Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Last independent standing?

Recently, the Altamont Enterprise published a piece on the state of economic vitality in the Hilltowns. We weren't surprised by the topic - Marcello has appeared at Sustainable Hilltowns meetings, and generously suggested he join me at the store for a further conversation. I think I must not have been at my most inspiring...

Some of my customers thought the article was a bit dark, but I thought it wasn't inaccurate, just hit a bit close to home for a lot of us. (Incidentally, a thank you to Rich Ronconi, who responded a particularly inane letter in the Enterprise, essentially suggesting that the time for general stores has come and gone.)

It's been a long, cold winter. And we are ready for spring. I responded to the Altamont Enterprise article, and Sustainable Hilltowns will be meeting again on Friday. I thought I'd use this forum to attempt to provoke a few of you into a greater discussion, though.

This bit, from Marcello's article, really annoyed me:

"Rocco Ferraro, executive director for the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, said how much of a bargain a customer perceives is at least as important as customer service.
“Is there a critical mass of activity that will serve that area as a destination, not only for the local consumer but for a broader market reach, to enhance their chance of survival?” Ferraro asked rhetorically of rural communities.
The planning commission is a co-operative board among Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga, and Rensselaer counties that analyzes data and develops regional policy recommendations.
With rural populations flat or declining, Ferraro said, rural businesses are challenged. The Hilltowns each have populations projected by the commission to increase by less than 200 people by 2050. Rensselaerville is projected to gain just 17 people. Populations in the Hilltowns range from 1,843 in Rensselaerville to about 3,361 in Westerlo."
First of all, I haven't the slightest clue that that initial question even means. Second, isn't this the agency that ought to be trying to answer questions, not just ask them rhetorically? Seriously, I hope the Enterprise was as stunned by this profound inability to provide insight as I was.

I think we are trying to find answers. Really, I do. I think Medusa is continually filled with folks who ask some really hard questions - how do we encourage more farming? Should we facilitate the entry of more young farmers, or should we work on the infrastructure and hope providing the right environment will attract them? How do we convince more folks to shop local? Will small communities like ours stick around in a worse economic downturn - should they? And if we think they should, what sorts of community resilience measures should we be putting in to place to help them weather future economic storms?

Community is what we make it - and even though the Enterprise does point out correctly that there are fewer and fewer of we independents around - you always have the choice to make it better.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What's trending in Medusa?

I couldn't resist. Sentences that begin with "What's trending..." have annoyed me for several months now, and I have, of late, adopted the if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em strategy.

So here's what's predicted to become unspeakably popular in Medusa over the next few months.

First, we are following this article to the letter. We will be boosting our digital presence. No, I still don't have a conventional website. But, I will continue to bother you ceaselessly on Facebook and here, and through email blasts. Because I am not one of those mom and pop's being left behind while the waves of digital masters overtake us. No way. Not us.

Also, apparently even though I constantly whine about when people will "get it", by which I mean shopping local and voting with their dollar, and embracing community and all that stuff, you actually *are* doing it. According to aforementioned article (posted by a fellow who undoubtedly has his finger on the pulse on all that is local): "The percentage of online search queries focused on local businesses continues to accelerate, with an even greater growth in local search via mobile devices." I read that sentence this way: you are looking for us! Yay!

There was also some promising news in another piece, constructed by someone who seems to care deeply about we rural small businesses. (And, really, I am as shocked as you are that there is actually someone out there defining the business trends for those of us that are rural and small.) Here's a tidbit I had to share:  
Trend 3. Brain Gain brings 30-44 year-olds to small towns
After decades of the “brain drain” of young people graduating and leaving small towns, a significant return flow of adults is changing rural dynamics.
 Now, while I might sound a bit tongue-in-cheek about some of these articles, this "trend" is not only incredibly exciting, but we are witnessing it happening. I don't have the space (or the inclination to ruin the surprise), but there are more amazing projects blossoming in our area than I can count. We have a growing population of talented, creative and highly skilled knowledge workers who are putting down roots in our community, spending countless hours building businesses, and investing emotional energy into transforming themselves into locals. (Maybe we'll even see the metamorphosis of what it means to be "a local".) Frankly, it's incredibly impressive and speaks volumes about our chances of becoming a vibrant economic ecosystem that can withstand the uncertainty of the next few decades.

