WINSHAM SHOP-The transition from private to community ownership-Part 1
Winsham Shop 1998
Winsham Shop & Post Office-1998

This is the story of how the people of Winsham organised and supported efforts to keep their village shop and post office open when it faced closure in 2002. It tells how an idea took root, grew , not without growing pains, but ended successfully, to the ongoing benefit of the Winsham community.

It all started early in 2002 with the news that the existing proprietors, Mr & Mrs Winter had decided to sell Post Office House, part of which was the shop. It was no secret that Winsham Shop was not covering its costs, and it would be the residential part of Post Office House that would be the main attraction for a potential purchaser. The Winter’s efforts to dispose of the house and business as a single entity was not meeting with much success, and for personal reasons, they wished to sell as quickly as possible.
The general view in the village was that any purchaser would be unlikely to continue with the shop. The initial reaction from the village was dismay, tempered with a sense of inevitability. Small shops and post offices were closing everywhere, not just in lightly populated rural areas.
Although the possibility of closure was being talked about in the village, it took a conversation between three residents, Stella Abbey, Richard Rose and Robert Shearer to trigger a thought that, if acted upon, might avert closure.
The seed of an idea.
Around the United Kingdom, some three hundred small communities, faced with the same dilemma, had sought a solution by taking the running of a shop and post office into their own hands.
Would this be possible in Winsham? Could the village organise itself to raise the money that would be needed?
Could  village management of the business create a situation whereby the level of trade increased, and the overhead be reduced sufficient to achieve a sustainable and positive result?
The loss of the post office would be a great inconvenience. Many pensioners and people on social security benefits collected their payments from the post office. It greatly facilitated the sending of mail and parcels. It also provided certain banking services, as well as other useful facilities.
When it came to the shop itself, it was generally agreed that most would continue to carry out their weekly shop out at the Supermarkets. They carried a greater range of merchandise than was possible by a village shop, generally at good prices. But what about the perishable and convenience items? Milk, Bread, fresh vegetables and the items that were forgotten during the weekly shop-the birthday cards, a tube of glue, a pack of drawing pins. What about newspapers-how would you get one? Did we really want to go into Chard whenever you needed anything?
Important as the inconvenience of closure would cause, it also became recognised that the shop was at the heart of village life. If the shop was to close it would deal a severe blow to the community. The shop was where people met one and other, often on a daily basis. It was the communications hub of the village; it was how news was spread. What could replace that?
An understanding of the real impact of the closure of the business began to spread.
The possibility of community was explored
At this point a meeting was called to discuss the possibility of community ownership. It took place at Glebe Cottage, the home of Mr & Mrs Richard Rose on Monday, 11th March 2002, with a dozen or so people in attendance, all having expressed an interest in the idea. This group became known as the ’Steering Group’ about which more will be said later. Mr Graham Winter also attended, expressing his real concern about the possible loss of the shop, but explained the circumstances leading up to his family’s decision to sell, and the trading situation of the shop.
The problem was clear. He could not run the business-he was a professional accountant and had other business interests. His wife had developed a knee condition that prevented her spending long periods in the shop. Covering this with paid staff did not work as the cost of the staff reduced the trading margins necessary to cover stock and other overheads. Shortening the openings hours simply reduced trade. Turnover was steadily falling. Closure of the shop did not necessarily mean the closure of the post office, but it would have to be located elsewhere.
During the discussion that followed, the meeting heard about a similar situation in West Sussex in the early 1990s. It illustrated a very different set of circumstances to those in Winsham, but it demonstrated that with sufficient determination village shops could survive and prosper.
Many aspects of forming a community owned business were then discussed. From this came two questions to which answers were needed. When would Graham Winter have to announce closure? How much time did the village have to come up with a solution?
Meanwhile, there was much to be considered. What was the relationship of turnover to opening hours? To what extent did the post office services build traffic and trade for Winsham Shop? Could the shop premises be split from the residential area of Post Office House? Would a village owned shop be able to generate £3,000 p.w of turnover, which was the level considered necessary to be viable? What level of business was being done with older or handicapped people in the village, who had difficulty in getting out of the village to do their shopping? Is the Post Office more important than the shop? How could the long opening hours of a shop be manned? Did the shop need a different trading strategy? Did it stock too wide a range of products? Should it become a ‘convenience’ store? From where would the necessary capital come ?
