Red rural shop-on-wheels makes a comeback during coronavirus crisis

Every Friday lunchtime, an old red van trundles into a farmyard in Drabeši parish, Vidzeme region. The engine idles for a moment then dies. The front doors open.

From one side the driver climbs out, lifts the hood and tinkers with the ancient engine. From the other door a lady in a beige beret and blue coat emerges and throws open the large sliding door in the side of the van, revealing shelves stacked with hundreds of packets, cans, bottles and bags. A large silver refrigerator stands on one side, a tiny counter complete with abacus on the other.

This is the "LD" mobile shop, based in Liepa. Once a fairly common sight on Latvia's rural roads, mobile shops are now a dying breed in a world of shopping malls, online ordering and courier services - or at least so they seemed until the coronavirus and social distancing suddenly made this old-fashioned business model seem cutting edge again.

LD mobile store

"Bread is our most popular item, of course," says Leokādija, who acts as shop assistant, cashier and manager of the enterprise, "rye bread, white bread, pastries. After that we have the usual selection: butter, meat, fruit and vegetables - we have a bit of everything."

"We work every day except Sunday and we go to a lot of different places - around a hundred," says Leokādija, who has been manning the bus for 25 years. 

"Because of the crisis we have had a bit more interest from people, but only a little bit because most of our customers are elderly and their numbers are dwindling," says Leokādija.

Despite the essential service the mobile store is now providing, it receives no subsidy or other help.

Meanwhile, neighbors from surrounding properties are arriving at the side of the red van. They form an orderly line. There is no shortage of space, and the 2-meter emergency distancing regulations are comfortably accommodated. In the countryside, people give themselves about 5 meters instead.

The driver, Andrejs, is the new boy of the operation, having worked in the van for a mere fifteen years.

"We're driving all the time," he says, estimating that he racks up around 100,000 kilometers each year driving to locations throughout Cēsis and Valmiera regions.

He admits the business has found things increasingly difficult in recent years.

"In the good times of course, people say, 'No thanks, I'll go to the supermarket. Things are a few cents cheaper there,' or they get things delivered right to their house. We're not a supermarket. We can't carry the full range of goods a supermarket carries and of course we have some extra costs we have to cover," says Andrejs.

"It has been difficult to maintain our customer base," he says, taking up the same theme as Leokādija, "Our customers are mainly old people in the countryside. We drive there one week, have a good chat with them, they buy a few things and when we return the next week, unfortunately we find out they have died."

Whether or not there will continue to be demand for the bus on wheels will depend upon whether Latvia can address its demographic issues and attract young people back to the countryside from jobs overseas to replace the old-timers, he believes.

"Even in this crisis, there are people who don't want to return home. They need to be able to find work here," he says, diligently applying disinfectant to his hands before taking the steering wheel again.

Meanwhile the people who were waiting in line have all been served, their bills worked out by Leokādija with the help of that wooden abacus, and now the customers are returning to the surrounding farmsteads. 

Leokādija slams the sliding door shut, Andrejs fires up the old diesel engine and with a friendly wave they head off to their next group of customers deep in the heart of Latvia, hopeful there will still be same number as last week. 

LD mobile store
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