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There’s a reasonable chance that if you live in a rural or semirural area, you’re aware of the growth of the community shop – you may even shop in one!

Community-owned shops seem to have come of age recently – the austerity of the last decade has seen the closure of many amenities and this has coincided with the closure of many shops and post offices.

There is a growing scepticism about huge retail operations and their social and environmental impact. In response, many communities are organising things for themselves – reopening pubs, post offices, libraries and community centres – often with a shop offering.

Many community shops have been supported by the Plunklett Foundation – the organisation is celebrating its centenary this year.

Sue Boer from the Plunkett Foundation says that people’s initial motivations often develop beyond the idea of simply saving essential services.

“The impact will reach far beyond the shopping basket. Deep into the heart of residents’ lives, providing, for many, a place to go that will help to reduce their isolation, give them a focal point and hub for information, companionship and sense of belonging.

THE ASPIRATION IS TO BE SUCCESSFUL AND SUSTAINABLE. AND WE WANT TO HAVE ENOUGH SUPPORT TO BE PROFITABLE

“It is in response to the social impact that many community businesses are growing beyond being a shop to include a diverse range of services that reflect the needs of their communities. From cafes, Box Office and book exchanges to art classes, education and reading groups, to name but a few!”

According to figures from the Plunkett Foundation, there are over 350 community shops in the UK which in 2017 had an average turnover of £161,874. On average each shop creates four paid jobs and 30 volunteer opportunities. Critically, they are sustainable businesses, with the longterm survival rate of community shops standing at 94 per cent.

Across the North of England community shops are thriving and two have opened in recent months – East Morton Community Shop in West Yorkshire and Trawden Community Shop in Lancashire.

The small, picturesque village of East Morton looks like a beautiful place to live. It’s full of beautiful properties and well situated for commuters. However, the downside – as with many provincial villages – is a lack of amenities. The last shop in the village – that also operated as a post office – closed ten years ago.

The nearest shop today – an express version of a supermarket chain is over a mile away. Some locals decided to take matters into their own hands and the result is a wonderful, petite community shop in the former public toilets!

East Morton Community Shop
L-R Kathy Symes – volunteer, Vicky Sutcliffe – Assistant Manager, Sheila Barton – management committee member from East Morton Community Shop

Sheila Barton is one of eight team members on the shop’s management committee. On the matter of the public toilet she jokes: “The village didn’t want it closed but we were asked to provide volunteers for cleaning and upkeep. It’s not the most exciting volunteer job in the world!”

“It would probably have been demolished and become a car park.”

Sheila who has a background in local government, added: “It’s been a huge learning curve – that’s the beauty of volunteering. No-one here has a background in retail.”

“We planned to provide a community shop that was also a social hub. Even though it’s tiny, we put the small table by the drinks machine, so people can stop and have a cup of tea,” said Sheila.

“It works! There’s also a stool by the counter and there’s nearly always somebody sitting on that stool. People just sit and have a catch up,” added Sheila.

The shop now has an employed manager and assistant manager and 25 volunteers. The equation is simple – more staff equals more hours of opening.

“People aren’t coming here for a ‘big shop’, so we initially focussed on basic groceries. If we ever make a surplus, it would go back into the community.

“The aspiration is to be successful and sustainable. And we want to have enough support to be profitable.” Barely 15 miles away, just over the Lancashire border, the equally scenic village of Trawden launched its community shop last November. Trawden’s library had been shut for two years and is now also home to the highly successful, ethical village store – this is in addition to the community centre that has been operated successfully by the community for four years.

The venture is proving so popular that 90 volunteers are involved in the management and staffing of the shop. The shop is well ahead of financial projections, so £60,000 has been invested in renovations and an extension to the front of the library. The library and shop have now secured £140,000 funding from the Community Business Fund which will help fund a full refurbishment of the building.

THE SHOP’S INTERIOR WOULDN’T BE OUT OF PLACE IN TRENDY SOHO OR SHOREDITCH

Steven Wilcock, the Chair of Trustees of Trawden Forest Community Centre, said: “We’re delighted to have now been awarded funding by the Community Business Fund. This will see us connect the two car parks, build a cold store for the shop and a cool room for the community centre shop.”

There are also plans to purchase an electric van to transport goods for the shop and also to pick up old people who are attending the friendship group.

The community shop is particularly impressive, as it was assisted by two volunteers who both have extensive experience of retail management. The shop’s interior wouldn’t be out of place in trendy Soho or Shoreditch.

Additionally, the discerning shoppers of Trawden now enjoy all the benefits of a general store, but with a significant ethical ethos. “We aim to completely avoid single use plastics,” said Steven.

“And we provide re-usable glass containers – or customers can bring their own container and pay according to the weight of certain products.

“We also serve fresh coffee in the shop, home-made cakes and provide vegan and vegetarian options. We are finding that our ethical approach and our emphasis on being a social experience makes us a destination store that is appealing to people way beyond Trawden,” said Steven.

“We’re building on the success that we’ve had since we took over the community centre – it’s now a profitable enterprise that hosts social events, yoga, Pilates, meditation sessions and the friendship group that is frequently attended by over 50 senior members of the community.

“We’re lucky to live in such a beautiful setting, but the village lacked amenities. People here have tackled this, and the result is proving to be something very special it’s captured people’s imaginations and it’s a testament to the community spirit in Trawden that so many people have been prepared to commit some of their time for free.”

East Morton and Trawden are relatively affluent places – but quality of life can’t be measured simply by the acquisition of material things. Poverty could be judged by a lack of amenities, which makes people feel isolated and undermines community, reducing people’s quality of life and happiness.

Sheila Barton called it ‘social poverty’ – and the villages of East Morton and Trawden are leading the fight-back!

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