With its freshly groomed green flanked by rows of listed buildings, Sedlescombe in East Sussex is the perfect rural village, and the local c-store takes pride of place in its heart.
The owners of Sedlescombe Village Stores, John and Jenny Mainwood, play a big role in the close-knit community - a role that has been known to involve a script and the learning of lines.
"We're the village's box office for all fundraising events and shows put on by the amateur dramatic society, which I try to avoid getting roped into," muses John. "I did once, and quite enjoyed it actually. I played the policeman in 'Allo 'Allo. It was a proper con though. They'd tried to get myself, the publican and the vicar involved, so I thought I'd better agree if they had. I was only supposed to get one line but the other two didn't turn up so my part got bigger, and then someone else dropped out so I had to do their part as well."
But John and Jenny love the community feel of Sedlescombe and it was their search for something that meant they were in touch with the public that led them from banking to convenience retailing in September 1997. "Banking had got very
impersonal," says Jenny. "Being in touch with the public is what we enjoy about doing this job. We get involved in all sorts of stuff. We have a very active and strong junior
football club and we sponsor the girls' team."
Along with being in the centre of all community activity, the couple support the local economy by
sourcing a lot of local produce including juices, cider, beer, wine from the nearby organic winery, meats, and salmon from the local smokery. "We sell lots more fruit and veg than we used to," says Jenny. "We have three suppliers and
deliveries every day. All our eggs and milk are local, and we're always on the lookout for more things locally. The pub landlord's wife has just discovered some local apple juice, and says it's the best she's ever tasted, so I think we'll get some in, too."
This neighbourly attitude is evident between John and Jenny and other local businesses. "We help each other out by getting stuff for each other at the cash & carry," says John. "When we did the first refit, we were in the pub one evening talking about how we would manage and how we could possibly carry on trading. The landlord said, 'You'd better come in here then boy' - that's how he spoke. We didn't think anything of it but when it came to it, I asked if he meant it, and he said yes. So we moved a chiller into the pub and ran the shop from there. We took up half the pub selling from bread trays. We did the news delivery from there, and had a runner for the frozen stuff. It was a skeleton operation but it involved a lot of goodwill and was a lot of fun."
Though now retired, John the
landlord came to the rescue again when the Mainwoods underwent another refit 18 months ago and had to close for three weeks for all the structural work. "The bistro opposite was empty at the time and the owner allowed us to move in there, so we moved everything from here over there - there was a trail of villagers helping us that Sunday," says John. "John brought a trailer round for the chillers and took it straight across the green with people hanging onto it for safety. Then we had to move it all back again when our store
While the villagers have helped the Mainwoods through the tough times, they've done their own bit to help other businesses. "The shop in Newick was ramraided and the lady's chiller got damaged," recalls John. "Booker told us about it so we gave her our old chiller."
The last refit saw the couple double the size of the store, build a stock room, and separate the house from the business.
"We used to have to come through the house to get any stock," recalls Jenny. "Deliveries came into the kitchen - the shop was really built around the kitchen."
Adds John: "We'd be sitting there with our toast in the morning and someone would come in with a delivery, or to get to the stock room, which was a shed. As the business grew, it got too much."
The store is now 740sq ft, and the
accommodation is very much
separate, with just one door from the back office to the house. "It's still very small but we're packing a lot in - it's intense and compact," says John. "About 30 years ago there used to be about 20 different businesses in the village - a proper baker, two or three grocers, a butcher; now we're the only one, so we're all things to
Getting planning permission wasn't a simple task, and because the building is listed they were very limited in what they could do. "We'd already been told we couldn't build out the back," recalls John. "Planning permission was something of an ordeal. Our initial planning
application took two years to get permission, but by that time it wasn't adequate so we started again. Our eldest son had just qualified as an architect so he did a composite plan to do everything at once - to enlarge and alter the house, and extend the shop into what was the house. We moved the lounge upstairs and have gone up a third floor."
This most recent refit has enabled the Mainwoods to do things
properly. They moved the bake-off into one area, extended the fresh and chilled range, grocery and non-food, added a display of herbs and spices, and signed up to Premier. "We're now doing everything bigger and better," says John. "The fresh meat range we get from Booker has done so well that we're looking at
expanding it. The new butcher there is going to do special packs for us."
Sales jumped by 30% after the latest refit, and weekly turnover is now £12,000, but their next target is to reach the £15,000 mark. "That would be superb," says John. "It would make things comfortable. There's always things we can do. We're going to enlarge the fresh meat, and make more of deliveries to the older people. We've always done that, and delivered to the sheltered accommodation, but we've not made a big thing of it."
The couple are also working on their plastic bag policy. "We're going to float our ideas at the Parish
Assembly soon," says John. "We have some samples arriving from a company in Crowborough that does paper, cotton, hessian and canvas bags. We won't do away with plastic bags altogether because we get a lot of passing trade and they probably wouldn't have a bag with them, but we'll look to charge for plastic bags and encourage people to use eco bags. I'm a committee member of the Rural Shops Alliance and they're looking at doing something
nationwide, so we're jumping the gun a bit, but we're ready to address this issue now."
Now the store is as they want it, John says they're looking for a quieter life. "After a few years you plateau and you've got to do something else, but we've still got a few years of growth. Fortunately our post office is staying. The shop used to rely very heavily on the post office but not so much now, although it's difficult to know how many would use the shop if the post office wasn't here."