Browse the shelves of Crick Post Office & Stores and you'll get more than you bargained for. That's because nestled among the Heinz baked beans and the Nescafé you'll find Smak red cabbage, Rajdimpex Kapusta (a combination of white cabbage, sauerkraut and carrot) and Golabki stuffed cabbage. And if that was not enough, in the chiller next to the Cheddar you'll see Pasztet chicken pâté. These are all Polish favourites stocked for the growing number of Polish clientele who visit the shop.
However, the Polish link doesn't end there, because on many days you'll find Pole Margaret Attridge behind the counter. Margaret is one half of the husband and wife team that owns and runs the shop. Husband Chris took over the store 15 years ago with his parents, Cyril and Pauline. Chris had worked at Vauxhall in Luton for 12 years, but had always hankered after running his own business. He takes up the story: "My dad worked at Vauxhall, too. He came up for retirement, got a pay-off then put the money into the shop. After a time, I bought them out. I had very limited experience - I'd worked in a newspaper kiosk when I was a teenager and that was about it. I did worry that we'd bitten off more that we could chew, but it's all worked out well."
Cyril and Pauline are still involved in the store - Pauline helps out regularly in the shop and Cyril does the accounts and looks after the Post Office on Saturday mornings.
The story of Chris and Margaret's involvement is a bit of a 'retail romance'. Chris explains: "One of my staff, Maureen, kept on about this 'lovely Polish girl' who worked in a newsagents in the next village, and urged me to ask her over for coffee."
Chris resisted at first but eventually gave in, met her, poached her for his shop and married her. "She genuinely loves the work - she knows all the customers and is always good for a laugh and a chat," he says.
But, in fact, she's good for much more than that as her linguistic skills are often in demand, too, to help translate Polish into English and vice versa. The reason is that the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal (Dirft) is just up the road and gives many Poles employment.
Says Margaret: "I've had to go to the school and translate for them and to the police station when someone has been arrested. I've even had to translate the health and safety guidelines for Tesco's distribution centre."
Dirft is still being developed and Chris reckons it offers his business massive potential. That's why he's so keen to stock Polish lines for the workforce and why he delivers newspapers to the canteens there every day. But the Poles come to him, too - Polish lorry drivers who deliver to Tesco's distribution centre use the store regularly. And it's not only Poles who make up the store's international clientele; there's a retirement home nearby which has many Latvian residents.
Aside from the growing industrial estate, Crick itself is expanding and 120 new houses are due to be built in the next two years. Chris is only too aware of the business they could bring. "A bypass was built a couple of years ago and we were afraid we'd lose trade, but 200 new houses were built in the village so what we lost in passing trade we gained in regular village trade," he says.
Chris has recently invested a whopping £100,000 in the building the store stands in - both in the shop itself and in adding two bedrooms to his personal accommodation. He was fortunate enough to get a grant for some of the shop work.
"We extended selling space from 500sq ft to 750sq ft and used the extra room for more chilled goods, a better wine selection and extra frozen food. We've a new chilled supplier - Kerry Foods - and that's working out really well," says Chris.
He was restricted to what he could actually do in the store because it's an old building that used to be a pub. He wanted a new post office counter, for example, but repositioning pillars and a fireplace would have made it too costly.
Aside from gaining the extra sales area, money was spent on a new floor, air-conditioning, lighting, suspended ceiling, new chillers and a CCTV system.
The store mixes modern with traditional so there's a basket of free range eggs displayed next to the latest 'Live to Play' Wall's ice cream cabinet. The new unit, together with the hot June/July weather, combined to make it a good summer for Crick's ice cream sales.
There are also some unusual premium lines in the store, such as John Lusty soups, which retail at up to £1.99 a can. Plus there are Crick PO & Stores-branded sweets and preserves. These sell steadily throughout the year but fly out over the May Bank Holiday when Crick is invaded by 32,000 visitors who come for the Crick Boat Show at the Crick Marina on the Grand Union Canal, just 500 yards away from the shop.
For stock, Chris uses Booker cash and carry in Northampton, 11 miles away, which he visits twice a week. "They're not too bad," he says, "although they could do with a bit more variety, particularly when it comes to bread."
He currently makes do with a car for his trips to the depot, but is keen to get a van to make the whole process easier. But he's quite happy to stick with the cash and carry as he's eager to remain an independent retailer.
The store's recently introduced CCTV system incorporates nine cameras - two outside and seven inside - and is designed to deter little hands from pocketing sweets. School buses stop right outside the shop, which should be good for business, but it does have a downside. "It's usually okay in the morning, because the children have to get to school," says Chris, "But it's more of a problem in the afternoon when they've got more time and all try to bundle in. We have had to put in a 'two at a time' rule so we can keep an eye on them. After all, they are the customers of tomorrow."
But it's not only sweets that the youngsters are after. Chris recounts an amusing tale about a packet of condoms and how he caught a very young lad pocketing the last packet in the shop. "I caught him on CCTV and thought it only responsible that I tell his parents. His poor mother was so embarrassed, but she also worried about why he'd wanted them because he wasn't yet a teenager."
Chris' post office is a vital part of the business and does a brisk trade. He also has a sorting office in a building at the back of the shop, but the threat of government closure is a constant worry. "My post office does offer a full range of services including vehicle licensing and foreign currency. I am hoping that after the government announcements about post office closures, I will still have mine and may be able to offer services to other villages who have not been lucky enough to hang onto theirs."
Interestingly, Chris says Ebay has been a big boon for the post office. "We have people in here all the time sending off things they've sold. I've one lady who'll spend £40 in one go on postage. Fifteen years ago the post office was taking just £500 a week, now I've got one business customer spending that on their own."
Because of its post office, the store has an extensive range of greeting cards. "Suppliers are always saying to me 'do you need all those cards?' but we do. We use five different suppliers, two of which offer sale or return, and they all offer really good margins."
Friday is busiest for the post office but Saturday is busiest for the shop, because of the lottery. "We do very well on the lottery and all the add-on sales we get as a result - we make as much from that as we do from running the sorting office."
Being his own boss definitely suits Chris - "I've no one looking over my shoulder and all I've got to do is keep my staff and customers happy."
However, as much as he loves his job, Chris says that if he couldn't take a regular holiday then he'd leave tomorrow. "I do get holidays but unfortunately Margaret and I have to take them separately. We can get cover for the Post Office but the shop is more difficult because of the newspapers and the cash and carry trips."
It might not sound like everyone's idea of a holiday, but Chris and Margaret are happy with the arrangement for the time being. While Chris might go abroad, taking their young daughter with him, Margaret can play host to her Polish relatives. And it's sacrifices like this that ensure the business works - the residents of Crick and the surrounding area probably don't realise how lucky they are to have such dedicated retailers on their doorstep.
owners: Chris and Margaret Attridge
store: Crick PO & Stores
Location: Crick, Northamptonshire
Size: 750sq ft
Trading hours: Mon-Friday 5.30am-5.30pm; Saturday 5.30am-7pm; Sunday 6.30am-midday
staff: seven part-time