In our series about how Yorkshire's village shops have been fighting back, Fiona Russell reports on the success on her doorstep.
Sometimes there are such things as happy endings. But in Slaithwaite, in the Colne Valley, this time last year, it seemed as if a familiar story was about to unfold. The local greengrocers, the "Artichoke", was on its last legs and had been on the market for some time.
Graham Mitchell and his wife, Helen Coxan, were watching the situation closely from the internet services business he runs from offices over the shop.
"It was clear that the owner had cash-flow problems and would soon have to shut up shop altogether," says Graham. "But no-one wanted to buy a village greengrocers in the middle of a recession."
Downstairs, Carol Wood was preparing to lose her job: "Everyone was really sad, particularly the older people. There's been a greengrocer on the site for as long as people can remember."
So far, so depressingly familiar. But there were some grounds for hope. Slaithwaite is a large village, with some 5,500 inhabitants, strong traditions and a reputation for independence. Many people continue to use the heart of the village for their day-to-day shopping and there was reason to believe that, if economic circumstances improved, it might thrive once again.
"It was clear from the books that it had been a good business," Graham says.
Graham and Helen considered the options and talked to others in the village. A group started to meet with a range of different, but surprisingly complementary expertise – some had worked in food retailing (notably for Suma, the Halifax-based wholefoods co-op), others had made and sold food locally; several were active members of MASTT (Marsden and Slaithwaite Transition Towns) and Marsden and Slaithwaite's Renaissance Town Team.
All believed that growing, making and selling food locally is crucial to the health (in every sense) of communities. There was general agreement that, given the recession, a community shop was the obvious, perhaps the only, way forward. The question was how to go about creating one.
Most community shops happen when groups of people raise money among themselves to buy premises or an existing business. Starting from scratch can take years. Slaithwaite's size, its relative lack of affluence and its hitherto flourishing (but vulnerable) retail economy, meant that this model was unlikely to work.
The group was clear that a new start required a broad community base. A co-operative – a democratically-owned enterprise whose members have the same voting rights whether they own 10 or 1,000 worth of shares – seemed just the thing.
Graham has worked in co-ops for years and for him their principles are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago, when the ground rules were first laid out "over the top" (as they say in the Colne Valley) in Rochdale.
"A co-op is a social enterprise," says Graham. "Its purpose is to benefit its members and the community and it keeps money in the community. It's a virtuous circle. The money raised and spent protects and creates jobs and supports the rest of the local economy."
So, Slaithwaite Cooperative Ltd was registered under the Industrial and Provident Act, and at a packed meeting (held on the day the "Artichoke" shop finally closed) a "community share issue" was launched.
Shares would be sold for 1, with a minimum purchase of 10. The response was almost overwhelming. Within a week, 12,000 had been raised, enough to buy the business, begin the refurbishment and start to restock the shop.
"It was tremendous," says Camilla Govan, secretary to the newly-formed board. "We were past the first hurdle. Now we had to make it happen."
At this point, things became frantic. Could the shop be refurbished in time for a July 1 opening? Residents Jon Walker, Pip Lane and Susan Thomas worked late into the night building shelves and counters, moving partitions and painting walls and floors.
A local solicitor, Jan Walters, offered her services for free and worked closely with the board's financial team, Jenny Stein and Richard Izzard, Graphic artist, Rosie Lonnon, from West Slaithwaite, designed a fresh new logo – "an organic bar-code" – for the shop window, website and letterhead.
The Green Valley Grocer opened its doors on Friday, July 10, at 3pm. "It was touch and go, but we made it," says Carol Wood, who had stayed on to become the new shop's manager.
"We thought we would take 1,900 per week in July, but we took more than that in the first two-and-a-half days."
The effect on the retail economy of Slaithwaite was immediate. The takings of the butcher next door went up, and even the "other" Co-op – which, as Graham points out, "is strictly speaking our competitor" – reported a jump in profits.
By September, the shop was taking five times as much as it had when the old business closed. One job had been saved, and one full-time and four part-time jobs were created. These were all taken by people who live locally, including Helen Coxan, who has become the shop's local food co-ordinator.
The key to the shop's success is clearly the level of support in the community, and Camilla believes the co-op model and in particular the share issue is central to this.
"The share issue turned fund-raising into a campaign, and our shareholders have become our loyal customers."
Local resident Gail Button says: "The shop's great and it looks really great.
"You go down South and you see shops and cafs and you come back up here and sometimes things look a bit boring by comparison. The grocery is really funky."
Central to that funkiness is the presence, behind glass doors, of the Handmade Bakery, a group of artisan breadmakers who established themselves in the back of the shop in the late summer.
"They are the final part of the jigsaw," says Graham Mitchell.
"We sell, fruit, veg and wholefoods and local produce and wonderful freshly-cut flowers. But then we also have really high quality food being made right here on the premises."
The bread is sold straight from the oven, and, as the glass doors swing to and fro, a glorious smell wafts through the shop.
Dr William King, the Victorian physician and philanthropist who founded The Cooperator, wrote: "We must go to a shop every day to buy food and necessities – why then should we not go to our own shop?"
"The best thing of all for me is that it's our shop," says Camilla Govan.
"We are the owners of this fantastic business. When we started out, I thought it was an interesting challenge and I was motivated by the local food objective.
"But now I feel a great sense of pride. Even the local authority has more respect for us. Slaithwaite has grown."