Village shops: ‘Like Chocolat…, but better’
Bridget Graham looks at five very different approaches to saving the village shop
Published in October ’14
Dorset’s village shops may change format, change hands or both, but thanks to the determined people who run them, they remain a cornerstone of many villages’ lives. In this piece, we’ll look at five that have ridden recessions, survived supermarkets and forged a bright new beginning as the centres of their respective communities.
Nine years ago, Pascal Surret, and his partner Marc Watton bought a house as a weekend retreat in the Winfrith area and, when the shop’s future was threatened in 2013 by the then owners’ retirement, Pascal and Marc decided to buy it and to create a new life.
Pascal is responsible for day-to-day operations, Marc is both bookkeeper and baker. While the hours are the same as his old job in the City of London, Pascal is no longer tied to a computer: ‘I feel like I really make a difference here, rather than being part of a big machine,’ he says.
The shop’s team of part-time staff includes Margaret Sawyer who has run the Post Office for over 25 years and Sheila Wheller, who has been shop assistant for nearly as long. Two more staff were taken on six months ago.
There are world foods, gluten-free food, and – bien sûr – a whole French section of gourmet foods and fresh croissants each morning, Marc’s mini-quiches on the deli counter, and a huge basket of fresh vegetables by the door.
Author Janet Gleeson moonlights as volunteer marketing assistant. She researches the price comparisons around the shop and also calculated the cost of petrol to get to the supermarkets: £7 to get to and from Dorchester before you’ve bought a thing. Each Friday, Janet and Pascal pack a basket of goodies and visit nearby Marley House Nursing Home so that less-mobile residents can still buy sweets and treats. Villager Sharon Narraway explains: ‘The previous shop was strong on the basics but Pascal has brought a new look and feel to it.’ Janet Gleeson adds, ‘When I first described the shop to city friends, they all said that it sounded just like the film Chocolat. I told them that it is – but better!’
Bob Clyde and Anne Younger were looking for a change of lifestyle when Bob accepted redundancy from his job in computer consultancy; they fell in love with the Isle of Purbeck and, whilst the Langton shop wasn’t even for sale, Bob gave his contact details to the owners. He was surprised to get a call from them just two months later to say that they had changed their minds. Bob and Anne began opening the shop on Sundays from Easter to the end of October, added a Lottery terminal and mobile and utilities top-up to the store’s offer. The post office has developed as a local banking facility and, whilst letter post may be down, parcel post is up.
It stocks everything from a well-priced range of wines, penny sweets for children, toiletries, kitchenware, greeting cards and postcards. There are local foods including bacon and sausages from pigs reared in the village by Phil Samways. In the window, posters for local events are to the fore, underpinning the shop’s place as the hub of the High Street, perfectly placed as it is in the centre of the village between the school, the church, the village hall and the pub. It also has the essential support from full-time residents. ‘If you live in a village that’s lucky enough to have a shop, then you support it,’ says Langton resident Richard Martin. ‘No one can buy everything they need but everyone can buy something.’
Retirement is now on the horizon for Bob and Anne so the Langton Village Store is now on the market: ‘Village shops are such an important part of community life and we hope to find a buyer who understands that. It’s very special that we get a wave from everyone when we drive along the High Street. But it’s time for a new team to take over and take it to the next stage.’
As Bob puts it: ‘Whoever comes after us here will have a lovely life in this beautiful part of the world.’
Chettle Shop is something of a rarity for, like the village itself, it is owned by the Chettle estate. Housed in an old army hut bought for the purpose in the 1930s, it has been part of village life ever since; Susan Favre and her daughter, Alice, of the Chettle estate are committed to keeping it that way. Mrs Favre fought off the Post Office’s threat to close the post office at the shop, and until recently, the estate has subsidised the shop heavily.
‘We are seven miles from Blandford and the nearest supermarket so it’s important to have a place to buy local produce and everyday groceries,’ says Alice. ‘The shop is a real hub, especially during the summer, and there is something sweet about the slightly wonky, old army hut that has a great deal of charm.’
The shop was run by tenants until 2000 when the estate took it over. Xanthe Green is the Chettle Shop’s second manager and was travelling around India, Nepal and Malaysia with her partner and their two young sons when her brother, who lives in the village, emailed to tell her that the estate was looking for a new manager. The fact that it came with a house in an ideal place for her sons to grow up in and go to school sealed it. After a Skype interview with the Favres, Xanthe was offered the job…and the task of making the shop profitable.
She gave up some of the garden of her new home to create an area for café seating and created more parking. Xanthe gave the shop a fresh look, but was also keen to get the stock right from the start so – while still in India – she devised a customer questionnaire. Many responded asking for lunch-time snacks, so award-winning pies from Chunks were introduced together with freshly made coffee and Chettle-made cakes, which are now promoted on a hand-painted sign on the A354… and many a driver makes the detour to the shop.
