Playing shops – an update

3 May 2012

Much of my “spare” time, a dozen days off and (look away, boss) countless hours at work have been devoted to starting a community enterprise, a community owned and operated village shop operating within our local Methodist Church.

To get to where we are, I’ve turned my hand to cash flow forecasts, radio interviews, lobbying, writing grant bids, costing EPOS systems, cajoling villagers, negotiating with church bureaucracy, learning bookkeeping and Sage accounts, fund raising, fleeing farm dogs and other hazards.

There’s been frustration and elation in equal measure. At the end of March, I let out a loud whoop as we got the fantastic news of a grant offer from Village SOS, a Big Lottery Fund. That seems so long ago as we face challenges on a daily basis.

It’s nice then to get the odd day away from the village. What better way to spend it: a day of “retail therapy” at Dillington Hall, Somerset with the Plunkett Foundation. Do shopkeepers have busman’s holidays?

Like most of the other conferences I go to, the day was as much about networking as it was about learning new things. But, I did learn much about the thought process of turning people into profits. I know that sounds a bit calculating. But, what we’re trying to create is not only a community resources; it is an enterprise. For all the fluffy, middle-class-ishness of the project, the volunteerism and grant-aid, our venture has to turn a profit. Our neighbours are our customers. (They are also our owners as this is a true community owned project.)

This is serious business. Collectively, we have to act responsibly on behalf of the community. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure I will at one stage have to don a suit to pitch our case for that last bit of funding.

Plunkett, as I think I’ve said in a previous post, is at the forefront of the community shop movement. There are nearly 300 such ventures up and running in the UK, where a commercial shop has succumbed to rural decline, the Post Office’s slash-and-burn strategy, shopkeeper retirement and/or the power of out-of-town big boxes. Who in their right mind would want to work 24/7 over a village shop with squeezed income? Without such devoted business people, it’s left to communities to fend for themselves.

Last Friday was another great opportunity to meet many others who’ve trod the path, opened shops and successfully kept them running. My notebook is stuffed with advice and contacts. My colleague also picked up a list of local suppliers from another shop.

We’ve still got much to do: raise more funds, get our lease in place, recruit a part-time paid manager and volunteers and umpteen boring tasks.

It’s daunting, exciting. I’d like my life back, but I’m sure I’d do this all over again.

I hope you can make a trip to North Devon sometime to buy locally produced cakes, cheese from the next village, the best strawberries in the world or greeting cards from our village photographer.




#WeeklyBlogClub – “Where am I?”…

1 February 2012

“In the village”

Village life is not quite what I expected.

I never thought it would take me 20 minutes to do a five minute walk to the allotment because everyone wants to stop and talk to you.

Everyone does know what everyone else is up to. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But, I must know over half the adult population of our small village.

Staggering to read recently that living in a rural location adds 20% to household bills. Coping with a £500 bill for a bulk gas delivery is a challenge. Imagine two deliveries in tow months at the height of a frigid winter.

But, what’s most surprising is changes in my outlook on life. Living in towns of the home counties, suburbs of Washington DC, in the shadow of what is now the Olympic Park and the mean streets of south London it’s easy to be anonymous. Community. It’s not an experience in my life.

Until moving here. Sure, one of the motivations of leaving the big city was to live in a community. But, I’m not really sure what I expected. Even if I had expectations, those would come close to the experiences up here in the rural uplands of north Devon.

“I didn’t move to Devon to become a shopkeeper.” That’s my standard phrase when talking about community shops.

And, I certainly had no designs on becoming a leader. I love working on detail in the background. Let others do the high level schmoozing. Leave me to the research. I’ll write the reports and, at a push, speeches and press releases.

But. There we are. October 2006. Village shop opening coincides with our first visit to the village.

Five years on. With a shop now empty for two years, I’ve just clicked the mouse sending off a major grant application to fund a new community owned and operated shop.

I’m nearer becoming that shopkeeper. I’ve become a reluctant leader. I’m part of a community.

Trips to the allotment will soon take an hour.

Weekly Blog Club

How big is my society?

14 February 2011

I have no issue with a “big society“: people empowered to better their local community.

I’m part of what I believe to be a big society project – our local community shop – filling a hole where the market has failed and where the state should not enter.

On the other hand, my colleagues and I could easily be seen as a loud minority. We’re middle class, reasonably well educated, some of us relative newcomers and with (too much) time to donate. We are fighting for scarce social sector funding and we’ve got the know-how to grab our share.

Whilst I have little doubt that what I’ve set out to achieve is for the benefit of the whole community, I’m an unelected, anti-democratic zealot.

On our small scale, this democratic inconvenience is probably not too much of an issue. But, on a bigger scale, if a self-appointed, largely unaccountable minority manages a large project with significant public or third sector funding, is that right?

Putting silly ideas into people’s heads

6 February 2011

I shouldn’t have watched the People’s Supermarket.

It’s just given loads of silly ideas about running our community shop as a co-op with discounts for members.

Silly programme.

I’d much rather sit at home and watch TV like everybody else, waiting for the Tesco van to pitch up with milk costing 19p per litre from Mr Farmer when it costs him 24p per litre to produce. It’s his fault for not being competitive enough.

No, Sainsbury’s should continue to dump 100s of tonnes of food a day, some of it perfectly good except for a torn label or past its display date, because that’s economic.

Why should I work for my community? It’s not like we all have to live in the same place, deal with the same snow, the same lack of services, disappearing bus service, Asda-isation of shopping and alienation.

Food miles? No, it’s all about Nectar points.

I’d much rather send the profits out of the village. And, profit it is. Feeling good about the place you live is no substitute for profit.

Silly programme. Putting silly ideas in to people’s heads.