Communities Create Their Own Stores

As major department stores disappear from rural areas across the country, community-owned stores are popping up in their places—and many of them are prospering.

When JC Penney closed its doors in Ely, Nevada, the 4,000 town residents were forced to drive 190 miles to shop for clothes and household goods. Unwilling to make this trip and unable to entice other department stores to fill the void, town leaders decided to form their own corporation and asked the community to invest in it. After they sold $500 stock shares to neighbors and raised $400,000, the community-owned department store Garnet Mercantile opened for business.

The residents of Ely took their cues from a handful of other community-owned department stores that have formed in Montana and Wyoming as chain stores have fled to more populous and prosperous areas over the last decade. In Plentywood, Montana, where the idea for community-owned department stores originated, residents bought 18 $10,000 shares to form Little Muddy Dry Goods after the chain store Stage abandoned the town.

The community-owned department store The Merc in Powell, Wyoming, is only 22 miles from a Wal-Mart. Yet The Merc has seen success as residents opt to support the local business over the transnational corporation.

In the east, Middlebury, Vermont, and Greenfield, Massachusetts, are considering their own community-owned ventures. In Swanville, Minnesota, local residents raised $300,000 to share ownership of the town's lone restaurant, Granny's Café.

Organizers attribute the success of these stores to a sense of community ownership, boards made up of local merchants, and the ability to modify the store's inventory to reflect the changing needs of the community.

In Austin, Texas, when Borders Books & Music threatened to move across the street from local mainstays Waterloo Records and the Book People, residents wanted to find out what effect the chain would have on the community's economy. According to a study conducted by Civic Economics for the town, $100 spent at Borders creates $13 in local economic activity, while $100 spent at the locally owned stores returns $30 to the local economy.

Megan Tady is a former YES! intern.


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