During a recent break in the Lake District it was uplifting to realise that beyond the world of politicians’ barefaced lies and the devious claims made by big business, sadly now part of everyday life in the UK, some people still manage to believe that everyone is basically honest.
My Damascene moment came while wandering round the village of Coniston. It was one of this hot summer’s most scorching afternoons. Coniston Water and its surrounding fells and forests shimmered with heat haze, and as I walked along Yewdale Road an open door into the shaded, cooling atmosphere of a Victorian slatestone building called the Coniston Institute was irresistible.
I found myself in something called the Honest Shop. Glancing around, I saw everything from books, pottery and knitwear to boxes of fruit and vegetables, jars of jams and chutneys, buckets of cut flowers, trays of potted plants and plates of mouthwatering cakes and biscuits. It had the atmosphere of a Women’s Institute bazaar except there was no sign of anyone serving customers.
That turned out to be the point. Coniston’s Honest Shop has a one-word business plan – trust. When the community-run project was set up six years ago those behind it decided to have faith in people’s innate goodness and trust them to leave the money, making for a highly unusual shopping experience. There are no staff, no CCTV cameras or hovering security guard, and no disembodied voice saying “unexpected item in bagging area”.
This is how it works. Everything on sale has a small label with a short code, and to make a purchase customers write it down in a register along with a one or two-word description of the item bought and amount paid, then put the cash into a tin. Transaction complete.
For the grand total of £1.40 I bought courgettes and runner beans fresh from a village garden but I could also have purchased homegrown tomatoes and French beans, or home-made Bakewell tart, lemon drizzle cake, gingerbread or local handiwork like knitted hats, crochet blankets and slate coasters. “There are no road miles, air miles or fake smiles,” says a notice on the wall. The shop takes just 20 per cent of the purchase price for overheads and the producers get the rest.
The shop was packed. “It’s so nice to be trusted,” a customer told me as she queued to buy some sweet peas and a jar of strawberry jam, adding that she couldn’t imagine this happening at shops near her home in Bolton.
Sadly, trust is a rare commodity everywhere. With good reason: the British Retail Consortium says shoplifting costs shops £500 million a year and in the past 12 months there were 378,725 incidents. Old-fashioned values may still apply in the Lakes but in most people’s lives trust is rarely encountered.
When I returned home I was soon brought back down to earth. On a day trip to York I walked along one of the busiest streets, and as I turned to enter a shop I found a man built like a nightclub bouncer standing in my way. He wore an ear piece and little boom microphone, looked me up and down and asked if I wanted to go inside.
I turned round and walked away, sorely missing Coniston’s wonderful Honest Shop.