Thursday, 7 May 2009

Amir and Jasmin Kulauzovic, JAGODA, Trnovo, Ljubljana

Owned by two brothers, Amir and Jasmin, Jagoda opened for business in the Trnovo suburb in 2004. A few minutes walk from the Old Town centre, their bright yellow shop is posted on a pathway between the north bank of the Ljublianica river and a modern 70s housing estate.

From here they sell high quality fruit and vegetables, bringing colour to the neighbourhood in more ways than one. Their main aim is, of course, to run an economically successful business and support their young families. Before they arrived, others had tried but failed to make the shop's location work. However, through their innate creativity, kindness and lots of hard work they have succeeded in an extraordinary way, with the shop becoming a kind of 'social hub' for the neighbourhood.

Jasmin ensures they have good quality produce, visiting the wholesale market at 4.30am every morning to re-stock, from which he creates stunning displays in the shop.
From what we saw, the brothers greet almost every passer-by - customers and non-customers alike - with a variant of 'Dan-Dan' (hi-hi). Both men, queues allowing, will spend their time chatting with people, young and old, perhaps being elderly people's only daily social contact, keeping them in the loop with the neighbourhood. But the brothers offer much more than a good gossip spot, they exude a positivity and trust.

Amir, who looks after the afternoon stint, plays his favourite music, singing along and bringing a smile to the faces of passers-by. They'll look after a customers shopping, whilst they take their dogs for a walk, returning later to collect it, safe and sound. The elderly, in a habit left over from the currency change (from Tolars to Euros), will hand over their purses for the brothers to pick out what they are owed.

This measure of trust works both ways. If a customer is short of cash one day, their name and sum owed is written in the 'little blue book' . We're told this is an increasingly uncommon practice in Ljubljana.

One way they have used to establish a relationship with people in this dog-mad neighbourhood was to give a customer's dog a treat. Almost every dog would get one, till some owners complained about the inconvenience of their dog dragging them out of their way to snaffle up a treat, or that their dog proved allergic to the gift. There's still around six dogs who, each time they pass by, wait by the open door and hoover up their biscuit.

The treats are not just for the dogs. Children are given sweets too! And in autumn, Amir and Jasmin might barbeque corn-on-the-cob to give to their customers. In winter it would be chestnuts, which is also a time when Jasmin would also shovel up all the snow along the pathway to build big beautiful snowmen [thanks for the photos Amir].

Born in Ljubljana in the 1970s, of Bosnian parents, the brothers followed their father into the fruit and veg trade. He'd started supplying restaurants, the first business of its kind in post-independence Slovenia. They worked for him for a short while and have even named their shop after his business, Jagoda. Which translates as 'strawberry', the first spring fruit and is a metaphor for a new (political) beginning. Amir says there's not as much money in selling fruit & veg these days compared to the 90s, stating he earns in one month what his father would earn in 3 days. He adds most people don't know the shop is called Jagoda, the sign hanging on the door is often out of sight when the store is open.

Jagoda is open 12 hours a day from 7-7, and closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday. The brothers take the whole of August off. When asked what it was like when the brothers took their August vacation, a customer jokingly said it's like having his legs chopped off.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Dušanka Sulejmalli, "Laura", Ljubljana

Known to her familiars as 'Duška', in 1991 she opened her ladies fashion boutique, named after her daughter Laura - an unusual name for Slovenia. Her shop is tucked into one corner of a forecourt of an ex-petrol station - dominated by a concrete umbrella structure - off the arterial road to Kranj. From here, she dresses Ljubljana's women in imported Italian fashions, many of whom have been loyal customers since the shop opened.

Originally from Serbia but resident in Slovenia for some 30 years, Duška learnt her trade as a travelling saleswoman for a clothing company serving all of former-Yugoslavia.

She provides a personalised styling service that aims to dress her customers well whatever the occasion, whilst trying to encourage their adventurous side: a philosophy which seems to be working well. On our first visit, we mistook a customer's purchase of a raw silk suit combining a beige jacket printed with a cascade of pink flowers and bright fuscia trousers, as an outfit for a special occasion, for a child’s graduation, birthday, or wedding. "No, it's for the office," we were told.

She buys all her stock from factory showrooms near Milan, Italy. She goes monthly, or more often if stock is getting low. With her customers’ size and shape in mind, she'll choose clothes she knows will suit them. They in turn, trust her to make them look good. On returning from Italy she will ring up certain customers and invite them to the shop to try on what she’s bought for them. She says in the future she may buy wholesale from Serbia, as the prices are better, yet the clothes are still very stylish.

