Independent retailer Manny Patel is doing all he can to light up a small Surrey village. Gaelle Walker went to catch some of his rays
To outsiders he is known as Manoj Patel. But to the residents of Long Ditton in Surrey, he is known simply as Manny the man bringing life and laughter back to a small village which had been in danger of losing its spark.
Everyone loves Manny, from the local school kids who visit his store (aptly branded Mannys) for snacks and magazines, to their parents who go in for milk and mags, and particularly the elderly, who view the store as a lifeline following the closure of the local post office two years ago.
Even the local councillors can't sing Manny's praises loudly enough. "Manny provides a beacon of hope for the future of our village and for the future of our area," Conservative councillor Tim Grey wrote in a recent internet post.
High praise, indeed, for a man who has been a retailer only since 2002 and who had no previous experience in the field.
Just six years ago Manny was lighting up an altogether different field, working as an electrical engineer for the Ministry of Deference (MoD).
His "new life" as a retailer began in 2002 when, after 22 years, he decided to leave his post at the MoD and started helping out in his cousin's CTN.
"I was planning to work in the store just as a stopgap, but I soon fell in love with the retailing life," he says. "Every week was different and exciting, and before I knew it I was looking into opening my own store."
And he certainly didn't hang around. Less than six months later Manny bought what was then a small but well-established CTN in Long Ditton from a pair of long-standing retailers who were keen to retire by the sea.
However, Manny's first few months at the helm of what was then known as Burgess News were far from plain sailing. "I wasn't prepared for just how complex the job would be," he says. "People don't always appreciate how hard independent retailers have to work. It's incredibly long hours, and because my store was only small I couldn't afford to employ many people, meaning that I had to do almost everything myself."
And when he says everything, he really means it. A number of the store's paper delivery boys had chosen to give up their shifts when the previous owners retired, and that forced Manny to hand out many of the store's 700 papers a day himself.
Long hours weren't the only challenge that Manny had to face up to in his new role, however. "It also took a bit of time for the community to get used to me after having known the previous owners for so long," he says.
However, judging by the warm and friendly atmosphere which now emanates from his store, and the numerous times he's appeared in the local newspaper (for entirely positive reasons, obviously) it's clear that he's won everyone over.
It's not just relationships that have changed since Manny arrived. Earlier this year the store underwent a seismic shift in its identity and design after Manny was fortunate enough to snap up the unit adjoining it.
The purchase of the former gift shop enabled Manny to double the size of his store, transforming it from what was a small and cluttered outlet with one central aisle, into a large bright and welcoming space.
White walls and chrome fittings combined with mirrored pillars have added to the store's airy feel and also act as a clever deterrent to shoplifters.
"The refit took place in two stages," Manny explains. "We started with the original store, then we broke through the wall and refitted the unit next door. Doing it like that enabled us to keep trading throughout.
"Our customers were fascinated by all the work and it felt like we were all going through it together," he says.
The extra space has also enabled Manny to introduce a wide range of groceries helping the store shed its former CTN status and become a fully fledged convenience store.
"Learning all about the new grocery products has probably been the biggest challenge of all for me," Manny says. "There's such a lot to learn, particularly on the alcohol side of things where there is so much legislation."
However, although he might be new to selling the stuff, there's nothing elementary about Manny's alcohol offer. The range includes an impressive selection of fine wines and even organic varieties, which are pulling in shoppers from the more affluent surrounding villages.
And with the paint barely dry on the walls, Manny's already planning his next makeover except this time it doesn't involve bricks and mortar.
Manny is attempting to rebuild community ties in the local area which has been hit hard by the recession, the occasional bout of anti-social behaviour and, most devastating of all, the local post office closure.
"The community was hit very hard after the post office shut two years ago," explains Manny. "It changed the whole feel of the village as suddenly people were being forced to travel to the next town for their giros and other services. The elderly were hit particularly hard."
He isn't able to open a post office counter in his own store, but Manny is attempting to help shoppers by offering a whole new range of services including photocopying, dry-cleaning, PayPoint and Oyster. And that's just the start of it.
He's also deep in discussions with local police and councillors over plans to hold regular surgeries in his store.
"These surgeries would go a long way towards helping rebuild community ties which have become somewhat frayed over the years," he says. "The store is in a central location in the village and there is plenty of space for people to sit down with their local police officer or councillor and have a chat."
He's even looking into the possibility of adding a few chairs and tables outside his store and installing a small coffee machine.
"At the moment there isn't really anywhere for members of the community to come together so I know that something like this would be really welcomed."
Another plan that Manny is working on in partnership with the Long Ditton Residents Association is the construction of a large sign and decorative map of the Long Ditton area, which would be positioned outside his store.
"A map of the area would help in giving the community its identity back," he says.
Another event, which is sure to bring the whole community together, is the Christmas carol concert and switching on of the village lights which Manny is holding outside his store in a few days' time.
Manny hopes that the whole village will turn out for the celebration, and the promise of a hot mince pie, but it's pretty clear to everyone who the brightest light of the night will be.