A pint of milk, 20 Marlboro Lights, and what can we do about the potholes in the roads? Not a normal request in a c-store, but for Teresa Cass, who runs The Shop on the Corner in the village of Langley Vale in Epsom, Surrey, such enquiries are commonplace.
Not only is Teresa - together with partner Tim Aker - the village shopkeeper, she's also the local councillor, a role that she's integrated into her already hectic life running a c-store. But she says that the two roles go hand in hand: "Everything that happens locally is going to have an affect on us, so it felt like the next step. People would come in and tell us about their problems anyway."
Teresa was elected as Woodcote Ward Residents' Association member on Epsom and Ewell Council in June this year, but she admits that her decision to run for councillor was a somewhat of an impulse: "The chairman of Woodcote Ward's Residents' Association came in and said they needed a third candidate, so I said I would think about it."
The following week Teresa, Tim and daughter Amanda (who also works in the store) were out knocking on doors to campaign for Teresa's election - and she won.
Teresa has already fought the potential closure of the local hospital's A&E and maternity units, and on Gordon Brown's first day in power, Tim was at Downing Street demonstrating for that cause. "We're also trying to preserve the nearby equestrian centre, which is one of the oldest in the country," says Tim. "It's got 17 listed parts and there's been a lot of press about it because Lord Halifax has put in planning to turn it into residential and offices."
Being shopkeeper and councillor also means constituents can't say they never see their local councillor. "People can come in here and ask me to do things - that's what's so nice. If I need to gauge public opinion on something, I can do so very easily. And people can talk to Tim as well. It's been a baptism of fire but I'm loving it - I've met some great people and done some interesting things. Typical areas of major concern are street cleaning, policing and traffic lights."
Taking the plunge
The couple have run the store, which is opposite Epsom Racecourse, for eight years, and refitted it in 2002. "It was pretty run-down when we took over and had been extended over the years," explains Tim.
Like the couple's decision for Teresa to stand for councillor, Tim says that choosing to buy the village shop was rather a whim. They were both working at Legal & General at the time, and it was the shop's threat of closure that caused them to consider retailing.
"We lived in the village and knew the previous owners, and it seemed that the shop was going to close. We said, let's call the estate agent and just see. It wasn't as much as we thought it would be. There was a bit of the fear factor because we remortgaged the house to raise money, but we didn't want to lose the shop and it didn't look like anyone else was going to take it on."
Tim had a little experience of retail from his brother's jewellery shop, Teresa used to have a Saturday job in Boots, and her parents were in wholesale, but most of their knowledge has been picked up along the way. "The base of it is customer service and we were used to that," says Teresa. "Customer service is the most important thing because that's what makes us different from the big guys. We've built up a relationship with our customers. We greet them with a smile, say hello and goodbye, and we make sure we engage with them. We want people to walk out feeling good because you just don't get that elsewhere nowadays."
Their store has become a bit of a training ground for some of the local teenagers who get their first experience of the working world there. "Our staff build up a lot of confidence here," says Tim. "We have a diverse mix of ages and characters visiting the shop, and you can't beat interaction with people. If you can learn how to interact successfully, it's a skill that will take you through life."
Fighting their corner
Tim and Teresa recall a difficult start to retailing, though. "We had
horrendous problems at first with news," says Tim. "On our first day, the papers didn't arrive and that became par for the course. It nearly broke our spirit. It was so stressful and cost us a lot of money. In the end, the supplier got taken over."
That wasn't the only headache. The couple successfully fought off roadworks planned for the roads outside their store. "The council wanted to narrow the roads, which would have put us out of business because it would have shut off any possible parking," says Teresa. "I wrote to them every week - now some of them are my colleagues - and pointed out they would put the last shop in the village out of business. It would have made the junction much worse as well."
The couple sent leaflets to 500 houses, asking people to write to the council. "We prompted 40 letters. It was a year and a half of worry," Teresa recalls.
Eventually, the council said they would abandon the plans, but that wasn't the end of the saga. A little while later, Tim spotted an engineer surveying the road outside. "Tim went out to ask him what he was doing and it turned out that the road narrowing plans were still active," says Teresa. "So we leafleted the whole village again and were encouraged by the strength of support we received." At last the council backed down.
Teresa and Tim's customers are a mix of local villagers and passing trade. "A lot of workers pass by and there's always building works going on. A hotel is being built just across the road from the racecourse and they're rebuilding the grandstand, so we're going to get up there with some leaflets and tell people to come and get their tea and coffee here. It's very near, easy walking distance."
They have a counter-top Bake & Bite bake-off unit and sell freshly made rolls. "We started selling four rolls a day and now we're up to 112," says Tim. "The rolls are freshly baked by a local baker. We use the best possible ingredients and sell the rolls for under a pound. We've built up recognition and people remember our rolls. We also make fresh tea here - not from a machine."
Top of their to-do list is to introduce an off licence. "Sometimes we get a run of people asking for alcohol," says Tim. "We're considering it but we don't know what we would take out; we need the space to do it properly. In theory, we could just do chilled beers but then you have the security and youth issues to consider. We're not looking forward to October with the tobacco age change. We're telling those who are 16 and 17 now, but I don't think they'll believe it until it happens.
"We had a problem with kids asking people to buy cigarettes for them. It's a respectable area but there's a core element who cause problems. However, we know who they are, and they know that."
Teresa and Tim's enthusiasm for their community and store is all apparent and they're proud of being independent. "We've seen an increase in trade year on year, so it's nice that we, as independents, are bucking the trend. We really enjoy retailing; we've met some lovely people. Trade is good but we get payment in another way too - in the whole aspect of being part of the community."
Store: The Shop on the Corner, Langley Vale, Epsom, Surrey
Size: 300sq ft
Opening hours: 6.30am-6.30pm, Mon-Friday, 7am-4pm Saturday, and 7.30-11am Sunday
Staff: Two part-time
Services: Food to go, photocopier, dry-cleaning, PayPoint, National Lottery, home deliveries