Monday, October 10, 2011

Keeping Shop

After over two years of living together, last Saturday for the first time Unni trusted me to look after her shop for a few hours. The request came, like most of Unni's plans, out of the blue on Saturday morning. She had a wedding in Kangnam to attend that afternoon, and she just wanted someone to sit in the store in case anyone came by. "I don't expect anyone will come," she said. "I just need someone to keep the place open and the lights on."

I showed up as requested at 2 o'clock with my book and some coffee and donuts. Unni fluttered around for a while longer getting organized before dashing out the door. As advertised, there were no students or customers when I arrived.

Unni's shop is in a great location on a busy street right next to a bus stop. There are a few other art/ceramics shops near by. She doesn't often get random strangers coming in to buy her wares, however. Mostly she spends her days giving lessons and overseeing her regular students who come in to paint; in free moments she works on her own stuff, mostly on commission.

I was still nervous that someone might chance by and want to buy something, however. For some philosophical reason that I don't understand, Unni never puts price tags on any of her stuff. Whenever I express interest in buying something and ask how much it is, she quotes me an outrageous lowball figure that even an art philistine like myself knows couldn't possibly be right. From overheard phone conversations I've gotten the idea that she bases her prices mostly on how much she likes and/or is indebted to the person she's dealing with.

For the first hour, however, I had the place to myself. A little after 3:00 two young women came in to pick up some cups that they had made. They seemed unperturbed by the presence of a foreign shopkeeper. I gave Unni a call and got her to tell me where the cups were, and they happily went on their way. "Thank you, come again," I called after them in a jaunty sing-song. It was the first time I had used that phrase outside of role-playing in Korean class.

A little later our friend Jongshil came in, apparently just to chat. As regular readers of this blog know, Jongshil is our amateur expert on Korean traditional medicine (hanihak), specializing in prescribing diets based on the 4 basic body types. I showed her the dietary recommendations Unni had gotten from a new haniwon clinic she had visited, which conflicted with what Jongshil had told us on several points. "This guy doesn't know what he's talking about," she said dismissively. "I checked out his book; he's a big fraud. People who don't know any better respect him because he's famous." She then sat down with a pencil and began briskly scratching out and amending the various columns.

As Jongshil was doing this, my second set of customers came in, a lady and her little boy. "I just wanted to get him to paint something for fun," she said when I explained where Unni was. I set them up with some paints and a practice plate from the discard bin, and the little boy happily set to work at a squiggly composition that turned out to be a "stilosaurus," while his mother sipped coffee and we chatted. She asked me how I came to speak Korean, so I explained that I was the shopkeeper's housemate. "Ah, that explains the North Kyongsang accent," she remarked, to my delight. They stuck around for over an hour, the boy painting dinosaurs in increasingly muddled colors, while I continued to reassure his mother that Unni would be back any minute. Finally, an hour late, she walked in and relieved me of duty.

Later I had a dream that I left the door of Unni's studio unlocked and someone completely wiped out her entire inventory. Obviously the small business world is too stressful for someone of my delicate constitution.

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