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shalimar
September 30, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Welcome to Shalimar

At the intersection of Willis and Aro Streets resides the Shalimar superette. Here, you can trawl through the relatively incommodious space and find almost any grocery supply you care to—the miraculous amount of goods Shalimar has available encompasses regular dairy fare, fresh flowers, baking goods, piles of biscuits stacked haphazardly atop one another, a shelf of cordials perching precariously above the bread; the whole shebang, really. You, as a student, might recognise it as the dairy at which you can buy Scrumpy or those big bottles of Tiger from high noon to midnight. Or, you might recognise it by name alone. This is the important part—if Wellington can lay claim to having an iconic dairy, Shalimar would be the number-one contender.

But why the renown? Longevity may play a part. One middle-aged person I spoke to remembers living close to Shalimar as a 20-something and being impressed that the owner knew members of the Indian cricket team of the time (apparently they even stayed with him on occasion!) Another remembers being a broke student and sneakily buying individual cigarettes under the table (although this claim is, I stress, unverified). A considerably younger fellow speaks fondly of its handy proximity to parties in Te Aro, especially during them—if you run out of booze before midnight, Shalimar is but a brisk walk away. He also notes “the karaoke”, as well as the “friendly owners”. The owners came up a lot in my interviews—some labelled them friendly, others eccentric (a reputation fostered by Mr Patel’s enthusiasm for ‘Karaoke Disco Nights’, in which he puts on a Karaoke DVD and coerces customers into choosing a song), but the reviews were unanimously positive.

This unique reputation has extended beyond the word-of-mouth. Shalimar boasts a Facebook page (definitely operated by them) and a Twitter (probably operated by them) which sporadically post tongue-in-cheek updates: “Tonight four people came in and talked to the pies. One of them didn’t even buy a pie”; “The new Karaoke DVD is downbuzz as. Let’s go back to the classics.” They have also been the subject of a documentary, which invoked a lot of many former patrons to reminisce. According to Stuff.co.nz user Mike H: “When my wife and I were young, broke and pregnant in the late 70’s they were happy to run a tab for us between pay days. A kindness never forgotten.”

What’s especially interesting is that while lauding things like Shalimar’s Karaoke DVDs and eccentric owners could come across as condescending and ironic, it feels like Shalimar is very in on the joke—we’re laughing with them, not at them, and that’s a pretty joyous feeling.

In the interests of finding out more about Shalimar (and because I really wanted to meet her), I interviewed the co-owner Nalini Patel, who proved every bit gregarious as her reputation suggests, even going so far as to ply me with a free Nippy’s. What a sweetheart!

***

First of all, Shalimar is a very iconic dairy as I’m sure you’re aware—do you feel like an intrinsic part of the community?

Absolutely. We are.

Well, yeah, so, uhh, you’ve been in business a long time haven’t you? Since the ‘70s?

Yes. 35 years on November the 12th.

Congratulations! You stay open until midnight most nights right? And often you’re the only place in central Wellington that you can get alcohol from—do you get a lot of unfriendly or unpleasant customers?

Yes, of course, although most are very polite—about five per cent are ‘problems’—some of them might be very intoxicated, too intoxicated to sell to, and some people go to the alcohol, [take it] and try to run out of the store with it, some people show up when we’re closed and get angry when we won’t open for them.

Jesus! What do you do in situations like that?

[Laughs] We just don’t sell it to them—I’ll let them come to the counter, then I’ll say: “I’m sorry but I can’t sell this to you tonight—come back tomorrow morning you can buy it then.” If they still cause trouble then I offer them some free bread or something, and usually they leave then. If they take anything, well, we have cameras operating all over the store.

What do most people buy from you?

Ohhh, most people buy a drink and a chocolate bar (we have a lot of students living near us). Second, people buy cigarettes, you know, tobacco. Third is general groceries, fourth is alcohol.

Do you get a lot of big spenders?

Last weekend someone spent $157 I think? A lot of people buy lots of packets of cigarettes, and then they might buy a couple of loaves of bread and [bottles of] milk with it—

She is interrupted—a regular walks in. She laughs, obviously pleased to see him, and says “Young man—you should talk to him! He’s been coming in since 1998!” “1990,” he corrects. “So, what keeps you coming back to Shalimar?” I ask him. “The atmosphere… I’ll walk in and she’ll greet me straight away, say ‘Hi Paul!’ And when I come in with my grandchildren, she always says ‘Hi’ to them… it’s that kind of attitude that keeps me coming back.”

Right; so back on track—it must be quite stressful working for a dairy, especially with the late hours and stuff. What do you do to relax?

[Motions at flowers] This! I like arranging the flowers, taking care of them. What else? How do I relax? [Laughs] I go on walks, leave my phone behind, do it alone. I’ve never touched cigarettes in my life, never drink. I haven’t even had Coca-Cola, [Laughs], though I’ve sold a lot of it.

Lovely! What about outside of the dairy?

Oh! I try to get a lot of exercise, I meditate, I spend time with my family.

All worthy pursuits! Just out of personal curiosity: you haven’t served any famous people have you?

[Laughs] Everyone from David Tua to David Lange! Actually, Helen Clark used to live just up the road, she used to pop in…

A man enters the store and she gesticulates towards him, saying “If you want celebrities here’s one!” They both laugh, and I infer that this is another regular. “What keeps you coming back to Shalimar?” I ask casually. “This woman right here… her affable demeanour, and the friendly environment.”

***

In our conversation, I also asked whether there was a friendly relationship between them and the other Four Squares of Wellington. As it turns out, there is—a sort of network goes on where they warn each other of any suspicious characters that may have come into one of their stores. Heart-warmingly, after the recent barrage of earthquakes, they all contacted each other to check in and offer help if help was needed. I also offered my sincere condolences for the death of Gunvantrai Patel, the owner of the Aro St Four Square who passed away earlier this year. After thanking me, she offered: “The community was so wonderful to them—and us—in our time of sadness… people brought flowers, offered support.”

This got me thinking: it’s pretty cool that we live in a city where a humble dairy can become an integral part of the city’s framework and mythos. Shalimar is a thriving icon, not just an anonymous place where business transactions take place, and there’s something incredibly comforting in that. When Mr Patel died, the newspaper reported his death and a community responded, and I’m positive that the same thing would happen if Shalimar was at the focus as well. And I don’t know—a city that mourns local dairy owners and imbues a deserving business with a mythology, a meaning—that’s the kind of city I want to be a part of.

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