So I'm ending this with a plug. We are helping out with MedusaFest this year - and I would love to see a huge turnout from our small business community.  Setup fee is nominal - $10 to the Firehouse, which is both a deal and a great cause - and we could be capitalizing on an unbelievable opportunity. We are shaping the future. We're rural, connected, creative and passionate, and we have the power to create the types of communities that understand the challenges and embrace the possibilities.

Are you in?

Friday, January 10, 2014

First rant of a brand new year!

So exciting, you can taste it, right? This year's going to be your best yet. Ours, too.

But this is that once-a-year reminder that we need *you* in order to have good years. Actually, we need *you* in order to be here at all. Obvious? Maybe. But sometimes you know I can't pass up an opportunity to state the elephant-in-the-living-room obvious. (I feel like that about climate change, too, but that's another blog.)

Just to recap, we have survived the recent mutation of Bryant's to TOPS, and endured (and not, I'm sorry to admit, without a wee bit of dark words aimed their way) opening of the a Hannaford in Cairo. We sell tobacco and cheap beer and run a whole foods store, which effectively makes us delightfully hard to pigeonhole, but we are not immune to such tremors in our local economic ecosystem.

Like a convenience store, we sell gas, which I hate, but you don't. And we sell some of the best groceries in a 30 miles radius.

But here's the thing.

The reminder, if you will. That last part takes effort on your part, because I know it is easier and often cheaper for you to buy all of your groceries somewhere else. But if you do, this store will not survive. Now the last time I wrote something like that, many people dropped by to remind me that they buy lots of groceries here. (Thank you - we are incredibly grateful!)

I know that, but it is January, and with several long winter months to come, I am compelled to call the rest of you out.

I can't have everything you want, whenever you want it. That sort of vision of a store - the ones that sell you everything from cheap January tomatoes to 99cents-a-pound boneless, skinless chicken breast - cannot work for this store. Indeed that vision was created by the large groceries, who have all but swallowed up folks like us over the past decades. I can only provide what I get reasonably, which changes from week to week. I will always have fresh produce, but a whole lot more of it in the spring summer and fall, when I can get some of it locally. I try to always carry the fresh staples - lettuces, carrots, peppers, apples and bananas and the like - but there are lots of items that I sneak in when we can get them at great prices - crimini mushrooms, brussels sprouts, green beans, and pineapple.

I will always have meats, but most of the time they will be frozen. I won't sell you cheap chicken for two reasons: I will not sell meat that was raised under gruesome conditions, and I work pretty hard to get products like chicken and beef and pork locally. Local producers can *not* sell you chicken (or beef or pork) for grocery store prices and survive. Period.

I try to always carry all of the other staples - you can get beans and rice and pastas from me always. Jarred sauces and canned items, too. Tons of baking items, snacks and chips, granola and cereals.

And I will often bring in whatever you ask. (I'll try anything - I love being a buyer!)

In light of that, I really don't think my request is as ballsy as it may sound at first blush. Buy what I can get. Really. Maybe just try it for a few weeks, or maybe just once a month. But decide that you cook meals based on what is available, not based on what you might have been daydreaming about at lunch two Tuesdays ago. This is exactly how people used to eat - and it may be how we are going to be forced to eat again, should fuel prices start rising again.  While I can't say that you would be eating a 100 mile diet (not by a long shot), we are in this together, and as I convince more farmers to grow again, and I'm able to source more and more foodstuffs locally, you will be able to buy them.

And in the meantime, you'll be keeping your dollars local, and making sure we last another year. It really is a win-win. And even if you have to tolerate my less than clever, not-even-remotely subtle self, I think it is worth it.

Best wishes for a happy new year!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The power of anonymity

I discovered something the other day.  Call it an epiphany.

I love playing with ideas - Jason does as well - and our store is a bit of conversation that we ceaselessly toss about and dissect, always looking for the sides that we might have missed. Why didn't this work?  What can we do to improve this? How can we attract these people? What else should bring in? What about that "retail experience"? Are we really in the business of disappointing people? (I.e., you don't have bulgar?)

