Page last updated at 09:41 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 10:41 UK

Communities saving cherished stores

By James Alexander
BBC News

Busy Bee toy shop
Tradesmen volunteered their skills to prepare the toy shop for re-opening

Many small independent stores have fallen victim to the economic downturn, but a growing number of communities are fighting back by banding together to buy and run cherished shops threatened with closure.

There are more than 200 community owned outlets across the UK - most in rural areas where villagers have stumped up their own money to save local grocers, pubs and post offices.

But now the phenomenon is spreading to towns and cities and is being hailed as a possible way to breathe new life into Britain's beleaguered high streets.

The latest venture is the country's first community owned toy store, Busy Bee, in Chorlton, Greater Manchester.

Residents took action when the previous owner retired earlier this year and the shop shut down.

It seemed to spell the end for a store that had delighted local children for 25 years.


"It was just magical," reflects Rachel Muter, a part-time teacher and mother-of-three.

"I can still remember being so excited as a little girl seeing all the toys packed from floor to ceiling. And then going with my own kids years later and seeing them get excited in just the same way."

Determined to preserve this excitement for future generations of youngsters, Rachel set up a community co-operative to resurrect the company.

Within weeks, more than 100 parents had joined.

People chipped in what they could. Some as little as £250. Others as much as £2,000. In total, they raised £32,000.

Two girls in toy shop
One 12-year-old girl invested her 80 savings to help save the toy shop

Regardless of the size of their investment, each member has an equal say and will receive a small dividend after two years - although the emphasis is on community benefit rather than chalking up big profits.

A professional manager is paid to choose the toys and run the shop, but much of the work is done by volunteers.

Almost everyone involved in getting the place ready to reopen has given their time for free - electricians, painters, plasterers.

And, despite the gloomy financial climate, the members are confident it will be a hit.

On the whole, community co-operatives have an excellent success rate, according to Helen Seymour of Co-operatives UK, the national organisation that supports these kinds of enterprises.

She cannot think of any that have gone bust.

"People see their shops shutting and think there's nothing they can do about it," she says.

"Actually there's lots of help and advice available if people want to get involved and make a difference."

'It's brilliant'

She argues it is a mistake to think there is not the same sense of community-spirit in urban areas as rural ones.

But Ms Seymour warns that there must be a sound business model.

"Community involvement shouldn't be seen as a sticking plaster to prop up a business that simply isn't viable - it has to be properly thought through."

Back at the shop, the final preparations are being made ahead of this weekend's grand reopening.

Boxes of toys are being unpacked and neatly arranged - everything from kites and spinning tops to hoola-hoops and yo-yos.

Twelve-year-old Lucinda Chamberlain is busy pondering her first purchase, checking out various brightly coloured pencils and bouncy balls.

She has been allowed in early for a sneak preview - a reward for putting her entire savings of £80 towards her family's contribution to this retail revolution.

"It's brilliant," Lucinda grins. "The money I spend in here, I might get some of it back!"

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