28 July, 2006

64. Thank heavens for small mercers

One of the problems that residents of Venice have is that their home has almost become a theme park, a single industry town devoted almost exclusively to funneling tourists through its most historically significant areas. Many of the services that other cities take for granted have all but disappeared, and simple ordinary things can sometimes be very difficult.

A button came off my coat. In a hotel, the concierge would have had it mended for me, but there is no such service with an apartment, so we went looking for a shop that could sell us a needle and thread, ideally, a haberdashery. I can confidently say there is nothing remotely resembling such a beast in the entire sestiere of San Marco. In our further wanderings up to Rialto, across the bridge to the San Polo markets, down through Santa Croce and Dorsoduro and back to San Marco – nothing.

One of the shopkeepers I spoke to was not only sympathetic, he was in a similar situation – he had a leaking tap (faucet) and the only hardware store he knew of had closed down and was being refitted as something more tourist oriented. He needed a washer, and although he lived in Venice, he no longer had any idea where to get one.

One day, north of Rialto, off the beaten track in Canareggio, when we had almost given up hope, there it was, a mercer! Mercery is not a trade that still exists in the English speaking world, but in earlier times a mercer was a dealer in silks and wool and fine fabrics, and the Worshipful Company of Mercers, their trade guild, was a powerful organisation in medieval London.

From the look of the shop, a 'merceria' was the Italian equivalent of what we would call an old-fashioned haberdashery. Inside, as I expected, this business was just what we were looking for, with tiny drawers from floor to ceiling full of all kinds of buttons and yarns and beads and embroidery stuff. It had just the mending supplies we needed – a needle and some twist.

Ordinary life is still clinging to the margins of this tourist-devoted city. Thank heavens.

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