But something dawned on me. I remember going to big grocery stores with my kids, years ago. We had a blast, and I could never understand why so many parents left their kids home. But we rarely ran into the same person twice - even the cashiers were often different. I went to the same one, every week, yet it felt like the butcher never remembered me. The guy who weighed out salmon was pleasant, but distant. It was the opposite of our store, in fact - shopping at the larger groceries was a completely anonymous experience.

It's different in Medusa - and I know that's got to be strange for some of you, even as we approach year five. I sell tobacco and beer. I even sell condoms. (For the record, I don't think I have ever sold a pack of condoms. Maybe I should offer the colorful, studded ones.) I considered assuring you that I don't remember a thing about what you purchased five minutes after you leave the building. (That's the truth - blame it on the Lyme Disease.) Honestly, though, why would you care if I did?

Because there is something incredibly powerful about being anonymous, isn't there? It speaks to the current American experience - it is why we build cookie cutter developments that are fully auto-dependent. It explains why our small local churches are losing parishioners, and why the firehouses struggle to recruit new members. It is delightfully easy to be an individual without any ties to a world greater than Facebook. It makes New York City work - but that sense of community-less-ness is also why there are so many former City refugees gracing our villages.

What sort of places are we creating? This is important, I think - if we really want to create places that matter, places that breathe creativity and inspire beauty, then we can't be anonymous. There is no room for nameless individuals in our struggle to build (and re-build) our communities - only active participants. If we are serious, and I think more than a handful of us are, about the vision of self-reliant, sustainable communities - the kinds that have lots of weird little stores like ours - then you have to be willing to be a bit more vulnerable - a bit less anonymous.

And, in the long run, isn't it cooler that I know what kind of beer you like best anyway?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Small Business Saturday on Nov 30th!

Small Business Saturday is back! Take a refreshing break from anonymous online purchasing or overcrowded mall hopping and spend a few hours with your neighbors instead.  On November 30th, from 11:30 till 2:30, we’re celebrating Small Business Saturday by welcoming some our favorite fellow small businesses to Medusa!
This year’s theme is Healthy Living.  Among those sharing in the festivities are Westerlo physician Myria Emeny, licensed Hilltown massage therapist Crystal Keyes (who will be offering chair massage sessions), and yoga instructor Loretta Pyles. We are also joined by several herbalists and all-natural body care vendors, including Kerry Keeny, of Perfectly Posh, and Rachel Ginther from Lady Liberty Farm. Several farm businesses will be joining us as well.  So now’s your chance! Stock up on this winter’s meats, gift that special someone a massage or a semester of yoga, or buy a gift basket brimming with our own local Wild Thymes chutneys.  Whatever your tastes this holiday season, there’s a little something for everyone in Medusa on the 30th!
Small Business Saturday is a national event, run in part by American Express. Shopping local, and keeping your dollars in your community is a concept that far exceeds the boundaries of AMEX, however.  Research suggests your money should be on us if we’re hoping to dig our way out of this recession. From the website of the American Small Business Alliance (, small independents build community - creating neighborhood scale enterprises that encourage cohesive relationships. Economically, each dollar you spend at a small independent is three times more likely money to your local economy than one spent at a chain.  Our size means we are more people scaled, which means we help shape the unique, quirky and cool character of our community, while leaving a much smaller footprint on our environment. We small independents create jobs, opportunities, wealth and health to a far greater degree than our chain counterparts. And we’re in it for the long haul!

If you have any questions regarding this event, give April a call at the store at 239 6980 or drop her an email at  Looking forward to seeing you on the 30th!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Creating a culture

I had the great opportunity to chat with a fellow from the American Independent Business Alliance last week.  While we didn't really share much that either of us didn't already know - sometimes hearing from a fellow traveler is refreshing; sometimes, like this time, it is also inspiring.  The fact that these folks, and their counterparts at BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) are out there, disseminating research, offering resources, tirelessly acting as cheerleaders of small independents, is of value beyond words.

And I wasn't letting him leave until he answered some of our most pressing questions.

What I wanted to know from him is this: why does it seem like there is an unbreachable chasm between those who get it, and those who do not?  And how do we press for the epiphany?