Time to seek help
Clearly, the time had come to seek help. It was at this stage that contact was made with ViRSA (Village Retail Services Association) who existed to help and give advice to small communities considering social ownership of their village shops and post offices. They visited the village and talked to the steering group about how such a task could approached. There came from this meeting a new determination. It might be possible to create a successful business, despite the many obstacles that would undoubtedly be met. Visits were made to community shops in the South West to hear and to learn from their experiences.Shop Interior
The way forward
During a two week period towards the end of May 2002, there was much activity and two important meetings attended by the Steering Group, who though ‘self appointed’ became an identifiable entity with some formality and organisation. This was an essential step, as a great deal of work needed to be done, and they needed to be able to speak with a single voice.
Contact was made with Post Office Counters to discuss options. Should the shop close, the possibility of it moving to the Bell was considered.
The possibility of the whole premises being purchased from Mr & Mrs Winter and developed into a lock-up shop with self-contained flats above, for sale or let, was also considered. This was rejected after receiving professional advice on the matter.
Mr & Mrs Winter were of course at the centre of many of the discussions. They were concerned about the impact on the village of the closure of the shop, and put forward constructive proposals for consideration. At the same time it became clear that the end of August was the deadline for the shop and post office remaining open on the Post Office House premises. Among these proposals was their willingness for the shop and post office to be operated by a third party, with the shop being converted into a lock –up premises.
This was a major step forward, although there were concerns as to lack of storage space, and access only being available via the front door of the shop.
These were important practical considerations, but the main point was that a potentially viable solution was on the table!
Mr & Mrs Winter were prepared let the shop to a newly formed company-Winsham Shop Ltd. In turn the management of the shop would either lease the premises to a tenant on condition that it was run as a village shop, or appoint a manager to do this on behalf of the village. The former was at that time the preferred option, and a condition of the tenancy would be that minimum opening hours would be specified, and that some form of profit sharing scheme would be entered into.
Would the idea be supported by the village?
Although the village was aware that the shop looked like closing, and some attempt was being made to save it, most of the activity had been limited to the Steering Group. Now, with a possible solution in mind, it was time to consult Winsham residents.
To progress to the next stage, evidence of the support of the village must be obtained. This would be a requirement of grant funding agencies such as the Countryside Agency and others, whose support would be essential in raising the necessary operating capital. Assurance was also needed by the Steering Group, who had taken matters this far, that the village would support the initiative.
Meanwhile, some cause for hope; in June, Mr & Mrs Winter told the Steering Group that they had accepted an offer from someone near to the village to buy both house and shop. Hopes were raised that the problem was solved. In July it was learned that the sale would not proceed. This delay caused problems, but as the possibility of the failure of the deal is always part of any property negotiation, work by the Steering Group had not ended, although it had limited its scope.
A complication for the Steering Group was that the Shop and the Post Office were separate entities that shared common premises, to the benefit of both. Notice to close the post office had been given to Post Office Counters by Mr Winter at the end of May to become effective at the end of August, effectively defining the time-table.
But there was no guarantee that a new post office contract would be granted to the new shop. At that time, as at present, Post Office Counters (the Post Office service provider) was constantly questioning the balance between economic viability and public service, causing many very small village post offices to close.
Market research
At the beginning of June a questionnaire had been delivered to every household in Winsham. It explained that it was hoped to set up a company with the purpose of renting the existing shop premises from the owners of Post Office House, with the option to sub-let it to a tenant or employ a manager to run the business. Before this could be done the purpose of the questionnaire was an attempt to evaluate the level of use and support that might be expected from the village.
The response to the questionnaire was good-130 households responded-about 40% of all households.
It was clear that the shop and post office was wanted-92% and 93% respectively claimed to use to use them more than once a week. 89% of responders thought that the shop facility was very important, followed by 85% for the post office. The questionnaire also asked about many aspects of the shops services, the answers to which would prove invaluable if village ownership was eventually achieved.
It was now early July. Just a few weeks remained before the post office would close. In all probability the shop would close at the same time..

