Every day at about 4.30am, A.R.V. Vivekraja, known simply as Vivek, rushes to open his family-run provision shop – affectionately referred to as a “mama shop” by Singaporeans – in Changi Road, on the eastern part of the island city state. With the help of two of his staff, Vivek, 24, must prepare for the delivery of spice powders and other food produce, such as onions and potatoes, ordered by restaurants, which have to be loaded onto trucks by 5.30am, before getting the store ready for walk-in customers. This has been Vivek’s daily routine for the past five years, since taking over the management of ARV Stores from his 81-year-old father, after graduating with a master’s degree in marketing and innovation in the United Kingdom. “Although my father will support me if I pursue other career paths, I personally wanted to take over the store and continue this family business,” Vivek says. “I’ve grown up with this store. Every school holiday, my sister and I would visit my father in Singapore, sometimes for up to three months, and spend a lot of time in the store. It feels like home.” As children, Vivek and his older sister lived with their mother in Tamil Nadu, in the southernmost part of India. Their father, Ramasamy Thevar Vadivelu, came to Singapore at the age of 13 to take over the shop from his uncle, but made sure he frequently visited his family in India. I’ve grown up with this store … It feels like home A.R.V. Vivekraja, owner of ‘mama shop’, ARV Stores “My father first travelled to Singapore by ship,” Vivek says. “He loves the shop, and the customers are fond of him, too – often asking for him even after I’ve taken over.” Treasured part of city’s heritage Mama shops such as ARV Stores, which was established in the 1950s, are general stores or sundry shops, or stand-alone kiosks – typically limited to premises of only about 9 square metres (97 square feet) – situated beneath high-rise blocks of flats in residential estates built by Singapore’s Housing and Development Board. These iconic shops are traditionally owned and operated by Indians hence the name mama, which means “uncle” in Tamil. Mama shops were very common in the city in the 1980s and early ’90s, selling anything from spices, canned foods, cigarettes, magazines and newspapers, and even steaming hot curry puffs and other snacks. In the late ’90s, the number of these stores dwindled significantly, largely because of the rise of supermarkets, or more modern, air-conditioned minimarts and convenience stores and, most recently, grocery delivery services, too. But some, such as AVR Stores, continue as an enduring part of the cityscape’s heritage. The customers still buying goods at AVR Stores are mostly regulars – based on a relationship of mutual familiarity and trust, Vivek says. “Many started coming to the store as children because their parents and grandparents were customers, and now they are 40 to 50 years old, with their own children,” he says. “A bond has been established. Many of them trust my father to create a spice mix for them depending on their preferred level of spiciness and taste.” Being able to buy the spices in small quantities also appeals to AVR Stores’ customers, Vivek says. “They buy as little as they need, so nothing goes to waste. They can’t do that with pre-packed spices at the supermarket. “Sometimes, even when they say they need 20 cents (15 US cents) worth of spice, we’ll weigh and give it to them. There’s that flexibility here, which a lot of our customers appreciate.” Mutual relationship built on trust In the past, it was also common for customers who could not afford to pay for the goods to be granted unlimited credit. “There was no paperwork or formal agreement,” Vivek says. “The whole exchange was based on trust within the community.” To keep up with stiff competition today, Vivek has had to introduce some changes to the store, including – since January – offering the convenience of digital transactions, in addition to cash payments. He has also increased the store’s range of products, including 50 types of salt and 100 varieties of oil. However, much of the store’s distinctive, timeless ambience remains intact – for good reason. “I want to preserve how it looks and feels for our customers,” Vivek says. “If we were to change the racks and flooring, we could never get this atmosphere back – this has been a treasure for many people.” He still recalls how residents have often used mama shops as a place to meet and interact with their neighbours. “On public holidays such as [Lunar] New Year and [Islamic holiday, Eid ul-Fitr, also called] Hari Raya, especially, there used to be a crowd here – people greeting one another, catching up. It felt like a festival,” he says Because of the human relationships we’ve built – and will continue to build – I don’t think we will vanish A.R.V. Vivekraja While business will never be as busy as it used to be, Vivek is hopeful that mama shops will not fade into oblivion. “Because of the human relationships we’ve built – and will continue to build – I don’t think we will vanish,” he says. “As long as people need to eat or drink, our essential services will continue to be relevant.” The store has remained open throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, even though Vivek faced staff shortages when the city’s authorities advised employees to stay at home. “We want to be able to support customers who have supported us all these years, especially in times of crisis. So [it’s been] business as usual.” Many people have visited the store during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease, Covid-19, to buy supplies and spices that are purported to boost immunity, such as organic turmeric, Vivek says. As social distancing regulations ease in Singapore, Vivek hopes his family’s mama shop will continue to prosper. “This business will always have its ups and downs,” he says. “It will not always be profitable … but the fulfilment I get here I will not get in any other place.” Emmeline Ong contributed to this report.