Duška regularly goes for coffee with her customers, who include judges and dentists who will visit every season to update their wardrobe to retired ladies who buy every now and again. If she’s not seen a certain customer for a while, she’ll call them to see how they are. All are attracted by a range of clothes not available elsewhere in Slovenia and as such a woman dressed by Duška is more often than not dressed 'individually'.

One particular woman brought several friends but she had first choice of what to buy and then her friends weren’t allowed to buy the same items. Others keep their visits to the boutique secret as they don’t want anyone else to be wearing the same clothes as them. Some will even lie and, if asked, say they got their clothes in Italy or Germany, in order to stop people finding out where they buy their clothes.

Complementary silk scarves are gifted to buyers of certain outfits, which Duška will slip into the bag. She also gives away around 400 umbrellas a year, as an accessory or Christmas gift. She’ll also mark a special customer’s major birthday (like 50th or 60th) with a gift.

With Duska's help, we photographed and interviewed some of her most ardent customers about the role the shop has played in their lives.

Duska also has a son who runs a second hand car dealership based in the huge BTC shopping zone on the north-east outskirts of the city.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Alen Kardas, Hapy Days Fish Seller, Kras

"Yes, I choose the music" said Alen when asked about the folk songs playing from the loudspeaker atop his refrigerated van, “though they need to be Slovene".

We travelled to meet Alen in the small market square of Komen, a village in Kras, a rural region about an hours drive east of Ljubljana and close to the Italian border. He works for a family business called Hapy Days that runs a small fleet of vans across the region. We learnt that these songs are important for people to retain a sense of the region's identity, given the proximity to Italy and even more so now with the EU accession in 2007. In a twist of irony, the fresh fish he sells are from the wholesale market across the border in Trieste.

He sells here each Saturday from 8am-12.30pm and on Tuesdays from 9-10am. Otherwise he criss-crosses the region, driving to villages in the Vremska or Vipavska Valley, or visiting several along the route from Divača to Sežana; Tomačevica, Mali Doli, Kobjeglava, Tupelče, Hruševica, Štanjel. He sticks to a regular timetable so customers know when to expect to hear his music, and takes Sunday and Monday off.

He told us he does house calls too, and reckons on some days he slides the van door open and shut 200 times. Sometimes for feuding neighbours, he needs to park outside one house, then drive the 20 metres or so to the neighbour’s house, as neither will buy from outside their enemy’s gate – a situation he said that’s typically Slovene.

Alen knows his fish, and so when asked, advises customers how best to store or cook bass, mackerel, etc., Though he thinks a big part of his job is to make customers smile, particularly those elderly customers who are isolated or now live alone. He adds the elderly particularly like to buy sardines as they are cheap and nutritious, ideal if you are living on a basic pension.

Customers now know him, and some call his mobile to order or reserve a type, or quantity of fish they may need for a party or BBQ. He’ll check if he can supply, then call back to say yes or no.
We asked his customers about the family tree of their purchase, who would eat the fish they had bought? We were surprised with the variety of our small sample. From a famous Slovene actor, a local designer whose father designed the Slovene Euro coin, a friend of our guide, to children running an errand for their parents, and individuals buying for themselves, their spouses and their families. In a further cross-border twist, people even came from Italy to buy from him because Hapy Days prices are lower.

Hapy Days was started in 1990 by Joze who then bought direct from Croatian fishermen to sell in Komen from the back of his Renault 4. Joze’s wife, Wilma, and daughter Janja take care of the accounts. At 4.30am every morning, Joze arrives at the Trieste fish market and stocks up 4 of the 6 vans they operate – 2 don’t run at present as they are short-staffed. Their son, Tomaz drives one van and Janja’s husband Damir drives another. Employees, Ego and Alen drive the other two. Each is responsible for a different route through Kras.

At the end of each day the vans return to base. Each driver/seller weighs the fish left, refrigerates the good stuff and tells Joze what’s needed for the next day. Any fish not fresh enough to go back on the van is filleted by Damir’s mother and father. These fillets are then sold to a local restaurant, ensuring what is being sold in the vans is always fresh and top quality.

Each day the drivers wash the inside of their vans, with the outside washed weekly on a Saturday afternoon. Alen says it’s hard work and long hours so the business struggles to recruit and retain staff. He’s looking to start a family, but figures his work at the moment makes it difficult to find a girl and settle down.