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DORV Centre Barmen. Photo (CC): DORV UG

Teacher Heinz Frey halted the demise of “mom-and-pop stores” by creating new village centres – first in his home village, then in other communities and urban districts.

Heinz Frey saves villages. The cheerful Rhinelander – 59 years old, with frank eyes between grey eyebrows and a grey beard – uses a novel concept of a “mom-and-pop store with a Computer” to make sure that villages and urban districts across the nation do not lose their gathering places and thus their character. He called his initiative DORV – an acronym that evokes the German word for village, “Dorf”, and that could be rendered in English as STOR: Shopping and Transactions. One-Stop. Right at home.

Frey’s home village of Barmen sits between Jülich and Aachen in the Westernmost corner of Germany, and things were looking quite bleak there. When large supermarkets and discount grocery stores popped up around the village in the 1980s and 1990s, local stores fell like dominoes: eight grocery stores, a bakery, two butcheries, the local bank, and several restaurants. The 1,300 or so villagers had no more gathering spots, nowhere to stop for a chat. If you wanted to buy bread rolls, you had to drive to neighbouring towns. “How is that supposed to work once the elderly can’t drive anymore?” Frey wondered.

So Frey, who is a teacher and also serves on the village council as an Independent, took action. He sat down with a lawyer and a tax advisor, looked at village stores in other communities, ran some calculations. Doing his research, he also learned that about 8 million people nationwide no longer had a grocery store within walking distance, because the large commercial chains close down their subsidiaries in any area that serves fewer than 4,000 potential customers. In 2003, the DORV association was launched, soon reached a membership of 150, and scraped together 100,000 euros in seed capital via local crowd-funding. In 2004, DORV opened on the vacant premises of the former bank in Barmen, offering services and one-stop shopping. Meanwhile, the limited liability corporation makes a small profit and is paying back the crowd-funded loans.

Preserving happiness and values

Two full-time and five part-time employees are selling mainly “daily fresh produce” from a local farmer and chatting with the customers, young or old. There is a café with an Internet connection, a fax and a copying machine, and an ATM. You can buy insurance plans and travel deals, register your car, or put ads in the newspaper. “We are spiralling upwards”, Frey reports happily. He brought both a dentist and a primary care physician into the DORV centre, as well. In 2009, DORV won the Robert Jungk Prize of the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia; other awards followed.

In his experience, a DORV store should rest on five pillars: groceries, services, social-medical care, cultural events, and communication. One of his favourite terms is Nahv@rsorge – which can mean “local care” in the sense of both provision and precaution: taking care to prevent the dying of villages, caring for the locals, ensuring that the elderly can stay in their homes and their familiar social surroundings as long as possible rather than ending up in nursing homes. “It makes them happy, and saves us a lot of money as a Society”, the 59-year-old says, with conviction. The DORV concept of local amenities offers far more than groceries. It maintains quality of life in the face of demographic change and also preserves real estate values and infrastructures.

Right at home – all around the country

It is not surprising that DORV has been inundated with inquiries. This inspired Frey, who is currently taking a sabbatical from teaching as a fellow of the Ashoka Organisation, a network promoting social enterprises, to start his own consulting business. He is now opening regional offices all around the country. His team operates in over 50 villages. In 2007, the second DORV store opened in Pannesheide near Aachen, modelled after the one in Barmen. The most recent new DORV store opened in November of 2013 in Eisental in Baden – with a lunch café and a shopping service. Other DORV stores are being launched in 2014 in Seddin, Brandenburg, and in Grambow, Mecklenburg. “You can’t do this without a feasibility study”, Frey knows, because local circumstances vary greatly. “Each DORV store needs to be economically viable. That means that it has to be custom-made to meet the needs of the locals.”

In the meantime, DORV has even expanded its activities to urban districts and train stations. “They have very similar structural problems, after all,” says Frey. At the heart of the county seat of Düren, there now is a district DORV called QuartVier, while the train station of Stollberg is preparing to open a SerVicePoint. The capital V in both cases represents the word Versorgung: provision. The national association of this regional movement and its online platform interconnect all village store initiatives in Germany and the activists who champion local amenities.

Heinz Frey, who has been awarded the Federal Cross of Merit, is convinced that all this cannot be done without getting citizens and residents actively involved. This principle is also laid down in a position paper by the regional movement: “If the organizers are unable to win the community’s support, a new centre for local amenities doesn’t stand a chance to survive in the long term. It will most likely shut down once its start-up funding runs out.” To prevent this, DORV and the regional movement always strive to work with the villagers to create a new “village centre”: a multi-functional centre that combines shopping and a café with Internet, commercial, and domestic services of all kinds, all in one place. Even funeral services, if the need exists. So that at some point, people can die in peace, but their villages live on.