Pamela Readhead, The Guardian
This time last year, the Gloucestershire village of Blockley was in trouble. The village store and post office were about to close. The delicatessen and wine bar had been converted into a family home, and a shop selling Italian food was teetering on the brink of collapse. A village that had once boasted eight pubs and a high street with 20 shops was turning into a retail desert.
But, against all the odds, by May this year there was a thriving new village shop and cafe selling groceries, newspapers, beer and wines, fresh seasonal vegetables, and meat from the local farm shop. The cafe, which provides free broadband internet access, buzzes with life from the early morning with breakfast and takeaways followed by light lunches and teas. A full post office service is provided 15 hours a week.
The not-for-profit shop, owned by and run for the community, has transformed the mood of the village, providing a new social hub and, to a considerable extent, bridging the gap between what were once described as the ‘sherry and beer’ ends of the village.
Sharon Miles, a member of the shop management committee, says: ‘Everyone down this end uses the shop. All the comments have been positive. I know loads of people on benefits who go there every day. They want their paper, fags and basics at a good price.’ For people without a car, such as Patrick Davison, who lives in sheltered accommodation over the road, the shop is a lifeline. ‘I go there several times a day,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t manage without it.’
Chris Grimes says that shop sales appear to be spread evenly across socio-economic groups, and the social mix in the cafe is broader than he expected. ‘Kids are great levellers,’ he explains. ‘They come in with their mums to spend their pocket money, and then everyone ends up drinking hot chocolate together.’
According to the Rural Shops Alliance, there are 8,000 village shops in England, and up to 600 are expected to close this year. Blockley is one of 180 villages that bucked the trend, and customers like the feeling that the shop is theirs. ‘They say it’s cool to be a co-op,’ says Nicola Taylor, the assistant manager, and a member of the Balhatchet family, who owned the butcher’s and ironmonger’s until the 1980s.
Turnover for the shop and cafe is above budget, at about £9,000 a week, and the costs are lower than predicted. It employs a full-time manager and a rota of about 14 paid staff. An added bonus is that buying locally saves hundreds of five-mile trips to the nearest supermarket, and an estimated 300 tonnes of carbon per year.
The cooperative has 500 members, and an elected management committee, which holds monthly meetings with the shop manager to review progress and sort out any difficulties.
I have been involved in the campaign to save the shop and post office since the first closure rumours began in 2006, and some things we have had to learn the hard way. Although the pressures facing rural shops – such as competition from supermarkets, online shopping and changing demographics – are common to most areas of the country, villages vary a great deal. Some can tack a shop on to a village hall, which provides more opportunities for grants.
Our first aim was to buy the existing premises, but the grade II listed building, complete with a lovely garden, was too expensive. The price of the property was disproportionately high in relation to the profits that could be generated. This is not an uncommon problem in the Cotswolds, and the district council told us that the shops that do survive are usually owned by a local benefactor who rents the premises to the village.
After failing to find a Blockley Magwitch, we tried to do a deal with retailers Spar and Londis, but they had minimum floor-space and turnover requirements, which we couldn’t meet. We also looked into setting up a consortium of investors to buy the old shop, but people were wary of putting large sums of money into a project with little prospect of return.
We exhausted these possibilities, and then held a village meeting where we presented a business plan to set up a co-op and move into rented premises opposite the existing shop. Within a month, we had raised over £25,000 in £10 membership fees and additional donations from individuals and local businesses. We were then eligible to apply for a £20,000 loan and matching grant through the rural shops unit of the Plunkett Foundation. Local authorities can put you in touch with relevant sources of funding, and we have now raised more than £85,000.
There are several reasons why we were successful. We were led by the actor/director Chris Jury, whose passion and persistence was crucial. But we were also lucky to have access to many hours of pro bono legal and accounting expertise, as well as people with a background in IT, engineering, retail management, design, joinery and many other trades; we saved about £10,000 by using volunteers.
A tenacious committee member concentrated on negotiating with the Royal Mail. The branch, which opened in September, is staffed by a local postmaster who comes to the village for 15 hours a week. We had to provide him with a cubbyhole and counter built to exact specifications, with numerous electricity sockets and security. There have been a few teething troubles, particularly with the telecom connections that are vital for many services, including benefits and cash withdrawals. The villagers were not amused when the line went down three weeks running.
The structure of the enterprise as an industrial and provident society was decided at an early stage. People often ask why we didn’t set up a charity for the tax benefits, but this was out of the question: we would be carrying on a trade, which cannot qualify as a charitable activity.
Our 35-page business plan, which drew on market research in the parish, was another convincing asset. It explained why the cafe would be crucial to the viability of the project. Margins in the shop range from 5% for cigarettes to about 24% for groceries. Coffees, bacon baps and hot pies, on the other hand, have a much bigger mark-up and subsidise the competitive prices of basic groceries.
The other question that often arises is why we don’t use volunteers in the shop and cafe. That system works well in many village shops, but would not work for us. The staff have to bake bread, wrestle with the coffee machine and cook and serve meals, as well as operate the till and cope with loyalty cards, cash and the PayPoint bill-paying service. Staff costs, including monthly bookkeeping, absorb about 20% of our takings, but it would be a very complicated operation for volunteers.
‘It was a nightmare training 14 new staff on shifts, and it was three months before any shift seemed to go well,’ admits manager Chris Grimes, who didn’t have a day off for six weeks.
Grimes is still frustrated by the difficulties of finding suppliers that will deliver small quantities, and by the headaches of waste collection. But one particular dilemma plays on his mind.
He says: ‘We had one box of condoms containing 12 packets. Eleven have disappeared, but we haven’t sold a single one. As a social enterprise, should we put them behind the counter, or display them with the sweets?’