PROPERTY: A NATION OF VILLAGE SHOPKEEPERS

Whether selling petrol or pork pies, owning a village store is every urban escapee's dream. Lesley Gillilan on the reality and the illusion of the 'Ambridge' life
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The Independent Culture
HELEN Datson's quality food emporium in Chadlington, Oxfordshire, is a class apart from the regular village shop. The contents of her stripped pine shelves have more in common with Fortnum's food hall than the average local convenience store. Staples like baked beans and Bisto lurk in the background, but most of her customers leave the premises loaded with her home-made pies, pastries and puddings, olives, pates, and fresh pasta, stuffed quail's eggs, country jams and exotic cheeses.

Though she sells some basic groceries, home cooking and local farm produce are the cornerstone of Helen's small retail business. Working from a back-room kitchen and helped by two staff, she rustles up Italian breads, fruit tarts, filo pastry parcels, curries, cocktail nibbles and home- made casseroles. She stocks 40 varieties of British and Continental cheeses, "interesting" fresh fruit and vegetables, and a selection of local delicatessen fare like Cotswold yoghurt and farmhouse mustard. The village has a population of 1,000, but Helen's customers come from a broader catchment area. Some make trips from Oxford, 20 miles away.

Helen's Real Food may not be the quintessential village grocer's, but it's the kind of enterprise that puts a rosy tint on rural retailing. The cottagey shop - double-bayed and made of Cotswold stone - is typical of the kind of rustic property that lures "second-career" people with redundancy packages, returning ex-pats, semi-retired servicemen and disillusioned townies. They see a small country business as the focus for a new life.

The pages of small ads in Dalton's Weekly offer hundreds of freehold shops and businesses in picture-postcard settings all over the country. The Datsons lease their property from the local butcher and live in a neighbouring hamlet, but many properties combine under one thatched roof a home and a potential income - from a Post Office salary to the takings from a tea garden. Beamed cottage bedrooms and bags of olde worlde charm in the midst of scenic countryside are all part of the deal. Prices are often comparable with the cost of buying a normal family house, and a shopkeeper's hat is seen as a way into a starring role in a real-life Ambridge story.

The image, says Helen, belies the harsher realities. "People have a very romantic idea of what it's like to run a village shop, but they don't realise the hours, the commitment and the investment that goes into making it work." Helen's Real Food is the culmination of seven years of hard slog, 14-hour days, few holidays and evenings spent huddled over VAT returns. Endless form-filling, armies of government inspectors and constant changes in legislation are among the retailer's headaches - the latest being the move from imperial to metric weights and measures.

Helen says she and her husband Hugh could now scrape by on the shop's takings alone, but for the first few years they couldn't have survived without his full-time salary. Even now, Hugh rounds off a traditional five-day week with furnishing company Fired Earth by spending half his weekend behind Helen's counter.

While Helen's Real Food is a model example of a thriving village enterprise, it is a triumph among a multitude of failures. Small-time shopkeeping is a tough business. Around 200 rural shops and sub-post offices close each year. Hundreds more hang on by the skin of their teeth, many trapped in negative equity (interest rates on commercial mortgages are a shade above base rates, despite a residential aspect) and struggling to make a living on tiny profit margins. The Village Retail Services Association (ViRSA) estimates that 3,500 small shops are at risk. In some cases, their only real hope is a community association buy-out - funded by grants and subscriptions - and a staff of local volunteers.

For those that want to remain viable and autonomous, there is help at hand. The Government's Rural White Paper has recognised some of the hardships by proposing to ease the burden of uniform business rates on small rural shops. The Rural Development Commission (RDC) is piloting a potentially nationwide grant aid scheme for ailing retailers in Gloucestershire and West Sussex.

Alan Wyle's post office store in West Chiltington, Sussex, has received a small grant to help set up a "tele-centre" which will enable villagers to surf the Internet while posting a letter and picking up a few groceries. "It provides a service to the community and brings in extra custom," says Alan, who describes himself as "one of those couldn't-find-a-job-at-45 people" who bought a shop after returning to England from a foreign post in computing.

He believes it's important to diversify. West Chiltington PO offers home- baked bread and fresh-ground coffee, shoe repairs, faxing and dry-cleaning, and combines a general store with an off-licence and a newsagent. Alan and his wife rise at 4.30am, seven days a week, and spend their two mornings off at the cash-and-carry. The rewards? "We live in a Grade II listed property in a nice place in the country," says Alan. "We are not on the dole, and we survive."

Mark Sheehan, of commercial estate agent Christie & Co, warns potential buyers that there are lots of low-turnover businesses on the market and many seemingly attractive shop premises are barely surviving. In his view, the spread of out-of-town supermarket development - not the recession - is largely to blame for this.

