A store of village values

The inspirational tale of how a shop and Post Office has rekindled a community.

Jenny Kerry and Vern Tyerman laugh when I ask if they’d considered going into politics, but the question is seriously meant. We are sipping lattes in the airy café of Chale Green Stores, once a struggling village shop and Post Office. What they have created is a testament to their commitment to the whole principle of village life.

“The current government on the Island basically wants to urbanise us and make us just like the mainland,” says Vern. “There’s very little representation for villages.”

It is a little surprising to hear such commitment to Isle of Wight village life expressed in the rich and rolling tones of a USA accent. Vern was born in London but partly raised in the US, and Jenny, an Islander whose own accent betrays a life of travel, retired to the Island in 2000. Fixing on Chale, they found the village shop was ailing and threatened with closure. “We feared that with no shop this would become just another dormitory village, so we felt a great inspiration to create a viable business,” explains Jenny. The result is more than just a shop and Post Office, more in fact than the café and deli. What Vern and Jenny have created is a community centre, where people meet and chat while buying their daily necessities.

They had no financial help, and while Vern insists he didn’t want it to be any kind of charity operation, he questions the number of grant-aided farm shops which have sprung up. “Grants may have  enticed some people into the market who are not able to sustain what they started.” He wishes that instead of financial help for producers to sell their own foods, there could be more encouragement of new and different products which Chale Green, with its commitment to quality produce, could sell.

Jenny explains how it soon became clear that just restoring the shop wasn’t going to be enough. “Because we’re in a very small village we need to entice people from further afield. So that’s where the deli and the café idea sprang from.”

The possibility of the village losing the fight to save Chale School made the couple more determined to push ahead with their plans to create a centre point for the community. Their international outlook – their ‘yes we can’ approach – was crucial, for neither had a background in grocery. They experienced unforeseen difficulties with staffing and their determination to build environmentally sensitively added to the pressure.

But it is clear, as soon as you walk through the green-stained and glass door that they achieved their objective. Welcoming and elegant, its stock is both prosaic – tins of beans and calor gaz – and luxurious – preserves and discerning ingredients which wouldn’t disgrace an upmarket grocer anywhere in the country. “People walk in and say ‘wow’, which makes it all worth while,” smiles Jenny. There are fresh and frozen foods, and because it is independent they have the flexibility to cope with seasonal flux. “Sometimes villagers might bring us a load of, say, gooseberries they’ve just picked from their garden, and usually we can use them and work out a price.”

The deli and café complement the shop by using much of its produce. But the Kerry Tyermans are never content to just let things tick along, and while off-licences have closed across the Island, Vern is ready to fill the gap, not just by increasing his stock of interesting wines but by training his staff so they can offer advice to customers. Wine tastings and dinners for locals mark the difference between the tourist season and the time for Islanders.

“We strive to be at the hub of the community, a meeting place. Our local community police officer has a regular surgery here – he sits at a table, and invites people to drop in and discuss their concerns.”

Right on cue a man from South Wight Housing tells Vern he is bringing a team of environmentalists in for lunch. The building is an inspiration to many in search of alternative energy sources: its heat comes from ground-sourced recovery, it has a rainwater recovery system for the toilet flush, and its light is supplemented from light tunnels in the ceiling. They are even about to launch an incentive scheme to encourage the reuse of shopping bags.

Being the essence of village life means the shop staff must be interested in their customers, as in villages stores of old. “This is the site of the very first Post Office in Chale, and whoever was serving in the shop could listen in to all the gossip! We like our staff to take time to chat to the customers, and for the customers to browse. That’s another difference between us and a supermarket, we don’t time the throughput on the till – though we can always open up another one if necessary.”

Mention of supermarkets inevitably raises the arrival of Waitrose on the Island: Vern and Jenny are unexpectedly relaxed. “Bringing a culture of good food creates a demand for good food. We’re here, and people don’t need to cross the Island for it.”