The story of a grocer and an earthquake, Christchurch, New Zealand

Before the September 2010 quake, just around the corner from my place stood Johnson’s Grocery where locals loved to step back in time: and where I loved to buy freshly cut ham from Colin Johnson in his traditional white apron and delightful manners.

Opened in 1911 as Leigh and Co. it was bought by Colin’s father in 1949 and he has worked there since 1957: this is shopping as it used to be with lollies (sweets) in jars on the counter and cheese sliced from the block with a wire. What I love is how Colin always seems to know exactly where everything is and he climbs up and down a ladder to retrieve whatever it is I’ve asked for.

What do you want? Swiss chocolate; truffles from France; English biscuits or cheese; haggis from Scotland, this shop has them all. Colin doesn’t need to search for stock, people from around the world ask him to carry their special goods.

Colin also enjoys welcoming tourists into the shop telling me “They don’t have to buy anything. They are always welcome to take photographs.” It’s certainly photogenic – the old delivery bicycle on the footpath must feature in many photo albums, blogs and travel articles world-wide.

Then Christchurch was hit by a 7.1 quake at 4:35am. I clung to the bed in my 3rd floor apartment. I heard a few things fall but stayed in bed – thinking if the building collapsed I’d land on something soft, but also worried about being found in the state of my dress – or rather undress! Vanity rules.

Soon up and with warm clothes on, I’d checked out the window and apart from a little concrete block fence that had fallen over, all seemed well in my inner city street despite the aftershocks. I texted this to the National Radio station which was broadcasting reports of this major event in the city of my birth and coffee in hand was also tweeting and posting on Facebook.

By 7am, as the day lightened, I went out exploring my neighbourhood. (See some pics from that walk here)

I take a photo of Johnsons shop window – it doesn’t look too bad

Thirty minutes later I’m going past again – the door is open and a man I hadn’t seen before was standing there.

“Do you have permission to be in there’ I challenge him. It seems Colin is inside and he’s his son-in-law.

"Who are you? Are allowed to be here' I ask
Lots on the floor, but many items still perfectly stacked!
The buildings, including Johnsons, are demolished: ChCh Town Hall. Kilmore St, is in background

And now, Johnsons Grocery has reopened, (November 2011) and is busier than ever. The temporary shop is now in the new container shopping precinct, all bright colours with Colin still in his apron and pencil behind his ear. I visit the day before he re-opens in Cashel Mall re-start  project the shelves are half-full – and put my foot in the wet concrete as I enter! Workmen quickly repair the damage. (See photos from that day here)

Whoops!

Shelves wait to be stocked .. the bike no longer delivers!

I visited a month later and the shop is buzzing, Colin and his wife are busy and happy, and although the shelves are no longer bowed, they are still stocked with goodies from many parts of the world, so, next time you are in Christchurch make sure this grocery shop is on your must-visit list.

This is the first of my Christchurch earthquake heroes’ award blogs: a shout-out to all business who have re-opened (or stayed open) in my city – sometimes under extremely difficult conditions.

See more heroes here


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