Muriel Perks, the RDC's retail consultant in the West Midlands, suggests buyers look for properties more than six miles from a big-name supermarket, with the potential to serve a community of over 1,000. The most successful retailers, she adds, have excellent social skills, are numerate, with experience of self-employment.

There are some very good opportunities for the right people, but hordes of unsuitable candidates still succumb to the "chocolate box syndrome", says Muriel. "It can be a wonderful life, but it can just as easily be a nightmare. People go into it blind without getting proper advice."

John and Molly Wood have built up a thriving village business against all the odds, after making an impulse buy in Cumbria. On holiday in the Lakes in 1983, they spotted a "for sale" sign on a quaint village shop in the tiny hamlet of Bowland Bridge, near Kendal. A month later, they exchanged contracts on the run-down 17th-century home, complete with spatially challenged retail space and two old-fashioned petrol pumps. The shop had been closed for two years.

"We had to build up the business from scratch," says John, who left his own joinery firm in Bradford to supply groceries to the Lakeland farming community. When the Woods (they have one daughter) arrived in Bowland Bridge, they instantly swelled the population by 30 per cent.

"It's hardly worth calling a village," says John. "It consists of us, a pub, two holiday cottages, a young couple and an old couple." Bowland Bridge, a few miles from Windermere, is in the Lake District's National Park, so it attracts passing tourist trade. Crucially, Kendal's three supermarkets are at a safe distance of seven miles.

First, the Woods applied to reinstate the sub-post office counter lost when the former shopkeeper retired. They installed modern petrol pumps and started trading with a small stock of basics. Then they extended the sales area to 500sq ft, obtained an off-licence, built a mini DIY and hardware department and, earlier this year, opened a tea and bun shop.

The Bowland Bridge Post Office and Stores keeps everything from nails, screws, pots, pans and gardening products to fresh chops and chicken legs, Cumberland sausage and mint humbugs. Tourist trade is vital, representing 25 per cent of their takings. While their Post Office salary (the bottom of the scale for full-time counter services) is a tiny part of the shop's total income, it is essential to their role in the community.

"I'd have been a bit better off financially if I'd stayed in the joinery trade," says John, "but if you don't mind hard work, it's a smashing life."

He is proud of the day when he satisfied a customer by producing a jar of mango chutney ("in the days before mango chutney was the thing"), but it's impossible to stock everything. "One gentleman asked for quail's eggs in aspic. It's hardly staple fare, is it?" Not in Bowland Bridge, perhaps, but some folk in Oxfordshire would beg to differ. !

A BUYER'S GUIDE TO SELLING OUT

Broadly speaking, village shops fall into three turnover categories: under pounds 50,000 a year (a hobby shop, only viable with a second income to cover the mortgage); pounds 70,000 a year (will sustain one full-time person and may have potential); and over pounds 100,000 a year (a viable family business). Look very carefully at the financial equations before slapping down deposits on an idyllic rural home over a shop.

Hundreds of small businesses are currently available. Christie & Co in Ipswich (01473 256588) is offering a thatched three-bedroom, freehold property in Saxlingham, Norfolk, with attached general store and Post Office at pounds 179,000 (annual turnover pounds 102,765). The same agent's office in Edinburgh (0131 557 6666) is selling a "way of life" property in Foyers, Loch Ness, at pounds 135,000; it is stone-built, with Post Office counter and stores, a tea room and a three-bedroom flat. They also have a picturesque, whitewashed Post Office in Denholm, Roxburghshire, with a three-bedroom cottage and a PO salary of pounds 11,000, for pounds 90,000.

Humberstone & Partners in Avon (01275 870067) is offering a detached, early 18th-century property in Brightwell-cum-Sotwell in Oxfordshire. The price (pounds 185,000) includes three-bed accommodation, an attached shop and Post Office, and potential weekly takings of pounds 3,500 a week. The Chillaton Post Office and Stores, on the western edge of Dartmoor National Park in Devon, is for sale at pounds 125,000 through Miller and Son (01566 776055), including modernised four-bedroom accommodation. The current Post Office salary stands at pounds 8,650.

Sales details often quote PO salaries (calculated on a "unit credit" basis and starting at around pounds 3,000 a year) but technically you cannot buy a functioning sub-post office - only the bricks and mortar. Each new owner has to make an individual application to Post Office Counters Ltd for the licence to cash pensions and trade in stamps. The usual route into a career as a sub-postperson is to agree a sale on a going concern subject to a successful appointment.

There are numerous courses and advisory services for aspiring shopkeepers. For information on the Rural Development Commission's learning packs, how-to-buy seminars and consultancy services, contact its Salisbury office on 01722 336255. Commercial estate agent Humberstone & Partners (see above) offers business courses in conjunction with the Post Office at pounds 75 per person. The next session is on January 6 1996. ViRSA, a national action group committed to helping villages keep their retail services, can be contacted on 01935 891 614.

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