Tess Flower’s taste for the unusual along with strong sense of community have created a treasure trove of a store. Sarah Britton reports

From the regal peacock feathers leant delicately against the grocery section, to the pretty hotchpotch bunting that adorns the walls, there’s a very whimsical feel about The Village Shop in Upper Dicker, East Sussex. Scan the shelves and you’ll find not only a fantastic array of produce, much of which is sourced locally, but also a treasure trove of trinkets. Old-fashioned gaoler’s keys, decorative liquor glasses, and a hand-painted Japanese tea set are all for sale alongside the household goods. There’s music playing, too, but it isn’t cheesy pop chart fodder or local radio. Instead, there’s an eclectic mix of tunes from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, which creates an air of bygone days when villages were tight-knit and the local store was more than just a sales outlet, it was a social outlet.

Since buying the shop in 2007, Tess has made it her mission to transform the store from a cheap corner shop to a community hub with a difference. “When I took over the store it had a post office, but that closed in 2008, so the unit was just known as the tuck shop for the local school - it was all Coke, crisps and Fray Bentos pies! I knew it had to change because it was going to die if it didn’t.”

Shop profile: The Village Shop, Upper Dicker, East Sussex

Staff: 3 full time, 9 part time

Opening hours: Monday-Friday 8am-6pm; Sat and Sunday 9am-3pm

Additional services: cafe, off license, hot food to go, gift-wrapping, home delivery

Inspired by the shop’s rich history - it’s been trading since the 1850s - Tess wanted to re-inject some of the community spirit that once existed in the area. “Back then, the business was made up of an abattoir, dairy and hardware store, and I really liked the idea of a lively, quirky business.”

So she set about trying to bolt on a second business to complement the retail side of things. “Initially, we adapted the front of the shop into a hardware store with dustpans, plungers, screws and the like, but it didn’t really take off - there just wasn’t enough demand for it,” she says. “I was getting frustrated that the villagers weren’t using the store, but I spoke to a local businessman and he said it was my fault for not meeting their needs.”

So Tess reconsidered her use of the space at the front of the store. “What people really wanted was a friendly store where they could come and have a chat, and so we thought we’d introduce a few chairs.”

In fact, the idea was such a hit that over time a few chairs became a fully-fledged café with cakes, hot food and a deli offering.

She explains that the café’s produce is greatly inspired by her travels around Europe. “I was inspired by all sorts of places, from Italian delis, to French bistros and markets.” As a result, the café boasts a sumptuous selection of Bistro-style, earthy foods such as warming soups and flaky pastry pies, as well as Italian favourites, ciabattas and paninis. But Tess has been careful to ensure that the café also includes a good deal of British influence with fresh sandwiches and plenty of homebaked cakes.

This sense of Britishness spills over into the shop, which is bursting at the seams with all manner of teas and decorated with Union Jack bunting. “It’s important to pay tribute to traditional British culture,” says Tess, who is originally from New Zealand.

Local produce including eggs, bread and meat also feature heavily in the mix. “We get a lot of items through Infinity Foods in Brighton, which specialises in natural and organic foods,” she says.

She also visits farmers markets to source local produce, and having sampled the produce and learnt of the suppliers’ backgrounds, she then incorporates their stories into handmade chalkboard signs that explain the background of the product. Preserves made by Krissy of Sussex is one brand that Tess has chosen to flag up. “I met Krissy at a farmers market. She grows her own fruit to make preserves,” says Tess. “I have to believe in the product before I sell it.”

As well as labelling produce, she also enjoys telling customers about the products in person. “If I’m in store I’ll always talk to people about the foods, especially the wines and cheeses,” she says. “We also have a really quirky lady who supplies medicated herbalist products, so I like telling people about her story.”

And it’s not just the shop’s produce that is up for discussion. “I like finding out about the store’s history by talking to the older people about what it was like in their day.” In fact, a quick wander round the shop reveals that while the post office is no more, its essence is still very much present. Onions are displayed in the old post office scales, while the post office counter has been chopped up and turned into shelves, which now adorn the walls behind the shop counter.

Tess also takes time to chat with local historian Leslie Smith, whose books about the area are sold in the store. “He told me about a carnival called Dicker Day that used to take place in the village,” she explains. Tess jumped at the chance to breathe life back into the area by re-creating the village fête, and for the past two years she has organised face painting, a tug-of-war competition, a sausage sizzle, and even a jelly eating competition!

She has also organised numerous in-store events, including Market Night where people are invited to set up clothes rails in the shop Holy Corner, which is a walk-in surgery run by the local vicar and a Stitch ‘n’ Bitch evening for ladies to come in and have a natter while doing their knitting. And for children, the café makes for a great birthday party venue, hosting pizza-baking and build-your-own ice-cream sundae parties.

But despite her best efforts, it has taken a long time to build up trade, concedes Tess. “It was really hard to change people’s opinions of the store at first, she says. “It was a tuck shop for 10 years, after all, taking money out of the community and not putting it back in.”

The current store couldn’t be more different. “Our concept is local food for local people. I like the idea of employing local people and having the money going round within the local area.”

One of Tess’ main challenges is getting people into the habit of using both the café and the store together. “It’s taken a long time, but customers are now having a cup of tea and then buying greetings cards and fruit and veg.”

She has helped to ease the transition between the two businesses with linked initiatives. “When we served pumpkin pie in the café it was popular, so we started selling pumpkins and the other ingredients required to make it at home.”

She has also made an effort to hone her offering to specific customer groups. “There are builders working at nearby St Bede’s School, so during the week we offer a Workman’s Challenge breakfast. It’s bacon, eggs, chips, sausages, beans, toast and tea for £5.50. We had about six workmen in this morning and they all ordered one.” She has recognised that if she can get them into the café early in the day, then they’re pretty likely to buy some lunch from the store while they’re there.

And, little by little, her plans are coming into place. “It’s really tough to get people to spend because of the pressures of the economy, but people do come to support us because they like what we do. Overall, there’s been steady growth since we bought the store.”

And she has every intention of continuing the good work. “I’ve realised what an asset to community life the business is. This is something I really believe in.” ■