Elena has strong opinions about respecting her customers. She provides good quality, branded products, within their sell-by dates, at reasonable prices to residents of the Minerva Esplanada in the Alexandru neighbourhood of Iaşi. Elena buys her goods from local wholesale centres called Siraj and Metro, which operate a card-based membership scheme similar to the UK’s Makro. She’s got a lock-up nearby to store what doesn’t fit in the kiosk. Many customers are elderly and can’t get to the larger supermarkets so need to shop locally.
The kiosk sells a little bit of everything – daily items such as cigarettes, soft drinks, toiletries as well as items you might perhaps run out of, like cornflour (an ingredient for mămăliga, one of Romania’s staple foods – a delicious mix of corn meal, often served with sheep’s cheese and sour cream), oil, rice, coffee, nappies, hosiery, batteries and make-up. If a customer asks Elena to get something particular, for example men’s vests, she will do her best to buy it for them.
Elena has strong relationships with her customers. A few are ex-colleagues or family friends. Many she has known for years, such as 17-year old Cătalină who she saw as a baby, used to sell sweets to as a child, and now sells hair dye to as a teenager. Many customers buy from her daily, such as Constantin who buys a pack of Monte Carlo cigarettes each day. Others, such as 5-year old Matei just pop in to see the dog and maybe get his Mum to buy a pack of puffed corn.
Elena and Costica share the workload, taking turns to sit in their chilly kiosk at street level or to warm up in their cosy flat, five storeys above. They intend to open over Christmas and the New Year. As their only son is working in the UK, and will visit them at Easter, they’ll capitalise on the festive season and stay open while surrounding shops are closed.
We met Elena on our first day in Iasi, created a photo album of her and her customers, and had dinner with her and her friends on our last night.