Before you decide I am offending you, odds are that if you are bothering to read this blog, you are one of the ones who make an effort to stop here instead of Hannaford to get your staples, or drop in before work for an egg sandwich, or show up on a sunny Saturday for groceries while you're at your upstate home.  You spend a few minutes bantering with me at the register; perhaps you throw a few friendly jabs in about the President's healthcare plan, just because you like to poke at a liberal now and then.  I am honored to serve you; and so when I refer to those who don't get it, I am not talking about you. 

Mostly I wonder about those folks who live fairly close, but can't quite make the effort to spend their dollars here. Where do they go for a cup of coffee?  Or a loaf of really good organic bread?  And how come I can't seem to reach them?

Joe has done a lot of grassroots organizing, and is now communicating with lots of small business folk on a regional and national level, so he's got some nuggets of wisdom to share.  In a nutshell, it's about nurturing a localist culture - developing the collective mindset that this place is worth caring about, worth protecting and nurturing.  And I think that requires folks to be brave enough to imagine truly great places, the kinds of places that are resilient and sustainable.  Places where we want to raise children, and places where our children would want to raise theirs. When you believe that it's possible to imagine those places, then it isn't so much of a stretch that you'd buy groceries at the independent grocer down the road and bypass WalMart.

And while most conversations, in real life and on social media sites, seem to revolve around how I can get folks to shop for groceries in Medusa, there is a much broader conversation to be had - how do we nurture the larger ecosystem of independent businesses necessary to recreate functioning whole communities, especially in rural areas like ours?

Perhaps it's about getting a farmer training program off the ground?  Or developing a land trust so that young farmers have access to our abundant, and woefully underutilized, land?  Perhaps it is figuring out which products are low hanging fruit, when it comes to import substitution - we can do more than produce fabulous honey and maple syrup, I think. Perhaps we can spend more time lobbying our local governments to focus on village beautification - remind everyone that we should be creating spaces that matter, places that are beautiful.  (James Howard Kunstler has spoken eloquently and passionately about this.) Perhaps we can figure out ways to create economies outside of traditional exchange - Shareable has been doing this sort of work for a while now, and we are joining with our first Repair Cafe starting in November.

I know I certainly don't have the answers - and it often feels like we're groping in the dark. But I don't think we have a thing to lose by heading in this direction. And, you never know, these efforts, *your* efforts might just that push we need to truly start to engage our community, businesses and residents alike.

Are you ready?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

These August days...

...are the scariest.  Because it's now when things start to slow down.  Folks take holidays away, start redirecting energies towards school starting again.  Even though it's still summer, those first yellowish leaves of the locust trees start to hint at a change in the weather.

When it's cold, it's easy to understand the long, slow season.  But August days always begin with warm weather and promise.

Complicating this seasonal slowdown, lots of you tell me that times are getting tougher, and we feel it, too.  So I thought I would remind everyone that we are trying to do our best on several fronts.

First - we get these great deals through lots of our vendors, especially United Natural, but from others, too.  I want to pass them on to all of you.  While we have grand plans about how to make that happen (the circulars were great but too expensive, in store fliers are time consuming, and a front sales board is still in the works), the best thing you can do is to ask.  Bother me!  Constantly.  If you need something, I will do my best to find it, and at the best possible price.  Often we can do 20% of cost for case orders, which usually works out to a few dollars, a worthwhile investment into really good quality food at a price that is competitive with a lot of our much bigger peers. (And without having to drive to Albany.)

Second, yes, we are still trying to find a buyer for the store.  Some folks seem hurt by this news.  Truth is, the store has been on the market for a year now, with Coldwell Banker.  We recently decided to get the sign up.  Our plan was always to get the store open and running successfully - and that has been accomplished.  We'd like to pass the torch.  Barring finding someone who would work out as a buyer, we are willing to be creative, which may involve leasing the store, or closing for a portion of the year.  Fact is, our family is stretched pretty thin when one of us (usually Jason) is working seven days a week, usually 12 hour days.  Don't be hurt, or angry.  Sometimes it feels like I gave my husband to Medusa; and these days, I (and our kids) need him back more often.

Lastly, you've probably noticed that I've been taking a break from Facebook and blogging.  I'm back, hopefully with babies that are sleeping a little more at night.  Hoping to pass on lots of great stuff, here and through Facebook as well as through our email blasts.  Feedback always gets you better information, and I love hearing from you.

Looking forward to seeing you soon...April