The Pressure was on.
The key to success was now the ability to attract substantial grant funding. It would only be part funding. The people of the village would be asked to provide financial support for the project to demonstrate their confidence. It would also be essential for the Steering Group to demonstrate their ability to manage a substantial project to completion, and then trade successfully.
Before a tenancy agreement could be entered into with Mr & Mrs Winter, Winsham Shop Ltd would have to have its own financial position confirmed. This was also a necessary condition to re-letting the shop to a tenant or employing a manager.
There followed a torrent of activity. Builders were called in to estimate the cost of alterations and some refurbishment. New equipment was priced. Numerous cash flow forecasts were produced-two types-showing the alternatives-a tenanted solution or ‘own management’. Solicitors and accountants were consulted. All was directed towards a Public Meeting to be held on Tuesday, 23rd of July, when the village would be faced with a financial proposal. If they accepted the proposition the project might succeed. If not, the project was dead.
The raising of Capital and the Prospectus
The venue for the public meeting was the Jubilee Hall, which was filled to maximum capacity (about 100). Robert Shearer addressed the meeting. He reviewed the current position, and explained that in order to meet grant funding requirements; the village would need to raise some £12,000 from a combination of issued Shares and Loans. For the most part, the people sitting in the hall would have to provide the money from their own resources.
He explained his confidence in the project. Negotiations were proceeding on the basis of a ten year lease from the present owner, based on an annual rent of £2,500.
In addition £58,288 would be needed to establish the shop and see it through the first of year of trading. He then detailed the expenditures under various headings-Alterations (£12,000)-Salaries (£24,000)-Fixtures and Fittings (£5,000) –Running Costs (£5,500) and so on. The Business Forecast was based on an 18% gross margin, with a turnover based around a sales performance of £3,000per week.
The Die is Cast
As a result of the meeting nearly £20,000 was raised within about ten days. This, plus some other short term arrangements, and a grant of £25,000 from the Countryside Agency (payable, in instalments, over twelve months) meant that the community owned Winsham Shop Ltd would become a reality, and would start trading in September!
At this point important decisions had to be made. The Steering Group needed to be translated into a Board of Directors, but that would have to wait for a meeting of shareholders. It was decided to drop that the idea of seeking a tenant to run the shop on a profit sharing basis. Winsham Shop Ltd would opt for direct management, employing its own staff and managing its own affairs. The obvious benefit would be that the management would be in direct control of policy and strategy. The downside was the obvious one that the management group would assume some onerous responsibilities which would involve considerable time and effort.
This decision was greatly helped by the knowledge and expertise of Denise Nicholls who had worked in the shop for 10 years and who willingly agreed to remain an employee,   as well as the appearance on the scene of Roger Tett, a recently retired resident who had spent most of his working life in retail business. He brought to the Steering Group a professional approach to retailing which would be of immense value from the start of the enterprise and for many years to come.
It was also decided that the Shop would open seven days a week between 8.00am to 6.00pm, Monday to Friday, with a half day on Saturday and Sunday. It would need one full time staff member, supported eventually by two part–time assistants.
The question of the Post Office had to be settled, and it was becoming a matter of urgency. The existing contract would end on the 31st August. From 1st September, Winsham Shop Ltd would take on the new ten-year lease from Mr & Mrs Winter. Negotiations with Post Office Counters were not easy, but eventually it was agreed that the post office would continue as before, but with the difference that it would operate on a ‘shop within a shop ‘ basis, with Post Office Counters renting the space at a ‘peppercorn’ rent, and would take on the responsibility themselves of employing a Post Master. Once again fortune smiled on the Winsham Shop enterprise. Bob Elkin who was appointed temporary Post Master (initially on a six month contract) proved to be a very effective and popular member of the team. An immediate benefit was that the post office was to be back to being open all day, which increased the volume of post office business, and indirectly benefited shop business by increasing the numbers of people drawn into the premises.
The importance of volunteers
A cornerstone of the new shop business would be its success in the recruiting a team of volunteers that would be needed to carry out the many tasks essential to the running of the shop. Success or failure in this matter would be the deciding factor if the shop was to be able to function as a genuine ‘village shop’ offering a wide range of merchandise and services.
Recruitment of volunteers was started immediately it was known that the new shop would open. They would be needed to serve behind the counter. Volunteers would be needed to clean the premises. Shelf stackers were required. Volunteers would also be needed to organise newspapers seven days a week, most days of the year-a task that starts at 6.30 am every morning except Sundays, when it starts at 8.00am.
Such was the enthusiasm of the village for the new Winsham Shop, the team of about twenty five volunteers were quickly assembled.
Opening Day
The shop opened for business on 8th September 2002, having closed after the previous full day's trading under Graham Winter's ownership. There was no grand opening ceremony, although the local press had been informed. The following day a village resident, a keen fisherman, brought a record-breaking sea bass to be weighed on the shop scales, bringing more welcome publicity. A week or so later, following a major rainstorm, a flood of muddy water flowed from the fields, down Fore Street and into the shop, covering it to a depth of 3 or 4 inches. Within half an hour, the shop was filled with enthusiastic villagers cleaning up, an indication of the importance and sense of ownership of the local community (and incidentally bringing more publicity). Right from the outset, the shop was well supported, turnover almost doubling in the first three months.