Many villagers are keen home bread-bakers, so there is a choice of organic flours, as well as Long Crichel Bakery’s organic bread, meat from the Langton Arms Butchery and Angel Cottage Organics’ chicken and pork, and, when in season, wild venison from the Dorset Game Larder. There are also gardening gloves, screwdrivers, and torches and horn-topped walking sticks made by Larry Skeats. It’s hard work and long hours, but Xanthe is actively supported by Mrs Favre who, though well into her seventies, puts together the shop’s order from wholesaler Bookers and then drives to collect it each week. Emily Matthews has now joined Xanthe at weekends and in the holiday season as the business develops.
For Xanthe:‘It’s a privilege to be given the opportunity both to live in such an idyllic village among so many friendly people but also to be given a chance to try to turn a business around and make it unique, reflecting not just my own ideas, but also those of the villagers and people further afield.’
A shop first opened on the site that Motcombe Community Shop occupies 185 years ago. Four years ago, the previous owners couldn’t find a buyer when they wanted to retire, so a trio of friends, concerned about the prospect of Motcombe (population of around 1500) without a village shop and post office, called a public meeting, which was attended by 200+ villagers and which explored the possibility of a community-owned shop; it was an idea that met with huge enthusiasm.
A management committee secured £29,500 funding from the Sowing Seeds Local Action Group, £20,000 from the Plunkett Foundation and a £20,000 loan from the Co-operative Bank. Fundraising events netted more and Signpost Residents Community Fund donated £2500 towards the shop’s refit. 167 villagers bought £72,000 of shares and a further £18,000 was generously donated by individuals. A local kitchen-maker built gondola units, shelving, and a beech-topped till unit. The result is a bright, fresh and customer-friendly shop, stocked with an excellent mix of essential, luxury and local food, newspapers and magazines, flowers and plants and a great gift section of jewellery, art and crafts and even socks from local enterprise, Charlton Alpacas. There is a café area inside and out, and thanks to a National Lottery grant two years ago, there is now an office and storeroom.
Alan and Kay Francis thought they had retired to Motcombe, but quickly became involved with the shop. Alan is shop Treasurer and Kay is the shop’s paid full-time manager. She leads a team of five paid part-time shop and post office staff and fifty volunteers who keep the shop open for 61 hours each week.
Liz Sugden is one of the volunteers. ‘It’s good fun,’ she says, ‘It’s a very happy place to work, with good quality things and pretty much everything you need.’
Motcombe native Gail Lloyd not only works in the Post Office but also volunteers and makes sandwiches for the shop. ‘It’s the best place I’ve ever worked,’ she says.
Motcombe’s Community Shop may be a recent initiative, but the village of Halstock pioneered the concept over twenty years ago. Halstock’s current shop could be mistaken for a Georgian village shop with its double bow windows and fanlight-topped door but it was only built in 2001. Halstock and nearby Corscombe faced losing their local shop first in 1990. Rising rates gave the owners of the original shop, on the village green, no other option but to close. The bus service to Yeovil had already been withdrawn and the nearest shop was over three miles away and it had no post office. The Parish Council decided that Halstock’s shop was ‘too precious to lose’.
A small group was formed to investigate community ownership and a parish meeting was held. Enough villagers promised funds if premises could be found and a committee was set up. A cottage on the edge of the village was offered and planning permission was obtained for change of use. £15,000 was raised from residents through shares and debentures to set up and stock the new shop. In 1991, it opened for business seamlessly on the Monday after the old shop had closed on the previous Friday.
‘A very forward thinking group of people got together to undertake anything necessary,’ explains Tony Woodroffe, current chairman of the community shop committee and a director of Halstock Village Shop Ltd. Among them was a determined trio: Richard Fry, Derek Smith (who died in 1997), and Betty Harris, who has lived in the village for fifty years and has stepped in to manage the shop several times over the years. She claims that she was just ‘the gofer; Richard and Derek were the brains. Derek picked it up and ran with it like a hero.’ One of the first champions of community-ownership, Smith was founder of the Village Retail Service Association (ViRSA), the forerunner of the Plunkett Foundation.
The committee realised that the shop’s long-term success depended on purpose-built premises in a central location in the village. A plot fronting the main road became available and was bought from Magna Housing for a mere £1. £225,000 was raised through a mortgage of £95,000 from Triodos Bank and shares and debentures sold to 37 villagers. Encouraged by the Plunkett Foundation to apply to the Big Lottery Fund for a maximum grant of £50,000, the village was delighted to be awarded the full amount at the end of 2012. The sum paid for initial staff wages, equipment including energy efficient chillers, an EPOS stock system, and a redesigned layout and refurbishment, and there is still a post office.
Today the shop is flourishing, the Derek Smith Community Room is the venue for art shows, coffee mornings, a police surgery, bridge games, an art group, and a monthly Holy Communion service, a children’s library and computer access and classes for adults. The shop is a collection point for the Yeovil food bank and there is even a defibrillator, mounted outside. Quite literally, the shop is the beating heart of the village.
Chettle Shop, DT11 8DB. www.chettleshop.co.uk
Halstock Village Shop, BA22 9RS.
Langton Village Store, BH19 3HA is for sale, details from www.olivermiles.co.uk
Motcombe Community Shop, SP7 9PF.
Winfrith Village Stores, DT2 8JN.