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I was drinking coffee with my friend Cavaco at his O Lobo café on Rua da Verdade (the Wolf on Truth Street)! It being both my duty and pleasure to support local business rather than visit a shopping mall or big brand franchise of those huge corporations which dominate both physical and online space. They getting ever richer while small traders and entrepreneurs are squeezed out of business. Besides, my neighbourhood café experience is friendly and fun. No amount of mega company ballyhoo can match the real flavours, value, camaraderie and social interaction of my 'local'. It's no contest.
That's why, as I looked down the largely deserted street from where we sat, I decided to buy the closed up flower shop next door. If I could add colour to the small corner of bustle which was the café then perhaps I could start to reverse the neglect of the community reflected in other empty shops and boarded up windows.
I recruited Lulu, 'the flower girl', to run things. She knew her stuff, so word of the flower shop soon got around. People started making detours from the larger centres. They told their friends, who told their friends and, before I knew it, a travel agent visiting from Lisbon spotted the derelict building next door and bought the lease. The premise was larger than he needed but, no sweat. He opened a newsagent and tabacaria in the spare unit. Next to arrive was a grocer, then a hardware store, a hairdresser and a bakery. The town came alive! All done with personal initiative, industry and enterprise. And not a squeak from officialdom … until …
Word of the regeneration of the area reached the local council. A valuation surveyor was dispatched to re-evaluate the properties and businesses. An environmental impact study was ordered. Soon the businesses were flooded with inspectors, pointless regulations, meaningless paperwork, compliance notices and … demands for duties and payments. Threats of legal action in the event of non-payment were attached.
Then national government weighed in demanding their slice of the action. This came by way of even more stringent regulations, licensing requirements and taxation – lots of it. All delivered in the name of working in the best interests of a community which, delighted with the thriving hubbub returned to their town, neither sought nor desired their interference.
Meanwhile, both local and central government, wheeled and dealed with the mega corporations, offering ludicrous incentives to devour green space and build ever more shopping centres. Their officials became the real life 'wolves of truth street', appearing to live in houses, drive cars and enjoy foreign travel far in excess of what even their self-awarded excessive salaries could possibly afford. The beleaguered small business owners financing these lifestyles inevitably concluded that the battle with the twin evils of bureaucracy and corruption was a losing one.
Lulu, the flower girl, was the first to quit. The travel agent and tobacconist soon followed suit. The grocer, hairdresser and bakery were next to go. The hardware store hung on for several months but the profit on a bag of screws or the occasional sale of a spirit level, eventually levelled the spirit of the proprietor and he too said 'screw this'. Only O Lobo survived.
Once again Cavaco and I thoughtfully regarded the deserted street from the viewpoint of his café terrace. That's when we decided to buy all the derelict properties. We drew up and submitted plans for a covered shopping precinct which retained all the original buildings and character. It consisted of a huge transparent dome over the entire street.
Suddenly we were receiving ludicrous incentives, grants and public money to fund the venture. Turning the tables on bureaucracy in this way gave us quite a kick. More so because we leased space at low rates and only to local businesses and small private enterprise concerns. All the former traders returned plus a throng of new ones. The explosion of colour which greeted visitors on arrival was once more a prominent feature of the street. Yes, Lulu the flower girl was back!
I am Tom Riach. I live and write in the sunny south of Portugal.
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LULU THE FLOWER GIRL is an original copyright Tom Riach feature.
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See you there! Regards, Tom.