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The rise of the civic corner shop

In recent years a new kind of shop has started to appear across the country, filling in the civic gap left behind by the death of village shops. Although still in small numbers, the community shop – owned and operated by the community in which it sits – is growing and has now surpassed the 200 mark.

Many of these new shops aren’t ‘just’ shops, but act as vital community hubs – bringing residents together around a shared purpose and providing a new civic space for the exchange of ideas, conversations and experiences.  Often, the community shops are a reaction to the closing down of other essential community services, such as post offices, pubs and churches. Rather than lament their disappearance, the initiators work to unlock and build upon the latent human and physical resources that already exist in the community.

Examples include the community of Berrynarbor in North Devon who set up a cooperative shop and post office following the retirement of the local postmaster. In Herefordshire, the closing down of Yarpole’s last village shop in 2005 spurred the community to come together to set up a new one in a Portacabin in the backyard of a local pub, and later on moved this into the parish church where they added a gallery and café. In North Yorkshire, the Hudswell Community Pub Co-operative, originally set up to save the village pub, later added a variety of functions, including the 3 x 3 metres ‘Little Shop’, the village’s first grocery in more than 30 years.

Community shops are not only a rural phenomenon. The People’s Supermarket rocketed into fame by the eponymous Channel 4 documentary series, is planning to set up its second volunteer-run grocery in Hackney following the success of the original one in central London. As Suki Jobson, People’s Supermarket member and volunteer, said: ‘With the People’s Supermarket we don’t just have a shop, we have a place where we can come together as a community to talk about food and deal more responsively with its supply.’

And Farm:Shop, a combined indoor farm, workspace, café and events space in east London, is now expanding to other large cities including Manchester.

Whether rural or urban, the examples above show us that it is possible not only to maintain, but also expand, the quality of service provisions in our neighbourhoods through ingenious combinations of mixed-mode investment and creative reutilisation of community assets.

What, then, can be done in order to foster the growth of such civic ventures? Simply showing that these initiatives are indeed viable alternatives to the Big Four would seem a good start. Community shops require high degrees of community buy-in, and in order to encourage this we need to convince residents that such initiatives are indeed worth investing in. The national profiling of the People’s Supermarket and the Hudswell Cooperative is a good start, but these cannot be stand-alone curiosity objects.

Secondly we need to embrace community shops as playful and open-ended spatial phenomena that allow for endless iterations and experimentations. Farms in shops, crèches in libraries, co-working spaces in churches and post offices in pubs; these are only a couple of the myriads of combinations possible, but open up for a much more radical re-imagination of how services might be delivered and daily life played out in our localities. Indeed, by co-locating vital public services we might be able to diversify the user-base of the spaces dramatically, making them much more appropriate in the highly diverse neighbourhoods of medium and large cities.

This brings us to the last point, which concerns the enabling role of the public sector. If we want to see a genuine increase in the number of community shops, local authorities need to take on a much more proactive role in making this happen. This does not necessarily require direct funding, but can take on a plethora of forms including simply supporting nascent initiatives, encouraging co-location of services, re-thinking the use of existing community assets and brokering partnerships.

Doing this will not only enable us to create a much more socially just and environmentally sustainable food distribution system, but can help us strengthen a local sense of belonging and retain wealth in our villages and in our high streets. All at the same time as making the trek for a pint of milk a car-trip shorter.

  • Read our feature on the reinvention of the corner shop here and the first column in the series, by Julian Dobson, here.

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