Save our village shops

As we launch a major campaign to help save our ailing village shops, Sue Gilson puts in a 12-hour shift at Boxgrove Village Stores. Photos by Bill Shimmin and Sue Gilson.

"You feel cared for here"

When I volunteered to spend a day at Boxgrove Village Stores, I had no idea how busy it would be, how hard owners Lesley and Malcom Simpson worked, or what an vital part of the community it played.

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Yet, despite the custom from residents, this welcoming shop at the hub of the village is still struggling and needs more support to survive, as do many others in the same boat.

With the building trade beleaguered, less builders are popping in to spend money, and the bottom line seems to be customers need to buy more there than a newspaper and a pint of milk.

"The days of village shops making a fortune are long gone," says Lesley. "We have always said that is everyone in the village spent 5 a week here we would be OK."

This diary of my day brought it home to me how many services it provides, and many people would be absolutely lost without it.

6.30-7am Malcolm and Lesley Simpson and daughter Clare Dixon open up. Malcolm sorts the newspapers. The Walkers Crisps delivery man Martin is given a cup of tea. Regular customer John Hill of Hanaker pops in for The Sun and a bit of footie banter. Customers buy papers and milk. Quarry worker Malcolm Davey buys a BLT for lunch and says the rolls are 'brilliant'. Local honey is unpacked. Bread arrives from Selsey Village Bakery. Roofer Nick Wakefield buys a sandwich, paper and crisps. He calls Lesley 'my liitle fruit bat' and she tells him his T-shirt is inside out. "All the yoof do it," he laughs.

7-8am Schoolboy Jack Vandriel, with a recently-broken nose he is told 'adds character to his face' buys a bottle of water before boarding school bus. Villager Martin Page, whose grandparents owned the shop around the WW1, buys a Times. Builders buy crisps and pizza. Octagenarian Keith Setchell, who ran the store from 1976 to 1990, comes in 'for a paper and oddments'. He says: "They are extraordinarily nice people here." Ernest Green buys bread and a greetings card and jokes it is 'the best shop in the village!' Lesley makes rolls and baps to takeaway. Malcolm comes back from Bookers cash and carry with racks of soft drinks and boxes of chocolates. Landscape gardener Scott Turnbull buys The Star and a Racing Post and says: "You can interact here, exchange views".

8-9am Malcolm tops up wild bird seed bins. London builders Adam and Bill sit in the shop's cafe at the back with cups of tea and Lesley's bacon rolls. Malcolm starts setting up in the post office in the shop, where he is sub postmaster. He mainly deals with postage, pensions and car tax. Claire takes her children, Bethany (8) and five-year-old Oliver, to school. An X-Factor fan says she is looking forward to Saturday's show. George Keys (86) tells Lesley he feels better after going to the doctor. "We wouldn't be without the shop," he says. "Long may it last". Elderly customer phones to ask for two Cup-a-Soups to be added to her weekly grocery delivery. "The eggs are very good here," says villager Brian Marshall, "and you feel cared for."

9-10am Trays of hand-made cakes are delivered from the Fab Food Company. Malcolm stocks up on local tomatoes. Queue of three for the post office. Father David Brecknell, honorary assistant priest, says he comes in every day. "It's the centre of life in the village." Lesley lends a sympathetic ear to a customer whose mum's not well. Five in PO queue. Boxgrove WI president Chris Cotter brings in second-hand books for swap shop. The WI had their last monthly meeting in the cafe here. Lesley puts blackboard outside - Coffee and Cake 2. Little Patrick Cronin, 18 months, crouches down to look at all the below counter sweets.

10-11am Lesley helps blind customer John Walbrugh (83) into the shop. He lost his sight when he was blown up in Italy in 1944 on active service. He lives 100 yards down the road and buys bread, butter, milk, fruit and veg here. "The post office is marvellous for me too as I get my pension here," he says. Mum Claire Foden uses the PO while her girls Ella (3) and Beth, nearly two, look at the cards and wrapping paper. Two ladies do a spot of networking. Customer picks up dry-cleaned suit. Man pops in for Hob Nobs.

11am-noon Chit-chat about cricket, and how much cooking needed for sprouts. "My mum used to put them on in the middle of November," Lesley tells village blacksmith Mark. Lady Miranda Emmet of Halnaker comes in for newspapers. "The cafe is a great asset. I brought my grandchildren to lunch there in the holiday." Customers buy plants, eggs, yogurt, bacon, sweets.

1-2pm Shop assistant Vanessa Boniface starts afternoon shift. Lesley rustles up two ploughman's lunches for Dick and Rose Bilbe, housekeepers on the Goodwood estate. "My boss loves honeycomb," says Rose, "so Lesley found me some. They give such a personal service."

2-3pm A customer tells Lesley she is going to be a grandmother. Woman buys four packs of biscuits 'for the office'. Fiona Huntingford of Westerton says: "I use the shop all the time, for banking, everything. I wouldn't shop in Tescos, it is too big, too impersonal". Delivery of jams and pickles from Hurstpierpoint.

3-4pm Children from Boxgrove Primary look eagerly at sweets for afterschool treat. Bishop Luffa boys arrive on bus, and buy drinks from chiller cabinet. Customer asks if he can owe 8p 'til next time'. Customer orders a Racing Post for 6.30am the next morning.

4-5pm Ex-parish councillor Brenda Atlee says she uses the shop for 'papers, groceries, impulse buys, cards, the post office and keeping abreast of things going on." Queue of four at PO.

5-6pm Postman collect from box outside. Guy Hald buys a big tub of ice-cream. He pops in most days. Customer buys five lottery Lucky Dips. "It's 37 million," Lesley tells him. Malcolm cashes the tills up. All the plants are brought in. The last customer is bid a good weekend.

At your service

With times tough, Lesley and Malcolm have really put their thinking caps on to provide an incredible array of goods and services.

Produce: Boxgrove honey, strawberry jam with champagne and other local luxury jams and preserves from Hassocks, Sussex; honey and seed bread flour, organic virgin olive oil; homecure sausage, hand-made pies, free range eggs, fruit and veg from Runcton Farm Shop, old-fashioned sweets, cupboard groceries, fresh Selsey bread, sustainable, local charcoal, local milk ,wines and beers.

Domestic items - from firelighters and doggy bags, to eco shopping bags and stationery

Newspapers, magazines, games, puzzles, greetings cards (some made by Claire's company Girl in the Frame featuring her own photographs)

Free cash machine, photocopier, dry cleaning, drinks fridge, vending machine, mini oven.

Cafe breakfasts, lunches and snacks; takeaway rolls and sandwiches

Noticeboards, leaflets, Friday ads

Plants, flowers sold for charity

Store opening times: Mon-Fri 6.30am to 6pm, Sat 6.30am to 1pm, Sun 8am to 4pm. See the Observer this week for more on the the campaign, and how to help.

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