Rufforth has an early Christmas present as residents can finally shop again in their own village store. MATT CLARK meets the man who has made this happen.

CHARLES Kendall has a soft spot for jelly babies; he’s partial to the occasional midget gem and, if pushed, Charles, 88, can be persuaded to find room for a sherbet dab.

As a lad, his childhood sweetheart used to bring him goodies from her parents’ shop across the road from Rufforth School. But since the last village store closed, today’s youngsters had to wait for a sugar fix until their mums and dads took them into York.

Now they don’t have to, because after years spent unloved, Charles’ old school has been restored. Now it’s the village store and tea room, stocking everything from fruit and veg to wine and spirits.

And best of all it has a Victorian sweet shop laden with all the goodies Charles remembers from his childhood.

“I was lucky, Muriel didn’t bring sweets in for anyone else and I was willing to accept anything,” he says. “I think she must have been fond of me.”

So fond, she later agreed to marry him.

Charles says he is delighted the school he attended in the 1920s is now Rufforth’s store. For him it may be a trip down memory lane, but this is no exercise in nostalgia; owner Frank Di Lorenzo means business.

“I saw an opportunity here with three villages and no amenities,” he says. “I’ve lived here for 25 years and wanted to provide a focal point for the community; somewhere people can call in for the paper and have a chat over coffee.”

Frank has many years retail experience and says his plan is to run a mini-department store.

And it is helping the local economy. Five staff work at the store, women in the village bake cakes to sell there, all made with local eggs, and the village allotment supplies the vegetables. “We’re bringing work back to the village and a community hub which has been missing for too long,” says Frank.

The school’s grand Victorian setting has been refitted with a classic oak counter and shelves that are now piled high with daily essentials. In the corner a large oven beckons with mouth watering smell of freshly baked bread, while the tempting aroma of espresso wafts in from the tea room.

There you will find home made pastries and, being Italian, Frank even serves traditional pasta.

It’s been a hectic few months getting everything ready, with plenty of midnight oil burned. Family help was enlisted, including Frank’s sister, Maria, who flew in from Naples to help with the finishing touches.

But the store is now open and Frank says his aim is to bring back the old ethos of shopping, when people had time for a chat.

One talking point is a display of local history. He has jotted down anecdotes from former pupils, including Charles, and says the whole village has played its part, from parish councillors to local residents.

Many have donated items, including one woman who gave some lace pinnies for the tea room staff to wear.

The headmaster’s office is another nod to the past. William Birdsall may have been rather strict, but Frank says the school pulled the village together, something he hopes it will do again in its new guise.

But he says the secret to keeping a village store viable is to offer people what they really want.

“The idea is a grocery store that stocks the daily basics and we stay open until 7pm so people can still shop here after work.”

It’s a sobering thought that around 500 village stores close every year, even though they save on car journeys and provide badly needed services, especially to the elderly.

And Frank says his shop is proof they don’t need to.

“The most important thing is support from the community. If 200 people are buying their milk and papers from you, that will keep you ticking over.

“It saddens me that village shops are closing. When you run out of milk and have to get in the car and drive miles to the nearest store; you end up paying £3 for it because of the petrol cost. That can’t be right.”

Frank may not be able to compete on price with the supermarkets, but take fuel savings into account and his loaves of bread seem much more of a bargain.

Charles says he is delighted to see the new store open; it’s a chance to catch up on the weekly gossip and maybe pick up the occasional bag of midget gems.

And for Frank, it’s a dream come true. “I always wanted my own business and this is the last ambition realised before I retire.”

But with all those village stores out there in need of help, you get the feeling he might still have a few irons yet to put in the fire.

What do villagers think?

Peter Wright and Pauline McSweeney have called in for afternoon tea and a catch-up.

Peter lives opposite and says the new store is a bonus especially for elderly residents who until now had to catch the bus to Acomb. “It’s wonderful, this has always been a real village but we haven’t had a focal point before where everyone can meet,” he says.

“My wife was involved with the village plan and, when asked, children said they wanted somewhere in the village to buy sweets. Now they have got their wish.”

Pauline says a lot of them live in the Avenue, so they can come in the back way; they don’t even need to cross the road.

“It will be lovely for them; they’re not used to buying sweets from a jar. For us it will be nostalgia, for them it will be a novelty.”

• The Old School Rufforth village store and tea room, Wetherby Road, Rufforth.