Feckenham villagers tell Jo Ind about setting up their own shop.
Setting up a business in the depth of a recession is not for the feint hearted, but then nobody could accuse the people of Feckenham, Worcestershire of being that. In October of last year, they had no money, no retail experience and no premises but within four months they had opened their own community store.
Today, The Village Shop in Droitwich Road, which runs through the centre of the village, is thriving. Painted a cheery blue with celebratory bunting it offers a welcome to any that pass by.
Inside the layout is surprisingly professional. The store is stocked with everything from general supplies like milk and loo paper to fresh local produce, cheeses and meats from a deli counter, ice cream, home-made sandwiches, greeting cards and newspapers.
Cans of Coke sit in a fridge alongside drinks made at the nearby Pershore College. The aim is to provide speciality food that cannot be bought at a supermarket, like meats from the local Ragley Estate and cakes made by the Women’s Institute, as well as provide the staples for those who are less mobile.
Open for just two months, the shop is taking more than £3,000 a week, which surpasses the target of the business plan. It is a testimony to what can be achieved when a community decides enough is enough and sets about reversing the decline in its amenities.
“It’s 19 years since we had a shop,” says John Calvert, chairman of the board of the Feckenham Community Shop Association Limited, which governs the store. “We used to have about eight and a post office. Now people are prepared to travel and they like to do all their shopping in one place. They go to Tesco.”
But when a village loses its store, it loses its focal point. Something is missing from its heart. It is about more than commerce. It is about community.
Almost three years ago, when the villagers set about designing a parish plan for the 700 inhabitants of Feckenham they discovered that what people wanted most was a shop.
They wanted the convenience. They wanted to be able to buy local produce. Perhaps most of all they wanted a place where they could pop out and meet people. The question was how to achieve it.
The Plunkett Foundation, which offers advice and funding through its Village CORE programme, advised villagers that the best legal structure through which to set up the shop is one known as an Industrial and Provident Society for the Benefit of the Community.
There are about 190 community-owned rural shops in the UK and this number is growing by about 20 each year.
Meanwhile, Barratts of Feckenham, which sold outdoor equipment, had offered to provide a premises for the store on its own grounds.
But last October, John put in a call to Barratts to find out how it was getting on with the planning permission, only to be told that the company was going into liquidation the next day.
“I called an emergency meeting that night,” says John. “We had set ourselves an opening date of January 31 of this year. We were determined to stick to that. If you don’t ride the crest of the wave of people’s enthusiasm then people lose interest or think it isn’t every going to happen.”
The next day saw John knocking on the door of the owner of a disused car salesroom and asking if it could be the site of the village shop. The owner agreed and the community sprang into action.
The site, while in a good location, was a far from ideal building. All sorts of work needed to be done, not least putting a metal skirting round the outside to prevent rats nibbling through the wooden walls and installing grilles to prevent ram-raiders.
Jenny Mason, who is a member of the board and on the village shop committee, proved to be have the golden touch as far as fundraising is concerned. She applied for a grant of £5,000 from the National Lottery and got it. She applied for a grant of £5,000 from Worcester County Council for improving the lives of the elderly and got it. She applied for a grant of £5,000 from an organisation called Grassroots and got that, too.
Through village events like cheese and wine parties, they managed to raise another £9,000. They invited villagers to become stake-holders in the association at a cost of £10 each and raised £3,000.
John sweet-talked his mates into coughing up a little bit more and raised another £3,000 that way. Then he used his silver tongue to get Harris Brush Works to supply paint. Even Tesco offered expertise in the shop layout.
The liquidation of Woolworths proved to be a boon for the village shop. It passed on shelving and things the association would never have imagined it needed but which proved to be invaluable – a sign warning that the floor is wet, a safe step for stacking shelves, a noticeboard.
Through the West Mercia Housing Association, John was put in touch with a group of homeless young men who agreed to come and paint the building.
“I would say they did it from top to bottom but they didn’t quite,” says John. “For health and safety reasons they weren’t allowed to go up ladders so we had all these people in their 70s up the ladders doing the upper parts and the fit and healthy youngsters doing the bits at the bottom.”
Somehow they did it. Jenny got together 60 volunteers from Feckenham and the surrounding areas to staff the shop six and a half days a week.
“People tend to do about three hours a week,” she says. “It’s a very complicated system for getting everyone on to the rota. Some people can only do a specific day in the week. A lot of the people who volunteer during the week are retired and those are the people who like to take a lot of holidays.
“But you can’t put people under pressure because then they won’t want to do it. People have different strengths and you work with those.”
Maureen Shepherd, who leads the team of volunteers on Mondays, says: “One of the things that makes it so much fun is that everybody works together as a team, they come in, they have ideas, they get shared. There’s no ceremony, no hierarchy, they just all muck in and get on with what needs to be done.”
The shop is not a charity, it is a business but its profits have to go back into the business of other community ventures with compatible aims and objectives. It is run by a board of directors which has created an executive committee who do the day-to-day running of the store.
You would think having achieved so much in six months, the Feckenham villagers might be resting on their laurels for a while, but oh no – they are gearing themselves up for phase two.
They have another grant, this time £20,000 from the Plunkett Foundation which they intend to use to extend the shop and convert the back into a café with additional seating outside on the forecourt. It is a labour intensive undertaking. How many more volunteers will they need to run that?
“We are a bit daunted by it,” admits Jenny quietly. But they have been daunted before and they have done it. No doubt they will do it again.
* Feckenham’s flower and garden festival is on May 9 and 10. Don’t forget to take your shopping list with you.