Business

SOS - Save our shops

James Carpenter, Plymtree community shop
Image caption James Carpenter says opening a community shop was surprisingly easy

It is an all too common occurrence up and down the land - the village shop, once the centre of local life, is forced to close, leaving a community with no heart.

Commercial pressures from big supermarkets, post office cuts and rising rental costs are forcing once-thriving businesses to close.

But for some communities the imminent closure is merely a call to arms.

At the end of 2008, residents in the rural Devonshire village of Plymtree discovered their local post office was to close. It was just one of the 2,334 rural branches shut between 1999 and 2009.

At the time, George Thomson, chairman of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, said closing rural post offices often led to the closure of local shops as well and was often a game changer.

However for the residents of Plymtree, it was simply the start of them becoming a village of shopkeepers.

New focus

"When we heard the post office was to close, we knew it was only a matter of time before the shop had to go," explains Christopher Piper, chair of the Plymtree Community Shop Association.

"There was no way to make it economically viable if passing trade wasn't there. We knew we had to think of a way to add value to the shop, that's when we hit upon the idea of a community store," he said.

"The majority of the village were unbelievably eager to help. Once we had decided to go ahead, we had pensioners up ladders and young mums with their rollers and paint brushes mucking in. Even then it was great for the community, although a health and safety nightmare."

Mr Piper strongly believes the power of a community shop is its ability to supply people with local fresh produce.

"There's no way we could compete with the big supermarkets. We knew we had to give the villagers something different. That's the only way we're able to ensure the shop turns a profit," he says.

There is no doubt that community shops can more than pay for themselves. The shop in Plymtree has only been open for two years and is already making a profit.

As a result, it has been able to give money back to the village - with a number of other community projects benefiting from the near £7,000 it cleared last year.

House values

Robert Ashton, author of the book How To Be A Social Entrepreneur, knows the value of having a vibrant local store.

"A shop isn't just a shop to a village, it becomes the hub of the place. It's somewhere for young and old people to meet. People actually stop for a chat rather than pass each other as they drive to the supermarket," he says.

He also argues that there is an economic benefit for those who live in a village with a decent shop.

Image caption Locals were more than keen to muck in and save the Plymtree store

"Homeowners in villages with a thriving village shop see an increased value to their property. If you want to live in a rural idyll, you're going to choose a location with a great shop with that community feel," he said.

The Plunkett Foundation is a charity set up in 1906 to promote rural commerce and social cohesion. Through advice and grants, they have helped the majority of existing community shops.

Their research shows there are about 260 community shops operating in the UK, with more and more villages showing interest in saving their own threatened store.

"The first thing people interested in saving their local shop should do is find out if there's wider support for it within the village. There's no point in wasting time and effort if the project has no future," says chief executive Peter Couchman.

"The most common way then is to issue shares for the shop with the villagers buying them.

"It's then up to the shareholders to vote in a committee who'll take on the rest of the grant applications and fundraising for the £114,000, the average start-up cost of a community shop. They'll also decide who the manager is going to be."

'Easy'

James Carpenter is the part-time manager at Plymtree Community Shop, which was advised by the Plunkett Foundation.

He says: "We were all surprised at how easy it all was. It only took seven months from the initial idea in the pub to actually opening the shop."

Mr Carpenter is the only salaried member of staff, with the rest working on a voluntary basis.

Valerie Mount and her husband Tim retired to the area six years ago. Both used to work in the public sector and had no retail experience.

"It was sad when we found out the shop was to close, but we both jumped at the chance to become shareholders and volunteers," says Mrs Mount.

"It was great to get involved in something completely different from what we were used to. It's great to see how vital a role the shop actually plays in village life. It's more than just a place to buy your bread and milk, it's the centre of the village."

'Massive boost'

The Plunkett Foundation published their Better Business report looking at the growing community shops sector in January. Their research shows community shops are resilient, with a 97% success rate compared with a national UK business survival rate of 46.8%.

Their boss believes this is down to the increased feeling of togetherness and responsibility a community shop encourages.

Image caption Local produce often adds value to a community store

"Becoming a shareholder or volunteer in the local community shop gives people a sense of ownership," says Mr Couchman.

"It's hard to appreciate just what the village shop brings to a community and you don't really miss it until it's under threat. It's then you realise it's value and just how important it is."

The collective turnover for community shops in 2010 was an estimated £33m - or £132,635 per shop.

With an average of 400 regular village stores closing every year, it certainly seems that the future could be the community model adopted by Plymtree.

"It's definitely been a massive boost for the village to have the shop here," Mr Carpenter concludes.

"The feeling of community is great and we're really pleased to be able to help put money back into the village. The future is looking great for us all."

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