It is estimated that across the country about 400 village shops close each year. More alarmingly in terms of speed is that CAMRA estimate that 29 pubs close every week. For villages either of these events can mean a lot more than not being able to buy the paper and milk or get a pint of beer. For rural communities these places are often the centre of village life, places where people can meet and catch up on the local news and gossip.
The rate of shop closures is thought to be slowing down, but before you get your hopes up, it might be doing so because there are not that many left. On the other hand it may be because communities have got together to save their shop.
Community shops are usually managed and run by the community though there are some that are leased or rented to tenants. Either way, the community owns the business and any profits gained are either put back into the shop or are given to local good causes.
The idea that a community comes together to buy a business is not new. Since the days of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, which started in 1844, cooperatives have been an effective way of running successful businesses. In fact there is a growing movement towards more cooperative enterprises. In an interview in the May/June edition of Resurgence and Ecologist Vivian Woodell, the man behind the Phone Co-op, says that cooperatives offer “an increasingly attractive alternative to mainstream capitalism”.
There are currently four community shops in Northamptonshire. Cottingham Village Store & Cafe reopened in 2011 after more than five years of being boarded up. Titchmarsh Village Shop has been running for ten years since its opening in 2007 – by Alan Titchmarsh! Collyweston Village Shop opened its doors in 2010 and was nominated for two awards the following year. Sulgrave Village Shop and Post Office was the first Community Shop in Northamptonshire. It opened in 2004 and the following year it won Best Rural retailer in the Southern Region. All four are still very much alive and are important parts of their community, and selling local produce wherever possible.
The village of Creaton is embarking on this road to save its village shop and Post Office (pictured above). The current owners wish to retire this summer and having been unable to find a buyer, a group of villagers got together to form Creaton SOS (Save Our Shop). This has not been a leisurely process either. Formed only in late November last year, the group put out a questionnaire to all in Creaton and to those in the nearby villages of Teeton, Hollowell and Cottesbrooke. What Creaton SOS got back was full support for the venture, and a clear mandate to set up a shop that all the community can share in. Since then, the team has visited other community shops, held a packed public meeting attended by their MP Chris Heaton-Harris, and has formed a Community Business Society. They now await on the planning authorities so that a suitable site can be chosen for the new shop.
Once the premises have been sorted, staffing is required. Most community shops rely on volunteer staff though usually there is a paid manager with retail experience. It is interesting to note that volunteers are not that difficult to come by. Creaton found that 30 people offered to help in the new shop though the message from other shops is that managing the timetables of the volunteers can be quite tricky. But in villages, volunteering in the shop is not just a one-way community service. It is a way that people who otherwise may be stuck at home can get out and meet others for a chat and do some good in the process.
The villagers also get involved in owning the enterprise. Often shares are sold to invest in the business. In Creaton, despite not putting the shares on the market yet, nearly 70 people have already indicated that they would be prepared to back the venture, pledging a total in excess of £60,000. Others are offering loans and donations.
This is pretty amazing as it is but when you learn that there is no return on the share, just your money back at the end of three years – if there are enough funds – it becomes quite staggering. But people are prepared to invest in their community because they are concerned about retaining the fabric of essential life around them. Why should villages like Creaton go the way of many that have lost their pub, seen their shop closed, not to mention the school that went long ago. Where do people meet? How do you get that sense of community without somewhere for that community to meet up?
In Creaton, the shop has been running down for over a year and whilst the Post Office keeps going, the High Street does not have the bustle that it used to have. No longer can you pop over to the shop and be gone for thirty minutes because you met three different people who wanted to chat. Every afternoon is like a Sunday, except for when the children go home from school but even they don’t call in the shop like they used to.
The village shop is not just the place to get that grocery item that got forgotten on the supermarket run, or to pick up a bottle of wine because old Uncle George suddenly turns up. It performs a pivotal role in the community. It is the place where people meet, where you can catch up on the important things of village life: who is on their last legs, who is about to have their third baby, whose dog killed a neighbour’s cat. And it is the place that you go to if you have lost your watch in the street, or to find out about the bus service, or to collect your parcel. Yes, the village shop is an essential community hub and villages with them are much more vibrant.
Some community village shops have Post Offices, some offer hot drinks, some provide a wide range of services. What they all have in common though is the drive to see a successful community enterprise, the provision of a centre for their community and the ownership of something special that is part of that community. If you are in their area, pop in, chat to the staff and buy something.