A nation of shopkeepers?
Whatever Napoleon had in mind when he called the English ‘A nation of shopkeepers’, it is very unlikely our nation ever took this as the insult he presumably intended.
On the contrary, traditional ‘corner shops’ are an integral part of community life and one of our most valuable assets. Threatened during Covid by lockdowns and on-line purchasing, they rose to the occasion magnificently and became one of the key workers whom we celebrated.
It is a tragedy in the making that what Covid failed to do, energy costs may now achieve. The Ofgem energy cap does not apply to small businesses. Without its protection and with inflation, rates and rent rises, The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) has already written to Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi to warn him: “We will see villages, housing estates, neighbourhoods and high streets lose their small shops.”
We are truly staring that loss in the face.
Moorhall General Stores: sustaining a community
Knowing about these issues and seeing them played out close to home in real life are two different things. A few hundred yards from where I live in Bakewell is Moorhall General Stores; central to an estate on the edge of the town, with customers both very local and from nearby villages, it is now the only independent grocer in the town.
Gareth Skidmore and Louise Allen took over this shop 27 years ago. They were in their early 20s, and with Louise’s parents who were local, they could see the potential. They have created somewhere ‘where nothing is too much trouble’, offering good fresh food, all the store cupboard items you could reasonably ask for, and a terrific variety of household, emergency and DIY products of the sort you suddenly need quickly and rarely have.
Two days ago, they wrote to all their customers to say that they would have to close at the end of September, as their energy bill would increase from £12,000 to £30,000. They had no guarantee that there would not be further increases later in the year.
It was a very personal letter, from a small business to people who would count it as a friend, and vice versa. There was none of the big business insincerity of ‘Your call is important to us’ stuff, but instead, thanks for our support, when in fact it has been their support that has truly contributed to local life over so many years.
Over the years, they have held street parties for children when their two were young, and offered a liaison point for police and community to “break down barriers”. They even got the local bobby into the stocks to suffer wet sponges thrown by the children, who subsequently found him much easier to talk to! They overcame the setback of having their integral Post Office closed and met every challenge of Covid with innovation and hard work.
During the pandemic, with Louise’s father highly vulnerable and shielding, they moved their business to a delivery and collection-based model. They reckon they were doing 30 deliveries a day in lockdowns, just themselves and one member of staff.
Unless you were already signed up with one before the pandemic, it was well-nigh impossible to get a delivery from any of the supermarkets, so Moorhall ensured that people who could not risk going out were kept well fed – and most importantly, had a regular visit from someone they knew and trusted. Their contribution has been recognised with a personal letter of thanks from the Lord Lieutenant of Derbyshire, a Citizens’ Award from Bakewell Town Council, and a Derbyshire Beacon of Hope honour.
Throughout this time, there was scant government support, just one £10,000 grant with income tax clawed back. But they emerged stronger, having extended the customer base to more locals and more outlying villages by being on the road in their van at all hours.
Now that community spirit, and the people who nurtured it to help get us through the pandemic, are under another deadly threat.
The loss to our communities
News of the closure has come as a real blow to in-person and delivery customers alike, although at least Moorhall will continue their newspaper and milk deliveries.
Easy access to food will be hard hit for many, not only for older and disabled people, but also young parents with buggies and heavy bags. Bus services from town to home are not as frequent as they were and most importantly, there are fewer bus stops, so it is further to carry shopping.
But perhaps most importantly, the shop is literally a lifeline to people unable to go out frequently. “They don’t see people from one day to the next. I stop and chat for 15 minutes or so. One lady told me she hadn’t been able to do her washing because she couldn’t open the wash pods container, so I gave her a hand,” says Gareth. “One of our paper boys recently noticed papers piling up behind a door. We called the police, who found the man inside just clinging to life. He would have died by the next day.”
Determined to keep going strong, they realised nearly a year ago that energy costs were on the rise and invested £10,000 in new energy efficient fridges and freezers, as well as LED lighting. Government “should have seen the writing on the wall,” says Gareth, noting that Iceland and Pilkington Glass, for example, flagged up energy price issues over a year ago.
More recently, he has had no meaningful response from the local MP, who has not recognised the urgency or the effects of the issue on her constituency. However, he and Louise put the main blame on the greed of privatised energy companies, pointing out that as international businesses they appear to see UK companies, unprotected by a cap, as easy targets.
Their message to the government? “Get a grip quickly on the danger to small shops, or the High Street will disappear totally. Small businesses are the ones who pay their taxes and employ the most people in total.”
Following weeks of inaction while they gave their attention to hustings presentations to an electorate of less than 1% of the population, the incoming prime minister may now pay attention to helping small businesses survive.
But for Gareth and Louise, who have served the community for nearly 30 years and sustained it through three lockdowns, it is already too late.
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