Requiem for the receipt store

Not far from where we live is a grocery/odds and ends/clothing store housed in a giant warehouse. Its English name is the “High Honesty Supermarket;” its Chinese name is “Chinese people’s supermarket (华人超市),” and we call it the receipt store. It is a typical Chinese department store, in that every section is overstaffed with three or four bored-looking salesgirls who will only spring into action if you pick up something from their section and start to wander to another section.
See, you can’t take things out of the section. Instead, you must exchange the thing you want for a receipt scratched out in triplicate, which you then take across the warehouse to the cashier’s booth. Once you have paid the cashier, she prints out a fourth receipt, gets out her stamp, and stamps each of the receipts, keeping the pink one. You carry the remaining three receipts back to the section and exchange the blue one for the item purchased, keeping the white one and the printed one for yourself.

The first time we went there, we were setting up our apartment and so required things from several different sections: spoons from the kitchen section, a pencil sharpener from the office supplies section, cookbooks from the book section, and so on. Each section requires its own receipts, so we went home with about six things and a dozen receipts. That’s why BH, who had never seen this system in action before, christened the place the receipt store.

In the back of the warehouse is a grocery store, the one we use most often. The receipt store is conveniently located next to another big warehouse that serves as a fresh fruit and vegetable market, so we get produce at the vegetable market and snacks, soaps, cooking oils, and other groceries at the receipt store. Lately it’s seemed like the grocery store’s supply line has been cut off somewhere. The dairy section was more and more depleted each time we went, until the Ultra-Heat Treated stuff was the only milk they had available (this used to be the only kind of milk you could find in Chinese grocery stores). We haven’t seen bread there for at least a week or two. And the last time I looked there for tofu, I didn’t see any, so I called out to the lady in the butcher room, “Hey, you got any tofu?” and when she replied in the negative, I said, “So will you have tofu tomorrow?” To which she said, ominously, “We will never have tofu again.”

We should have recognized the signs earlier, I suppose. But yesterday it became quite clear. The shelves in the personal and home cleaning products sections were completely bare, and things were heaped up on the floor, some in boxes, some in piles. I’ve been in grocery stores when they were restocking before, and this was no restocking. So I asked the employees who were hanging out in the big empty space where the shampoos used to be, gossiping and sending text messages just as if nothing were at all amiss, what was going on. “Oh, we’re closing down,” they confirmed. “Just the grocery store part, or the whole place?” I asked, gesturing at the cavernous department store part just beyond the grocery cashiers. “Everything.” They said.

This is the way it goes in Beijing these days: stores close and open in the blink of an eye. Recently I went back to the Dongzhimen neighborhood, where I spent March and April of this year, and half the stores there have turned into something else. But the loss of the receipt store is especially sad, because it was such a peculiar place. In addition to all the fiefdoms on the main floor (sporting goods section, CD-DVDs, outerwear, underwear, school supplies, home electronics, etc), there were miscellaneous little boutiques scattered around the edges—an “Enigma” clothing store, “Beat of the Youth” shoe store, tea and honey shops, occupying their own little makeshift shacks like some kind of indoor shantytown around the main floor. And because we shopped there so often, people remembered us. “We haven’t seen you in a while,” they’d say, if I had been a few days since we’d last ventured over.

Well, so long, receipt store. I just hope they don’t replace you with a Wal-Mart. We’ll just have to shop somewhere more ordinary, with less paperwork, from now on.