After 32 years of running his store in Longframlington, Northumberland, and with last year's Countryside Alliance Rural Retailer of the Year award on his mantelpiece, David Carr decided he could allow himself a lie-in in the mornings.
So these days David no longer gets up at 2.30am to go to the fruit and veg market. You won't catch him at work until 4.30am now, when he starts on the first of the 80 sandwiches he prepares every day for his Londis store.
It's typical of this remarkable retailer, whose idea of relaxation after a 16-hour shift is to go for a 10-mile run, that he prefers to make the sandwiches himself. "I'm not sure I could pay anyone else to do it," he says. "And besides, I have to be up for the milk anyway."
The store stands at the crossroads in the centre of Longframlington - a village of 800 residents which is about as far north as you can go without actually being in Scotland. Outside is a vintage bicycle with the legend 'Arkwright's - Open All Hours' written across it. While most retailers and industry experts would distance themselves from Ronnie Barker's caricature shopkeeper, it's clear that David enjoys the little joke at his own expense. You can tell he's a big believer in the traditional approach that the TV show evoked.
On entering the store, customers are greeted by a trim-looking chap in a green-and-white striped apron who has a smile and a joke for everyone. (One local who hadn't been in for a while was met with a cry of "I thought you were under the patio!").
Visitors instinctively realise that this is the kind of shop where you don't go looking for your purchases yourself - in fact, as the 800sq ft store is piled floor to ceiling with stock, some of it quite erratically placed, you'd be there all day if you tried. You ask the man at the door where they are and he'll direct you, and sell you a few extra items along the way. It's the kind of store where the retailer's relationship with the customer does more than enhance the business. It is the business.
David says he has learnt the art of community retailing over time, and certainly his first faltering steps in the village weren't too clever. Christmas 1978 saw the 21-year-old manager of the local store facing a choice between redundancy or buying the business himself. "I liked my job, and I'd never done anything else, so I thought, why not?" he says.
He took the plunge, and nearly drowned. Shut down by environmental health, he traded from the pub car park for three months while installing new fittings, which he painted himself. On opening day, all went well until the afternoon, when goods started flowing back in through the door. It turned out the paint they had used tainted all the food and £5,000-worth of stock was lost. Not a great start.
"It's changed a lot since then," David says. "There used to be a regular customer base and you could be fairly sure they'd be in every week for the same items. Now it's much more fluid. We have more middle-class residents, including farmers, teachers and nurses. A lot of people who work in Newcastle have moved up here - it's a 25-mile commute."
It's made it harder to predict what customers will be looking for, so David has solved the problem by stocking, well, everything. "At the last stocktake we had 11,876 separate lines on the shelves," he says, a little ruefully. "I think I sell more inch for inch than Tesco does." With a turnover of between £12,000-£15,000 a week from his 800sq ft, he may be right. "There's no ground level storage here so everything either goes upstairs or straight out on the floor," he explains.
With six shelves in each display, the limited space is used to the full. A large choice of Cafédirect ground coffees is a good 8ft off the ground, so again it's David who has to fetch it for the customer, and there are oddities throughout. In one corner we spotted runner beans, crystallised ginger and Tennent's lager side-by-side on the floor. It's not recommended - you get the feeling that any supplier's rep who mutters the word 'planogram' in here will find himself out on the street an instant later - but in the context of this community shop, it works.
The changing demographic of the village is reflected in the number of premium lines, from pasta and sauces to top-end chocolates. The herbs and spices display would put most supermarkets to shame. There's a fantastic range of cheeses in the deli including Northumbrian Nettle and Cheviot. The only shops nearby are a butcher and a newsagent, so David doesn't duplicate their offers, but covers everything else including non-food lines and pet supplies.
The off licence section is actually behind the deli serveover - originally as part of the licence agreement but now because there's no room anywhere else. Customers know they can nip behind the counter, though.
David relies on Londis for his main deliveries, but also has arrangements with 42 other suppliers. Most of these are local, with Proof of the Pudding desserts coming from Alnwick, kippers from Crastor and milk from Northumbria Dairies. "I like to support local suppliers and people around here make an effort to buy local," David says.
"We also get a lot of tourists and they'll ask for local goods, so we stock plenty of biscuits and cakes and so on."
David is very aware of the impact a good neighbourhood shop can have on a community. It's a point that residents of nearby villages, which have lost their stores because retailers didn't engage as David does, never fail to make when they come into Longframlington.
"The village has a good community feel, and I think in a way that's because of the shop," he says. He mentions that when local schoolchildren were asked to draw an image of the village, it wasn't the church or the community hall they chose. It was the shop and, more specifically, the shopkeeper.
"That's how people think of it," David agrees. "I'm aware that people like to see me in the shop, and that the relationship I have with customers is more important than anything. It can't just be about taking money - it's part social work, really. You have to do your research, and know what everyone's hobbies are, what the kids are studying at school, and so on."
He will also deliver to older customers, or check up on them if they don't show up for a few days. He picks up prescriptions, too: it's all part of the service.
Despite the crowded store, David has found room for two village noticeboards, and one window holds the trophies for the local show. Being part of the community extends beyond the store and beyond opening hours, too. As well as maintaining a garden in the village square, David is involved in various charitable organisations and sits on several committees. "I do get into trouble at home for volunteering," he admits, "but I think it's important to be seen out in the village."
Although he's pleased with his relationship with Londis, David doesn't believe in the concept of a 'standard' store under any fascia, and he's just started a competition to find a new design for the store's exterior, something more in keeping with the village and the shop's traditional values.
Those values include an old-fashioned approach to stock control. David doesn't have a computer and prefers to spend as little time as possible in the upstairs office, so he has a part-time employee who takes care of the books and the larger Londis order, while he looks after the other suppliers himself, basing his stock levels on 35 years of experience of what sells when. "I think I'm better employed on the shopfloor," he says.
David knows his style of retailing isn't sustainable. Although his son James was working in the store when Convenience Store visited, he's just there paying off some university debts and has no plans to take over the business. "My kids have got more sense than I have," David says. "They know the hours I do and it has disrupted all our lives - family holidays have always been hard. What I do is probably too much work for one person and not enough for two, and it's hard to see anyone else wanting to take it on in the same way after me."
Fortunately, he's not going anywhere any time soon - apart from the occasional trip to a Buckingham Palace garden party at the invitation of the Queen, or the House of Lords to pick up an award or two. His store is admired nationally but it's the recognition of the local community that counts the most for him. Stashed away in David's office there's a framed poem from a grateful villager. It ends: 'So thank you David for all your hard labour/But most of all for being such a good neighbour.'
"It's a vocation, I suppose," he says. "I know people will think there are easier ways to make a living, but this will do for me."
Store: Londis Longframlington, Northumberland
Size: 800sq ft
Opening Hours: 8.30am-5.30pm Mon-Weds; 8.30-6 Thurs-Fri; 8am-5 Sat; 9.15am-12.15 Sun