I fear I have indulged in a rather full-blown parenthesis, but it was somewhat necessary before going into certain details concerning the two utterly opposed modes of trading and their exemplifications in Birmingham. As I have mentioned before, we have in recent years seen the rise and development of huge establishments and trading concerns that deal in anything and everything. Cutting and competition have gone on till there is nothing left to cut, or no weapon left that is sharp enough to cut finer. The results of all this has been the whittling away of a good many old-fashioned shops and traders; but they are not all gone, and some long—established businesses still survive and prosper in our midst.
I will just mention one or two. If the reader of these lines will walk down the Lower Priory, which leads out of the Old Square—or what was the Old Square—he will see at the bottom of the said Lower Priory, on the right hand side, a sedate and solid brick building. He will see a brass knocker on the door and a brass plate bearing the name of Smallwood and Sons—“only this, and nothing more.” This is the business house of the oldest firm of wine merchants in Birmingham, and I believe that these premises in the Lower Priory have been in the possession of the Smallwood family since the days of the Commonwealth; and, further, that the present active members of the firm are the fifth and sixth generation of Smallwood and Sons, wine merchants. There is no big shop window full of bottles of cheap heterogeneous wines and spirits. It might be the house of some good old doctor, or the office and home of some ripe old lawyer. If you step inside the office, you see few signs of Bacchus or his bowl, but you do see some antiquated rooms, some quaint furniture, and a nice dry, well-seasoned appearance that denotes age. There are full and capacious cellars on the premises of course—cellars containing a sort of well in which the books of the firm were buried at the time of the Birmingham riots; but, so far as outward appearance is concerned, Sir Wilfrid Lawson or the top Major-Domo of the Band of Hope might pass by the lintels of the doorway in Lower Priory without a sigh. With regard to Messrs. Smallwood’s cellars, their subterranean premises are honeycombed with catacombs containing the remains of some grand old spirits and big bins of choice vintage and various other wines.
It might be thought that such a very unbusiness-looking place would be quietly draining away, especially in face of the flaring competition in the wine and spirit trade. I am, however, glad to think and know that such old-established houses as Smallwood and Sons can bear up against the levelling down processes that characterise the more pushing branches of the wine and spirit trade. There are still a fair number of people who like to buy their wine from dealers who seem to have inherited certain trade instincts and experiences, and who can be relied upon to supply what they know to be good wines and spirits, such as can be consumed with pleasure and taken without risk. We do not all yet care for Chancellor claret, Hamburg sherry, petroleum champagne, and Dudley port, sometimes called “Bilston pit drink.”