Part of the community
There would have been a time when the local shop was, quite literally, indispensible for a community. Transport was more difficult, more time consuming and expensive, and the shop catered for the needs of all those who lived nearby. The idea of travelling elsewhere – to Lerwick – to buy food on a regular basis, would have been barely conceivable.
Today, Shetlanders have greater freedom and greater wealth than ever before. And many now choose to make use of this increased freedom and wealth by driving into town to get their supplies. Others buy in town simply out of convenience; that is where they work, so that is where they shop. As a result, many local stores are suffering.
But as Marsali Taylor’s article this month shows, supermarkets are not always the cheapest places to buy goods. Their reputation for providing the best value is not always borne out in reality. It pays, therefore, to shop around.
And of course, there is more to this story than money. Just as local shops provide more of a service to their communities than simply selling cornflakes, bread and milk, so our allegiance to them should not be based solely on the price of their goods.
A shop is a focus point within a community, a meeting place where news is exchanged, and where a whole web of connections can potentially be centred for the people who live around it. They help to prevent communities from becoming merely suburbs – soulless satellites of the nearest town. Their loss can be extremely damaging.
Likewise the post office, which is far more than a purveyor of stamps and pensions. Last month, Levenwick post office, like so many others all around Britain, was permanently closed. A vigorous local campaign to save it had been unsuccessful, and James and Ian Irvine, who ran the branch, were finally forced to close up.
The loss of the post office could have a significant impact within the local area. People will be forced t o go further afield to access the vital services the branch provided, and that in turn may damage the viability of Midway Stores, where the post office had been located. If the shop was to close, other amenities such as the local campsite and community hall may also be affected. In Westminster, Orkney and Shetland MP Alastair Carmichael spoke of the “domino effect” that such closures can set in motion.
This is not just a problem for Shetland. All over the country the influence of supermarkets is being felt at the counters of local shops, and all over the country post offices are closing as the government tries to cut the subsidy that is required to keep them running. This, we are told, is unpreventable; this is progress.
From the perspective of an orthodox free-marketeer, that is unquestionably the case. If the small shops cannot offer the same low prices as the supermarkets, let them close. If the post offices cannot survive without subsidy, let them close.
But that is a cold and ruthless way to view these matters. For surely the lives of our small communities are worth protecting; surely their needs ought to be given priority over the inflexible doctrines of our governments in London and Brussels. For once they are gone, they are gone.
As individuals we may have little power to prevent the ongoing closure of post offices around Britain. Petitions and letters, it seems, are not going to work. But we are certainly not powerless when it comes to the choice of where we shop.
It has been said a thousand times before, but it is always worth saying again: local stores need to be supported. They cannot survive unless we spend our money there; and that means more than buying a pint of milk once a week!
Those who grumble most loudly about the price of vegetables in their local shop will no doubt be those who are first to complain when that shop is gone. But by then it will be too late. Perhaps the current high fuel prices will be enough to make people reconsider their shopping trips to town. If it is, then that is welcome. I hope that it is also enough to remind people that, while the lure of the supermarkets may be great, their local shop is still an indispensible part of their community.