BEIRUT: When you have a long shopping list, it makes sense to visit a supermarket where the butcher, the baker and the greengrocer are all under one roof.
But the convenience of supermarkets can’t replace the experience of doing the groceries the long way, visiting neighborhood shops where knowledge and enthusiasm for the products are at a premium.
In Beirut’s Mar Mikhael neighborhood, across the street from Electricite du Liban and new condos under construction, is a store that steadfastly refuses to be a one-stop shop. Unless all you need are bananas.
The shop doesn’t have a sign – or even a name – but the bunches of bananas hanging on either side of the entrance advertise its location. The walls are mostly painted yellow or the concrete has been left bare.
The decorations are exclusively banana-related, mostly posters from international fruit giants, Del Monte and Chiquita. The bananas, however, are 100 percent local.
“They’re ‘baladi’ bananas,” says Elias Aoun, who’s run the shop for 33 years. “Lebanese bananas!” chimes in a friend who’s keeping him company.
Aoun’s bananas are from the south of the country, down the coast from Sidon to Tyre. Most bunches are slightly green and will need two days to ripen.
“Some customers like them green, some like them soft,” Aoun says. The baladi variety is also called “Abu Nekta,” a name that refers to bananas that have become freckled with brown spots.
In three decades, Aoun has built up a loyal customer base. Longtime residents of the neighborhood wave as they walk past, pop in just for a hello or to pick up a kilo.
“He’s a good salesman, never argues on the price and the bananas are good,” says one customer.
Aoun, who is originally from Damour, used to own a greengrocery in Downtown Beirut near the St. Yeghia Armenian Catholic Church.
When it was destroyed during the 1975-90 Civil War, he bought his current shop from a family friend who started it in 1950.
“Back in the good ole days, I would sell 500 kilos a day,” Aoun says. Most of those went to other banana salesman. “Now I sell about 50 kilos a day.”
In busier times, bananas were hung from rows of hooks suspended from the ceiling and in the back room to ripen.
“We brought in Romanian stone,” Aoun says, gesturing to the walls of an old-fashioned ripening room that is now empty. “It traps the gas that help the bananas ripen.”
By trapping the ethylene released naturally by bananas, Aoun guaranteed a steady supply of yellow bunches.
Aoun’s shop is now only open in the mornings, from 6:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. He says that at 84 years old, he’s tired and his health isn’t what it used to be. “I’ve been working for over 60 years. I want to spend time with my family,” he says.
“I was supposed to retire 20 years ago,” he adds.
Aoun says he’s entitled to receive payment when leaves from his landlord, to whom he’s being paying rent all these years. Once he receives the money, the banana shop will be shuttered. But like everything he does, he doesn’t seem to be in too much of rush.
He still likes bananas, he says, and still eats them. When he does close, Mar Mikhael banana lovers will have to find a new place to get their fix.
“There are shops like mine – selling only bananas – but in the southern suburbs, not here,” Aoun says.
Did he ever considering branching out? Adding tomatoes or apples to his repertoire? Aoun lifts his chin in a ‘no’ and smiles. “It’s registered as a banana shop,” he says. “Since 1979, there have always been bananas.”