No village shop? Then open one

For decades they have been quietly disappearing. But some villagers are fighting back. By Clive Fewins
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Indy Lifestyle Online
At the end of 1992 the village shop and post office at Cromhall, Avon, closed - one of hundreds of village shops to have shut for good in recent years. When the 500 villagers realised that the shop would not reopen - the building was to become the home of the owner, who had retired - they voted unanimously to find a building and run their own shop.

It took a year to form the Cromhall Village Shop and Post Office Association, but after that fundraising started in earnest, and by the beginning of this year they had raised pounds 14,000. This was pounds 1,500 more than they estimated would be needed to buy and convert three former Post Office portable buildings and stock them with a comprehensive range of grocery and household items. The new shop opened in mid-October, on land that used to be part of the village allotments. Apart from one paid employee, who receives pounds 50 to run the post office 20 hours a week, it is staffed wholly by volunteers.

It is a venture that would doubtless be applauded by the authors of the recent Government Rural White Paper - which came down on the side of shared responsibility among small village communities. The Cromhall shop, which is open 40 hours a week, is one of a growing band.

At the last count there were 30 similar community shops in England and Wales, according to Derek Smith, a retired farmer who runs the Village Retail Services Association - from a rambling office at his house near Halstock, Dorset. In 1992 he played a leading role in saving his own village shop. The next year he founded VIRSA and since then has helped 10 or more community shops to get off the ground.

"Community shops are far from ideal. They rely on a dedicated band of helpers which, experience has shown, can dwindle rapidly once the first rush of enthusiasm has passed," he says. "Community shops are never going to take on the big supermarkets - some of them turn over less in a year than many supermarkets take in a day.

"However, they play an important role that out-of-town superstores can never fulfil - they are focal points and meeting places as well as being an important source of basic foods and household goods. Often they also stock something else that is lacking in most supermarkets - the best of local produce. The community shop movement is growing: some have been running 15 years and more."

One of the oldest ventures of its kind is the tiny shop run from a converted double garage at Letcombe Bassett in Oxfordshire. It opened in 1979 after the previous shop closed. It is open for 11 one-hourly sessions a week and the post office counter operates from 10-11am every Thursday. Turnover is about pounds 11,000.

"It is enough to provide a useful service and give us a small surplus at the end of the year," saysAnne Shone, who acts as co-ordinator. "Our overheards are low. We pay rent of pounds 52 a quarter to the district council, which owns the land, and have 100 per cent discretionary rate relief." Plans in the recent government White Paper to lower business rates for village shops and post offices will not therefore benefit the enterprise.

Like most community shops the Letcombe operation sells foods and other domestic items bought in from a nearby cash and carry. At the tiny enterprise in the village of Southrop, Gloucestershire, population 200, the goods are bought from a local supermarket.

"The only item sold at a profit is bread," says the organiser Jack Collett, 77. "Some of us grow produce that we sell at the shop to swell the funds, but apart from that when we run short of money we have a jumble sale."

At Tallerton, in Devon, turnover reached pounds 1,000 a week within a few weeks of opening in January 1994 and has stayed at that level. The chairman, John Carter, puts this down to selling local jams, honeys and garden produce, combined with a good community spirit. He says: "People here realise that there is a genuine social aspect to a village shop. It is not just a matter of making a profit: the shop acts as a focus and brings people together. We find that newcomers to the village very soon end up behind the counter. At the same time we buy well and manage to compete on price with the supermarkets."

Another thriving community shop is at East Hanney, Oxfordshire, where the nine-year-old venture turns over pounds 1,100 a week. The emphasis is again on fresh local produce from local suppliers. "We have a pig farmer who also deals in other meat in the village. It means a constant source of additive-free ham, sausages, pork joints and other fresh meat," says Audrey Vickars, the chairman.

"Having the post office counter is also a great help. Our post mistress is an expert at helping people work out their benefits!"

Twenty miles away at Wootton, near Woodstock, a group of locals stepped in when the village shop closed in 1991 and was put on the market as a private house. A dozen of them bought it for pounds 153,000, raised from their own resources and a pounds 60,000 bank loan. The business is now run by a tenant.

"The arrangement has been quite successful," says the chairman, Miles Tuely. "But as we have pounds 100,000 tied up in the venture, if any of us wanted our money back in the short term we would be in difficulties. We also have a problem because the bank is asking for some of the capital to be repaid, and profits are currently not sufficient to enable us to do this."

There has been no such problem at Llanfrothen near Beddgellert in North Wales, where a local group raised pounds 80,000 - pounds 20,000 of it in small loans from members of the community - to buy the local shop, post office and petrol station when it came on the market last year. The sale took place in January this year and the shop is run by a tenant.

"To visitors to the area the business is just the same as it was before, but it is now owned by the community and run as a society under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act," says Ivan Llewelyn. "The purpose of the exercise was to buy a thriving shop and run it as a community venture in case it should become run-down and non-viable. The tactic seems to have worked."

At Llanbadarn Fynydd near Newtown, Powys, residents acted fast 15 months ago when their village shop, post office and petrol station closed. They managed to get a pounds 2,000 grant from the Development Board for Rural Wales to rent a portable building as a temporary community shop and post office, staffed by volunteers.

At the moment they operate from a temporary building on the village hall car-park. But in the new year they are planning to move back to the old shop site on the A483, which they have bought for pounds 50,000 with the aid of grants and loans, and reopen the petrol station. "The petrol station will be the key to the business as there are good margins on fuel and no other petrol outlets for 10 to 15 miles on either side," says the chairman of the shop association, Tom Davis.

Because they are short of working capital, they have established a reverse credit system at the shop. Customers pay a regular sum in advance to the shop to fund the purchase of goods. As they do their shopping their credit gradually runs down until they top it up.

"At present the system works well, but it will be a year or two before we have the whole enterprise together - the shop, post office and petrol station all on the main-road site," Davis says.

"Community shops may carry rather fewer items than the giant supermarkets they so gallantly compete with, but they are far more varied and interesting," says Derek Smith. "However, with the odd exception most of them have found the past two years difficult. Some have also found that, with employment picking up, it is proving harder to find volunteer staff - especially younger people.

"Every day when I go into the office I expect to find a message that one or other of them has ceased trading, but so far that is not the case. Community shops are holding their own - just."