Tyne & Wear

Humshaugh villagers 'not playing at running a shop'

Image caption The shop was recently honoured by the Prime Minister for its impact in the community

With hundreds of rural shops going out of business annually, one in Northumberland is not only bucking the trend, but also expanding the range of products and services it provides.

In recent months Humshaugh Community Shop has diversified into supplying things like community-produced apple juice and test drives of electric cars.

The store, which recently celebrated its fourth birthday, uses its profits as a "war chest" to fund other local initiatives.

One of the volunteers said: "We are not playing, we're running a very successful one here."

Villagers got together following the closure of the post office, and the decision that the attached shop was not a viable concern without it.

They set up Humshaugh Community Ventures Ltd and, with the help of various grants and donations from residents, succeeded in reopening it as a community shop in November 2009.

'Domino effect'

Dick Moules, from the group, said although the campaign to save the post office failed, it "galvanised the whole village".

He highlighted the importance of facilities such as a shop, a village hall, a school or a GPs' surgery for rural communities.

"Once one goes, it tends to have a domino effect, and others follow," he said.

"This leads to the decline of the whole village.

"We were determined not to lose the shop."

According to the Plunkett Foundation, a charity that helps rural communities through ownership initiatives, there are now 318 community shops across the UK.

It is against a background of an estimated 400 village shop closures annually.

They have also proved to be highly resilient, with 96% of those opened still running, compared to a national business closure rate of almost 50%.

The foundation's chief executive, Peter Couchman, said: "Examples like Humshaugh are an inspiration to others looking to save their local shop, pub or anything else of importance to them."

The group comprises of about 50 volunteers, about half of whom work regularly in the shop.

Others help out by keeping accounts, buying stock or maintaining the website. One volunteer chops kindling which is donated free to local pensioners.

'Manically busy'

"The whole focus is to supply the needs of the village and the surrounding area," Mr Moules said.

"We're not a destination store, people coming here specially might find it a bit quirky, say if one of the volunteers made a mistake on the till and tried to charge one million pounds for a loaf of bread it might be a bit off-putting.

"But locals are very tolerant."

The shop now makes an annual profit of between £10,000 and £12,000, which is used as a "war chest" to fund other community ventures.

In March 2010, it emerged the local pub was being put on the market and was due to shut within a few days.

The group stepped in and got a temporary tenancy, allowing the pub to remain open until a buyer could be found four months later.

Then, during the winter, there was a problem in the village with heating oil supply and fluctuating prices.

Image caption Anne Pearson said initial fears that the number of volunteers would dwindle proved to be unfounded

A buying group was set up, which has saved its 170 members an estimated £20,000.

As part of a drive to produce its own comestibles, funding was obtained to upgrade the kitchen in the village hall.

Volunteers bake about 28 loaves on Friday afternoons to sell on the shop's "manically busy" Saturday mornings.

Apple juice is made from local windfalls - about 300 litres this year - and a batch of plum chutney sold out in two days.

'Social point'

The profits also funded a six-month trial of an electric car.

"We got insurance for everyone in the village who was aged between 17 and 69 to take it out on a trial basis," Mr Moules said.

"About 5,000 miles was done by 39 drivers, and there was particular interest from young people.

"That's something we'd like to do longer-term."

Other hopes for the future include the creation of a community orchard, and keeping bees.

Newspapers still comprise the bulk of the shop's sale - as they did before community ownership - but whereas at one time people would go in and out with their purchase, they are now more likely to stop and chat.

"It's become a social point," Dick Moules said.

"You might have thought you knew people in the village because you nodded to them as they walked past, now you know them intimately.

"It was a village shop, but now it's a community one."

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