Property: Life above the shop

The Dodd-Nobles bought a delicatessen. The house above it was a bonus.
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If Fiona Dodd-Noble's doorbell rings in the evening there is every chance it is a neighbour in search of some alcohol. Her delicatessen may not be open all hours, but when the owners live above the shop, immediate rescue from an empty drinks cabinet and thirsty guests is temptingly at hand.

"If I'm downstairs cooking, I'm happy to serve someone after we've closed. Isn't that the whole point of being a small, local shop?"

Indeed, when the Dodd-Nobles left London recently for the small Wiltshire town of Tisbury, their arrival was greeted with a huge sigh of relief from the local community: a small shop saved in a hostile commercial world.

Since the beginning of the Nineties, the rural development commission has seen 4,000 village shops go, 70 per cent of villages left without a general store and 82 per cent left without a food-only shop.

But there are signs of a fight back. Couples such as the Dodd-Nobles who have found a business opportunity and a home wrapped up in one demonstrate that all is not lost. For years they were considering a move out of London and when a delicatessen with a good reputation came on the market they pounced.

"We could never have afforded a business as well as a house so the combination was perfect. It has four bedrooms and for that reason was proving difficult to sell because a lot of people interested in the shop did not want so much space," says Fiona.

Tisbury is nigh-on a perfect example of small-town resilience. In the pretty main street, Nobles, the ground floor of a three-storey 1850's house, joins a line-up of post office, cobbler, gift shop, butcher, hardware shop, hairdresser, dentist and chemist. "I knew people around here would want more than a tin of tomatoes. The key is to provide a service they cannot get elsewhere."

Fiona Dodd-Noble puts her catering background to good use by cooking fresh food every day and by selling spices and draft alcohol. "Everyone knows that they can pop in for a teaspoon of brandy or an ounce of cumin. Whenever anyone turns up late in the evening though you can be sure its booze they're after. And because they feel guilty they will often buy other things as well."

At first, the shop intruded massively into the life above it. Far from retreating to his shed in the garden Antony, a computer programmer, and Fiona would find themselves planning and reorganising until late in the evening.

"Before we installed a separate line, the phone would go at 11pm and someone would be ordering bread for the next morning. But we still spend hours writing names on bread bags. When regulars come to collect it they do expect you to recognise them. The great thing about living and working in the same place is you always hear exactly what's going on."

Malcolm Wood, a director of Everett Masson & Furby, commercial property agents based in Wilton, believes there is a new determination among small shop owners: "If they offer something different and do it properly they can succeed. They have to open longer hours and provide a service that cannot be met elsewhere."

The more demanding the work, the more attractive the proposition of living on the spot but, says Mr Wood, if the accommodation is glorious with only a tiny business it may not support large scale loans. It is possible to borrow at residential rates, he adds.

A case in point is The Bakery in Painswick, Gloucestershire, which is on the market with the local Hamptons International office and is being sold more as a substantial village property with a retail outlet than a business with five bedrooms above. A number of shops have disappeared from the Cotswold village and The Bakery faces an uncertain future. The old bakehouse, still housing a large flour hopper, could be brought back into service. Until it stopped producing its own bread three years ago people would travel miles to buy it.

Ian and Audrey Owens pride themselves on buying supplies locally for their village shop in Somerset which has adapted and thrived. Neither gentrification nor competition has persuaded them to sell, but poor health.

They have always lived and worked in the same place and even now it means losing their two bedroom flat with its small walled garden the pluses far outweigh the minuses, says Ian Owens. "We spend 12 hours a day in the shop and it would very inconvenient if we had to travel to and fro. There is nothing worse on a quiet afternoon than standing around waiting for customers. As it is, my wife will often pop upstairs to do something else."

They are very much, he says, at the centre of the community. "We are always here and for instance hold the keys to the village hall for groups such as the young mothers. Only very occasionally do people want to buy something after we have closed. It was far worse when we had a shop opposite a hotel, they would always be ringing us up first thing in the morning because they had run out of bacon and eggs."

However long the hours, it is the attraction of being in charge of your own time that is beginning to tempt young couples into becoming small shop owners. The prices of property in country towns in many places has risen beyond their reach so the chance for their work to finance a higher quality of life appears attractive.

Linda Joyce, an accountant, and her partner Martin Maberley are saving to buy a shop within the next two years. "We promised ourselves we would move out of London before our son starts secondary school. Living above a shop appeals to us because we don't like having to travel to work. If we left London we wouldn't have our family close by to help us with childcare, but at least with a shop we could pop up and down stairs."

Even if flexibility at its worst can mean unpacking boxes at six in the morning or weighing out two ounces of cumin at 10 at night there is an upside. After serving her customers at lunch time, Fiona Dodd-Noble was not heading back to the kitchen. "I was hoping to sneak upstairs to do some painting for the rest of the afternoon," she admitted.

The Bakery, Hamptons International (01452 812354) is on the market for pounds 300,000. The village shop in Roadwater is for sale at pounds 159,950 with Webbers in Barnstaple (01271 321621) and Everett Masson & Furby (01722 743035)