A new start after 60: ‘I was a banker who finally took a risk – and bought the village shop’

Ruth Crocket spent little time at home when she made a sudden decision to buy her local post office. Just as she lost her job, it began losing money. But then came the pandemic …

Ruth Crocket is too modest to say life was busy when she worked as a risk modeller for a leading bank. “Not busy, but occupied,” she says. Always dashing for a train, she was rarely in her village of Hitcham, Suffolk. But occasionally she popped into the village’s only shop for fresh bread rolls, which were very, very good.

One day, she heard the shop was to be sold, possibly converted into housing. The village pub had recently gone the same way. “It seemed impossible not to do something,” she says. “So I did it. I bought the business.” Six years on, at the age of 66, she is postmistress and owner of Hitcham Post Office and Stores.

When Crocket took over, she shifted things around and made the space feel more inviting. A community grant paid for new floors and counters. After a few months, she went part-time at HSBC. But after a year, the shop ran up a sizeable five-figure loss.

“I thought I could do it without completely overwhelming or bankrupting myself,” she says. “Even if it wouldn’t make a profit, at least it should be able to run itself.” But seven months after buying the business, Crocket was made redundant by the bank. “I was terrified,” she says. “I felt I’d got on to a tiger and I couldn’t work out how to get off. I was living through my reserves.”

Buying the shop might seem like a curious move for a risk modeller. But, Crocket says: “If you are very short-term protective about things, often that’s a long-term high risk.” Besides, she adds, “I haven’t got children. My parents had gone.” Her late brother Martin, who had schizophrenia, was then “fairly stable”, and her partner is of an independent bent. “I didn’t have that much to lose I suppose I could risk it.”

Ruth Crocket, Higham
Ruth Crocket … ‘It was what was needed. And it was right there in front of me.’ Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

As an economist, Crocket says, she is fascinated by her experience. But she admits that her actions “would have looked very out of character to anyone who knew me”. So why did she feel the urge to step in?

At Oxford University, Crocket studied philosophy, politics and economics. “What I should have done is join an aid organisation or something,” she says, to give “on-the-ground help. Doing-things-for-people sort of stuff … I suppose the family intention was in that direction.”

Her father, a psychiatrist, “was very interested in the theory of therapeutic communities and how to make organisations or groups of people work together to be effective”. Crocket applied for positions as an economist with international aid organisations, “but it wasn’t a path that opened up to me”. In any case, her brother was severely ill. “That really dominated a lot of my time … I didn’t feel I could go away,” she says.

Perhaps the shop felt like a kind of hyper-local aid. “It was what was needed,” she says. “And it was right there in front of me.”

When the pandemic hit, the shop, which had run at a decreasing loss for five years, came into its own, and became a hub for a volunteer delivery network. Crocket bought huge sacks of flour, sugar and rice, which she and her colleagues doled out by the kilo. Now the shop is not only breaking even, she says, but “a bit over”.

Crocket always “had visions” of things working. She stocks local bread and meats, homemade cakes and a deli range, and has made a start on click-and-collect. She is pondering serving coffee. She has nine years on the lease, still enjoys “the sheer fun of ‘playing shops’” and has “more ideas to try out”.

“The shop has changed everything, really,” she says. “I know a lot of people in the village, which I didn’t before. It’s really educated me in the economics of an on-the-ground business.” She has wonderful colleagues. And as a reader for the local church, she feels there’s a lot of resonance in “the idea that, whatever happens with people’s souls, it doesn’t do any harm to feed their bodies”.

The shop is “a touchstone, a connection into reality at a very practical, hands-on level … I just wish I had been a bit younger when I did something like this. But then I probably wouldn’t have done it, would I?”


Paula Cocozza

The GuardianTramp

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