'You can't put a price on our experience'
Cotherstone’s only shop closed on Saturday. We caught up with Adam and Karolina Alston who had taken over with high hopes
What reaction have you had from villagers since you announced the news?
Mostly supportive and understanding. Some were caught unawares by the sudden timing of the decision, and of course most regular customers are sorry to see the shop go.
How difficult was it to make the decision to sell up and close given how hard you have tried to make the business viable?
It wasn’t an easy decision at all – we actually didn’t sleep Friday night. Aside from the huge financial investment we’ve made, we’ve invested a large amount of our time into it over the years, and of course the reason we brought it in the first place was to try to save it from closure, so to be closing it now is a massive disappointment.
Is a shop and post office viable for Cotherstone? If so, what needs to happen to make it work?
As a commercial enterprise, I don’t think a village shop is viable anymore, which was why we suggested the community venture, run by the community, for the community. The bulk of trade now is newspapers rather than convenience and grocery items. Margins on papers have been cut year on year. Coupled with carriage charges going up and up, it leaves little profit.
What do you think the future is for village shops?
You only have to look in the national papers to see how many large high street shops are going under. If they’re struggling what chance do small independent retailers stand? Shopping habits are changing, with a big shift towards home delivery or click and collect. Village shops don’t have the infrastructure for e-commerce and it’s something thats a considerable investment to set up.
How disappointing was it that the community group didn’t take up your offer and buy the shop at a discount?
It was disappointing – everything was set up ready to go. The house portion could have been rented for extra income. All they would have had to do is open the door and go. As far as I’m aware a community shop in some form is still on the parish agenda. I hope for the sake of the village it’s pursued further, and given that we’re staying local, we’d be only too happy to provide any advice they may want.
What do you think of the suggestion of combining a community shop with a cafe at a refurbished Methodist hall?
In principle a shop/cafe could work, and would be a great social hub for older villagers. But I think before anymore time is devoted to the chapel, a structural survey needs to conducted. I think it’s going to cost an awful lot more than people assume to get it to a reasonable standard and I’d be concerned it could turn into a blackhole for money if it’s not carefully considered.
How would you describe your time running the shop?
It’s been an interesting journey. You come across all sorts of different characters covering just about every aspect of society. I think the most important memory to take away is the decency of people in Teesdale. We were made to feel welcome from day one. When we made mistakes in the early days people helped us. If we undercharged them, they’d be back to tell us. I don’t think there are many places in England where a shop can say that. We’ve made some good friends over the years, and sadly lost some too.
If you had the chance, would you do it all again?
Would we do it again today? No. Would we do it again when we did, yes. We’ve made a massive financial loss in taking over the shop, but we’ve made some great friends, we kept the shop going for a bit longer for those who needed it, we’ve helped people when they’ve been in trouble, and we’ve been able to support those who have been unable to get out during the recent pandemic. You can’t put a price on those things, and that’s what’s made it worth while.
What are your plans now?
We’re only moving a few miles up the road and hope to rear a small amount of animals for a more self-sufficient lifestyle.
Eventually we hope to welcome the public for educational visits and grow fruit, veg and plants for sale. Having achieved her diploma in horticulture, Karolina will be further developing her gardening business, Bluebells Garden Services which started in 2018, but now hopes to be able to do it full time. On a personal note, we’d both like to sincerely thank everyone who has supported us over the last four years, we’ll miss being in the shop, but look forward to the next challenge. To the wider Teesdale community, if you’re lucky enough to have a village shop, use it. It’s not just them you support – we stocked close to 25 local suppliers who all benefited from your custom to us.