Election of Directors and the transition from management by Steering Group
In this account of the transition of Winsham Shop from private to community ownership there has been frequent mention of a ‘Steering Group’, without explaining what this really meant, although it might seem self-evident.
A substantial body of people played a part in helping the idea develop into reality. Some were specialists whose most relevant contributions came at particular times. Rod Wells, a Chartered Surveyor and property developer is one example of this. Others brought relevant experience on an on-going basis. Stella Abbey in addition to being a full time member of the group was also Winsham’s District Councillor. Her contribution was her knowledge of the voluntary support organisations and a wealth of contacts that was to prove to be invaluable. James Crowden's extensive local contacts were also very valuable.  Importantly, others represented, in one way or another, the ordinary people of the village who would eventually be asked to support the shop with their savings and their custom.
One person brought to this group the vital ingredient of leadership-Robert Shearer. His drive and focus upon the task in hand, and experience in the management of large hospital based projects, inspired the confidence of the Steering Group and investors alike.
At the time of opening the Steering Group comprised of Robert Shearer* (Chairman Designate), Mary Pye* (Treasurer Designate), Frank Vaughan* (Secretary Designate), Stella Abbey*, Anne Rose*, Roger Tett*, James Crowden*, Tony Laws Spindler, Margaret Long, Peter Pye, Shaune Shearer, Janet Smart.
Those with asterisks against their names went on to be elected as Directors at the first meeting of Shareholder held at the Jubilee Hall on Tuesday 17th September 2002. Some did not wish to stand for election.
At the Shareholder’s meeting it was agreed that Directors should offer themselves for re-election every two years.

Above: Some of the Shop Steering Group and helpers at the public meeting on the 23rd July, 2002
Left to right: Bob Elkin, Roger Tett, Stella Abbey, Tony Laws-Spindler, Mary Pye, Robert Shearer, Margaret Long, Anne Rose.

The End of Part 1

Click HERE to see Part 2-'The First Ten Years'

Published March 2013

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