THE BLOG

The Hidden Potential of the Corner Shop

10/08/2012 16:21 BST | Updated 10/10/2012 10:12 BST

When she was too frail to cross the road on her own, a neighbour used to take my aunt to the corner shop on her estate in Rotherham. There she'd sit for an hour or two and chat to friends and neighbours as they popped in for newspapers or groceries.

As a result my aunt had a good idea of what was going on in her community. She wouldn't have thought of it like that - she was never a local activist or Neighbourhood Watch member - but she would have known who to go to if someone needed help or advice, or just to borrow a lawnmower.

A short while ago I was chatting to a shopkeeper in a road in west Hull, a street blighted by absentee landlords where every fourth or fifth house is boarded up or derelict. Teenagers patrol the area with horse-drawn trailers seeking scrap metal. It's an area where people end up when they have nowhere else to go.

In a road where people tend not to stay long, the local shop is an anchor. The manager knows what goes on, and that knowledge helps to keep the tattered social fabric together.

The shop is owned by a local charity, Giroscope, which is helping to tackle the blight of empty homes, doing them up with volunteer labour and letting them out at affordable rents. By keeping the shop going Giroscope helps to give people a reason to stay.

In Sheepridge, Huddersfield, a local regeneration charity has taken this to a different scale. Deighton and Brackenhall Initiative have invested in a parade of shops, demolishing a burned-out Co-op and cleaning up sites that were used for drug dealing.

They bought up a closed-down bakery and reopened it as a sandwich shop, providing jobs and training for local people. They have now opened a launderette in the same parade, again employing local people.

In places on the margins, where people live difficult lives, local shops can help to stabilise and support a community in ways that council officers and social workers often can't. They manage it because they're there, not just when they can fit it in but all the time.

The humble corner shop may not be much to look at, but it's at the centre of local social networks - usually for good, sometimes for ill. Reinventing the corner shop should be a process of building on those networks and adding new ones to them that support people who are investing their lives in the locality.

So perhaps every corner shop should have a couple of chairs where the local elders can sit and gossip or watch the world go by. These people are as much the eyes and ears of the community as the neighbourhood police officer.

Such barely noticeable initiatives could be the start of something much bigger. The corner shop could be an access point for local services, a place where people can find out where to get their rubbish recycled or advice on mental health issues, a billboard for local clubs and associations and a mini-library where local people can exchange books, films or swap garden tools.

In an environment where 'digital by default' is the government's preferred modus operandi, removing human contact in the name of efficiency and direct access, the corner shop could be the place where the human links are restored.

Trust, after all, is something that grows through contacts with people, not via a website or call centre. The corner shop should be a hub where networks of trust and recommendation grow, where newcomers to an area can pick up a welcome pack and learn where to find reliable traders, and a meeting point for people who want to improve and invest in their neighbourhood.

What could help to spark such a reinvention? It need not be anything big. A couple of chairs for local pensioners might just get the ball rolling.

• This post was originally written as part of a larger feature published by New Start magazine.