Villagers revive community spirit to save store: Familiar spiral of rural decline is ended by volunteers and shop bonds, writes David Nicholson-Lord

THERE was no Steradent in the village shop at Talaton, east Devon, yesterday. It does not stock condoms either. But there was bread from Honiton, Campbell's condensed soup and Heinz baked beans on special offer and a free Coors beer with every four cans of Theakston. More to the point, there was a shop.

The Talaton general stores re- opened yesterday under new management. There is Trish, a pilot's wife, Jean, a retired music teacher, Sybil, a hairdresser, and Olwen and Greta, both retired. There are another 30 female volunteers, some working for as little as two hours a month. There is also the handyman, Alan Dixon, retired, formerly east Devon's chief planning officer.

For the past six months - and for the first time in living memory - Talaton has not had a shop. Last September Sue Woodley, the proprietor, was forced to close the store, caught in the familiar spiral of falling custom and diminishing stock. Three generations of Mrs Woodley's family had run the shop before her.

Talaton, which has a population of under 500, looked set to succumb to the market forces that have cost 29 villages in Devon their sole general stores since 1987. Nationally, according to the Rural Development Commission, 3,500 are at risk of closure. The reasons range from the rival attractions of superstores to crippling mortgages and other loans inherited from the overoptimistic 1980s.

At Talaton, according to John Carter, a local farmer and chairman of the parish council, the chief enemy was complacency. Everyone thought the shop was too much of an 'institution' to close. When it did, the villagers rallied round.

First, a questionnaire was distributed, which found that 80 per cent of the 140 households wanted the shop to survive. Then pounds 6,500 was raised in donations and grants - 120 villagers bought pounds 50 shop bonds or pounds 10 membership subscriptions. Talaton also sought the help of the Village Retail Services Association (Virsa), a non-profit making body founded last year after the rescue of a shop at Halstock in Dorset. Virsa has advised in 12 similar cases in the past year and is establishing a database of village shops to identify the keys to success.

The shop at Talaton had been stripped down to a shell when the villagers took it over. The money raised paid for rent, stock, a till, new fittings and cold cabinets. Volunteers did the rest - decorating, carpentry, heating and lighting. Even the two redundant Shellmex petrol pumps outside have been smartened up.

According to Virsa, many villagers have discovered too late how important a shop is to their community and all too often accept closure as inevitable. Richard Fry, its assistant director, says a pounds 100,000 turnover is probably needed for viability.

The shop at Talaton will survive if the 300 adults in the village spend at least pounds 5 each a week in it. The target is pounds 2,000 profit on pounds 50,000 sales in its first year. Jean Hofmann, one of the five volunteer supervisers, believes there is an 80 per cent chance of achieving that. Alan Dixon puts it differently: 'I think I have done more good for the community doing up the village shop than ever I did with the council.'

(Photograph omitted)

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