THE owners of a Barnstaple corner shop that sold alcohol to under 18s have decided not to renew their licence. Fort Stores owners Debbie and Bill Hartnoll served two under-aged volunteers in separate Devon County Council Trading Standards operations in Ju

THE owners of a Barnstaple corner shop that sold alcohol to under 18s have decided not to renew their licence.

Fort Stores owners Debbie and Bill Hartnoll served two under-aged volunteers in separate Devon County Council Trading Standards operations in June and March this year.

The premises licence for the shop was set to be reviewed by North Devon Councillors at a licensing committee meeting tomorrow (Thursday). But despite more than 100 letters of support, including one from shadow Devon County Council leader Brian Greenslade, owners Debbie and Bill Hartnoll have now decided not to renew their licence and stopped selling alcohol as of Sunday.

"We're devastated but we're in a no-win situation," Debbie told the Gazette.

"I've been here 20 years and Bill has been here for seven years and this is the first time we've ever had any trouble like this. I've never even had a speeding ticket.

"Our hands are tied though because it'll take us an awful lot of sales to pay for a solicitor to represent us and even then there are no guarantees that we'll be able to retain our licence.

"We've thought long and hard about what to do and we've decided to hand in our licence. I wish I could fight it but we've had enough; we're genuine, honest people and we know we've made a mistake but the stress of it all has made me quite ill."

Husband Bill said the alcohol sales made up around 40 per cent of the shop's takings and he feared for the continued existence of the store, a backbone of the community for more than 60 years.

"Times are hard for small businesses and this is going to knock us for six," he said.

"We can only go on while it's financially viable. I'm very worried about what's going to happen because it's my livelihood.

"I'm also worried for the people who use this shop on a regular basis, especially older members of the community who rely on us and quite often, just pop in for a chat. We try to help them out where we can; I'm currently mending one regular customer's mobility scooter and I've lost count of the amount of television sets I've re-tuned.

"I know I'm partly to blame because I served an under-aged lad but we feel a bit like the system has let us down. We thought we'd get more help from the authorities. We've sat our licensing courses but we rang the college and found there was no further training available to us after that.

"The council wants to make an example of us because they know there's no way out for us and that they won't have a fight on their hands. They wouldn't do this to the big boys."

Bill said that although trouble at the shop was rare, there had been incidents in the past where he and his wife had been threatened after refusing to serve young people.

"We know nine out of 10 of our customers and this is not a troubled shop or a troubled area, but in the past we have had problems," he said.

"I've had shelves smashed up when I refused to serve a customer who was unable to prove his age," said Bill.

"Four years ago, I was jumped on outside the shop by one lad and his mates after I refused to serve him. Another time, one youth whom I refused to serve said he was going to smash the windows in - I phoned the police to tell them but the next morning they'd been smashed."

The couple thanked local people for their support during the last six months "The community around here is fantastic," said Debbie.

"We've had fantastic support through all this; you couldn't ask for a better bunch of people."

In June, the Gazette reported how a third (six out of 18) of off-licences in Barnstaple and Torrington sold alcohol to under 18s during joint test purchasing operations by Devon County Council Trading Standards Service and Devon and Cornwall Police.

In October, nearly half (six out of 14) of pubs and clubs in Barnstaple and Braunton sold to minors in a similar operation.