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Cornerstones of community: the unyielding spirit of British corner shops

The British corner shop, a staple in the UK’s urban landscape, has demonstrated an uncanny ability to adapt and thrive amidst a myriad of challenges. From the rise of online shopping and major supermarket chains to the current cost-of-living crisis, these small, often family-run stores have remained resilient. They’ve become symbols of community cohesion, offering not just goods but a personal touch that large retailers can’t replicate.

‘London’s coolest corner shop’ … from left, Mayank, Anju, Priyesh, Alpesh and Neelam, outside Londis N16. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

One shining example is Londis N16, nestled in east London. Opened in 1979 by immigrants Karsan and Mahalaxmi Patel, it’s now managed by the subsequent two generations of the Patel family. From the outside, it appears to be a typical convenience store. However, its selection of homemade Gujarati food, prepared by Anju Patel, has turned it into a local attraction. The store’s Instagram profile, managed by Priyesh Patel, keeps its 7,000 followers updated on the menu and events like the “supper club.”

Despite the ominous forecasts of decline due to the proliferation of online shopping and the expansion of supermarket chains, corner shops have defied the odds. Their sales even surged during the Covid-19 pandemic, becoming unsung heroes when supermarkets ran out of essentials. However, the current cost-of-living crisis, marked by rising inflation and energy prices, poses a new challenge. Can these bastions of community and convenience weather this storm?

James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), remains optimistic. He cites the sector’s consistent growth and adaptability as reasons for its resilience. The number of convenience stores in the UK increased by almost 1,000 over the last year, capturing a larger share of food sales and offering customers a way to limit overspending and reduce waste.

Quality and variety are areas where these stores excel. They often stock locally sourced, fresh produce and offer a range of premium and international products. McCall’s Organics in Manchester, serving customers for 128 years, exemplifies this trend. It offers a diverse array of quality goods, adapting its offerings based on customer requests and seasonal availability.

However, the future of the British corner shop is not without its clouds. Rising energy costs, a consequence of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, are a significant concern. The UK government had provided an energy support scheme for small businesses, but with its reduction, stores face increased operational costs. Urban gentrification and development pressures also loom large, threatening the existence of these community hubs.

Yet, the corner shop’s legacy of fostering community and cultural exchange remains unblemished. Babita Sharma, a journalist and author who grew up above a corner shop, attests to their role in bringing diverse communities together. They’ve been quick to adapt to community needs, a quality that has enabled their survival through various societal and economic upheavals.

The future of these stores may well hinge on the continuation of immigration cycles in Britain, as observed by Sharma. Each wave of immigrants has often found employment and business opportunities in corner shops. However, the post-Brexit era could alter this dynamic.

As the Patel family at Londis N16 and other shop owners across the UK navigate these challenges, the corner shop’s role as a community anchor remains indisputable. They are not just stores but integral threads in the fabric of British society, offering a blend of commerce, community, and cultural exchange. Amidst the uncertainties, one thing is clear - the British corner shop, like a cat with nine lives, has an uncanny knack for adaptation and resilience. Whether this will suffice in the face of current and future challenges is a story yet to be told, but their legacy of resilience and community service is well cemented.


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