles, painted wooden shelves and scuffed asphalt tile floors. The kind that still puts price tags on merchandise instead of using bar codes. The kind that is still owned by Ticos. It’s the only place where I can buy such diverse items as oyster sauce, yellow corn meal and sandalwood soap.

Kate Galante

Kate Galante

It’s rather like an old general store. On one side of the store is a ferrateria  (hardware section), consisting of a long wooden counter, chipped and stained. The wall behind it is made up of hundreds of small wooden drawers displaying hooks, screws, electrical outlets and most other items found in a hardware store. This side also features a librería (stationery section), its glass case displaying pens, calculators and alarm clocks. In between the ferretería and librería, customers can shop for lamps, party favors, toys and other miscellaneous dry goods. On the opposite side of the store is another long narrow counter, behind which one can shop for baby clothes, underwear, shirts, towels and much, much more. In front of that section are shelves holding pot, pans, dishes, kitchen gadgets, artesanía and whatnot.

The rest of the store is a supermarket.

This sounds big, like those super stores in the States that take up an entire block or two, but it’s not. In fact, it’s about half the size of a typical supermarket here in Costa Rica.

New and gleaming stores occasionally blossom around it, then wither. But the narrow aisles of this store are always crowded and frustrating to navigate. The longevity and success that this store enjoys is not because it is innovative, bizarre or especially inexpensive. It simply does what a store should do. It is well supplied and reliable, it carries items that other Cartago stores do not, and the employees are extremely helpful.

Why am I going on and on about this? Well, those of you who shop in Costa Rica and speak Spanish may be all too familiar with the following replies to your merchandise inquiries in any given business.

No le ofresco. (Literally, “I don’t offer to you.”)  We don’t carry it.

No hay.There isn’t any.

Se acabó. It ran out.

Llega hasta mañana. It will arrive tomorrow. (Which it won’t.)

Llega la semana que viene. It will arrive next week. (Which it won’t.)

I have observed it again and again in Costa Rica. A new business opens, offering a variety of goods and some special prices. As time goes on, goods begin to disappear from the shelves, which means that customers diminish, which means that more goods disappear from the shelves, until the business closes.

Why does this happen? As nothing more than a consumer and keen, committed observer, it seems to me that it is a cultural trait involving either a misunderstanding about what works, a fear of taking even a slight risk or a belief that one can get away with cutting corners to make just a bit more money As a result, businesses here often self-destruct.

In our little village, a small restaurant opened offering healthy substantial meals. Later, the owner started using less-than-fresh fruits and vegetables, and now no one goes there.

I once suggested to a pulpería owner in the village that he stock more yoghurt, since everyone was always complaining that there wasn’t any. “Oh no,” he replied. “It expires too soon.” He was willing to forego all the yoghurt he could have sold to avoid losing his money on a package or so.

I once ordered a dish in a fast-food chicken restaurant. The menu board showed a picture of three chicken chunks with a small salad and piece of fried maduro (plaintan). What they gave me instead were three pieces of chicken minus the rest. They had cut a few colones from their expenses, and as a result, I, for one, will never go there again.

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