By Katrina ffiske
The award-winning Chalke Valley Stores is celebrating its fifth birthday. I went to meet manager Ellen Smets (pictured below), we sat in the Coffee Shop behind the main shop, where there is a buzz of chit-chat, cyclists arriving for coffee and cake, and a family in the corner having breakfast.
Background to the Chalke Valley Stores
The Coffee Shop is in a beautiful United Reformed Church (URC), situated right next door to the Queens Head Pub. I was surprised to learn that the church is still in use. When services are scheduled, the tables are put back, the chairs lined up and the services held. The church is happy to share its space.
“From the day the store opened, it has been a major success story,” Ellen said. “It has grown into an essential hub for villages from Stratford Tony to Berwick St John. Put simply, the Chalke Valley Stores is a shop, coffee shop and post office, but actually there is much more to the store,” Ellen stressed.
I am impressed by the smart logo on the green apron Ellen and all the volunteers wear. “This took quite a lot of organising with the committee,” Ellen laughed, “but we are all very pleased with the result.”
Where did the idea of the stores come from? “The concept of Chalke Valley Stores was born out of a need for a community facility, after the shop that was once butcher, post office and store all in one, had closed. There was a meeting of minds within the village of Broad Chalk,” Ellen said.
“Those with appropriate business skills, and volunteers came together. Funds were raised by offering shares in the business and with a lot of hard work and planning, the Chalke Valley Stores was born. Amazingly we exceeded expectations, after our first year of trading, we were at our third-year prospective results.”
Supporting local community and businesses
“The start-up committee set a few ground rules at the beginning,” Ellen said. “They did not want a posh shop; the shop was to be there for everyone. It was important to sell local food, support local businesses and sell organic food. Of course the food will be more expensive as the store is small, but customers come in as it is a pleasure to shop here, they are supporting a local cause and you can park right outside.”
We are interrupted by a lady who is carrying a large tray of soup and wondering where she should put it. I’m introduced to Jenny the “expert soup lady” and Ellen points her toward the fridge.
In these days of food regulations, it was nice to see that people can deliver their homemade soup, jam and cakes to sell.
“We have eight people registered to cook for the stores, but it’s a lot of paperwork and they have to list the ingredients. So far, no one has had a visit from the inspectors!
“One of the main features is to have local food: we sell local bread, beer, vegetable, meat, chocolates and much more. We have locally- made salad dressing alongside Hellman’s Salad Cream.”
I noticed there was a wide variety of greetings cards in the shop. “I have a lot of local artists come to see me to sell their cards, and we like to support as many of them as possible.”
Ellen is passionate about what she does. “One of the most important aspects of the HUB is the social aspect. It is a wonderful place for people to meet each other. We actually changed the layout of the tables as we discovered that people enjoyed meeting each other. We installed a round table in the Coffee Shop and this helped strangers to socialise and enjoy new company.
“It has given me great pleasure to see people making friends. It is a wonderful place for those who live on their own, they can meet friends and meet new people. The HUB is a designated as a ‘SAFE PLACE’ – if anyone feels vulnerable they can come here and know they will be looked after. We are also a calling point for everyone. If a dog goes missing, we let everyone know, people drop off their keys for friends to collect.”
Importance of volunteers
Ellen’s work seems to cover everything, organising the volunteers, overseeing the purchasing of food, balancing the books at the end of the month. Ellen oozes enthusiasm and warmth, and she works alongside three part-time staff, Judith, Sharon and Sarah, but it is the volunteers that keep the HUB going.
“The volunteers really are the most crucial part of running the HUB. I cannot stress enough how important they are. Everyone does have a sense of duty towards the store, and they all want it to work and are happy to put the time in. We are so lucky altogether we have 61 volunteers.
“Many of the volunteers are retired, so working at the HUB gives them a worthwhile occupation and regular connection with the community. Organising the volunteers is possibly the most challenging part of the job, but also the best part.
“We also support young people. We have 14 and 15 year-olds coming to help us for work experience as part of their Duke of Edinburgh Award. Each week we have Mums and Toddlers Story Time, Language Conversations groups, Monthly Coffee Mornings. Oh, and there is the Post Office.”
While chatting, the Post Office was forgotten, it is a crucial part of the Stores services. Fordingbridge PO runs a tiny post office in the corner of the shop. “It is a fantastic service to have in a small village.” Ellen has to go, a volunteer needs assistance with the till.
If you saw the Chalke Valley Stores on television, you wouldn’t quite believe it was real, but this wonderful store is there, and has been running successfully for five years.
Good luck to Ellen, the committee behind her and all the volunteers for the next five years.
Shop: weekdays 8.30am -6pm (4pm Saturdays).
Coffee Shop: weekdays 9am-4.30pm (until 4pm on Saturdays for breakfast, lunch, tea and meetings).