What do you do when your local shop is put up for sale and faces being closed or turned into something the community doesn’t want?
If you’re Sally Schofield and Sue Whittington, you sell your house and put your pension into buying the shop yourself.
Although the pair have known each other since their sons were at Oatlands Infant School together, they only went into business together last year when the Corner Shop on Hookstone Road was up for sale and they feared it would lose its place at the heart of the Oatlands community.
The result is Whittfields, which not only offers newspapers, magazines and sweets as it always has done, but now also has a cafe inside.
The pair bought it in October and had to rip out most of the interior to get it to a standard they were happy with – but kept the business open all the time.
“Two weeks later we were selling sandwiches,” said Sue. “We didn’t sleep much!”
It wasn’t all plain sailing while the work was being done. At one point, a joiner installing new locks managed to jam the front door shut with the owners and two customers inside.
“We were selling newspapers out of the letterbox,” said Sally. “One of the customers came rushing back and said, ‘You aren’t being held hostage, are you?’”
The idea behind the changes at the shop was to make somewhere they would be happy to visit themselves, so there is a light and airy feel, seating is available outside and the ingredients are all high quality – even down to the butter and the ketchup. There are some individual seats and tables, but in the middle of the room is a large table with a dozen seats around it, so that anyone who calls in alone can find someone else to talk to. Sue and Sally said many people from the Oatlands area often know each other by appearance but never stop to talk, so the cafe can help to build new friendships.
Although the pair have a lot in common with each other, they have less in common with most shopkeepers: both were in fact NHS nurses until they decided to take the plunge and buy the shop. But, surprisingly, the pair still find themselves taking care of their customers, mostly by being a friendly face and a sympathetic ear when people have problems.
Sue said: “You get the best bits of nursing without having to nurse. Nothing we do here is life-threatening; nobody is going to die.”
Judging by the number of regulars popping in on a Thursday afternoon, customers are very happy with the service they receive.
As well as the shop’s usual functions, Sally and Sue want the rooms to be open to the community in the evenings. Although they can’t trade after 6pm, they want to start craft and reading groups.
And their plans also include expanding the shop into the house behind, where Sally now lives, to create more seating areas and a new customer toilet. One local artist already has her work on the walls and the pair hope more will follow, giving a talking point for customers.
The reason for their plans isn’t just profit; they want Whittfields to be at the heart of the community, as the Corner Shop was, in its own way, when their children were growing up.
“This meant a lot to us,” said Sally. “We want it to mean something to people who live here too.
“We’re becoming part of the community even in such a short time.”