Community shops can sometimes take months, even years, to go from the initial idea to opening the doors. But in Brent Knoll, Somerset, the coronavirus crisis struck spurring the community into opening their much needed shop in days. David Sturgess, a member of the small informal Steering Group, tells Plunkett their story.

“We used this crisis as an opportunity to keep the project alive”

Against the odds residents of a rural Somerset village have opened an ’emergency community shop’ in just ten day amid the grip of the Coronavirus crisis – providing much needed access to vital products. 

The village shop in Brent Knoll closed on the 1st March – a few months after the Post Office in that shop had also closed on the retirement of the postmaster.

Within days, discussion on the local “NextDoor” social media group led to a meeting, where it was agreed to seek help from Plunkett towards the creation of a community shop. This also led to an urgent public consultation survey, using both online and paper questionnaires – as advised by Plunkett.

The results were hugely supportive.  More than 200 residents responded and the survey revealed that all but one respondent supported the idea of a community shop, with 42 agreeing to become volunteers to help run the shop, 26 prepared to join the Steering Group, 12 willing to offer their professional skills, and 93 committing to invest £50-100 as share-holding members in a community enterprise.

The next step should have been a public meeting to reveal these results and discuss ideas on what that a community shop should provide, and how it should be run.  But then came the Covid-19 crisis.

The survey results were sufficient to win the backing of the Plunkett Foundation, but the lock-down meant that the public meeting could not be held. The group received the support of a Plunkett adviser, who helped them put together and implement an action plan.

“We used this crisis as an opportunity to keep the project alive”, said David Sturgess, a member of the small informal Steering Group for the project in Brent Knoll.

“We decided, with the help of the owner of the closed shop, to open an ‘Emergency Shop’ in her premises.  It took us just ten days to get that shop stocked and open, thanks to a massive wave of help from volunteers and the support of our villagers”, he added.

The “Emergency Shop” was officially opened on 18th April by local MP, James Heappey, using a mix of Zoom and Facebook to stage a ribbon-cutting ceremony that has been viewed by hundreds on the team’s Facebook Page.

Media interest

The opening attracted publicity in local newspapers and BBC Somerset. As a result, the first day saw queues of villagers waiting to enter the shop, enjoying the opportunity for a chat with neighbours – albeit from six feet away.

“Thanks to a team of ardent volunteers, we’ve learned fast about providing newspapers, buying-in key products, and running a shop with all the social-distancing rules”, said David.

To keep the publicity ball rolling, the team appealed to the local media for buskers to entertain the queuing customers:  this resulted in more publicity, and the first professional busker to perform – and a request for a “live link” from the busker’s performance from BBC Somerset.

Restored hope

Brent Knoll’s new “Emergency Shop” is now open daily, from 9-11am every day except Wednesday and Sunday. Daily takings are between £200 and £300.

“This is just the first step”, said David Sturgess.  “We see our ‘Emergency Shop’ as a bridge towards our longer term aim of working with Plunkett to deliver a sustainable Community Shop, and restore our hopes of reviving our Post Office”, he added.

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