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Rural Co-Ops: Saving Shopping Options

Community cooperative co-founder Virginia Sizer shops for a family reunion at the Wolf Den Market in Arthur, Neb.
Howard Berkes, NPR News /
Community cooperative co-founder Virginia Sizer shops for a family reunion at the Wolf Den Market in Arthur, Neb.

Imagine a 35-mile drive for a gallon of milk, or 90 miles to buy a dress shirt or a blouse. That's what some people face when their small towns lose their only grocery or department stores.

To counter the trend, at least a dozen towns in the Midwest and West have opened stores the community owns and operates.

As recently as three years ago, NPR's Howard Berkes reports, there was no place left in Arthur, Neb., for the town's 130 remaining residents to buy groceries. And the nearest town was 35 miles away.

Today, an old ranch house in Arthur holds the stock of a typical small grocery in an unconventional setting. Customers pick up bread and fruit in the kitchen, frozen and refrigerated food in the garage, and paper supplies in the bedroom. The check-out line is in the living room.

Joy Marshall, who operates a conference planning business from Arthur -- and also runs an entrepreneurship program for the University of Nebraska -- helped get the co-op started because she worried the loss of the grocery store could mean the beginning of the end for the town.

Without a store, she tells Berkes, "it's just gonna be harder for them to see the worth of being able to make a living here."

So far the market is financially solvent, Berkes reports. A small state grant and two loans helped get the project going. A bigger grocery in a neighboring county provides the inventory at prices slightly above wholesale.

The co-op sells memberships for $20 a year. But the fee is offset by a 5-percent discount on purchases, and about half the town participates.

"Selling memberships was a way of involving the community and thus assuring that there would be people there to buy," co-founder Virginia Sizer says. "It will never be a big moneymaker. But it will help to hold people in the community and sure make it more convenient for people."

In Powell, Wyo., a farm town of 5,300, a chain store that carried clothes, shoes and accessories shut down three years ago. That created a 180-mile round trip to buy wardrobe basics, but it also left a big hole in the town's main drag.

"We knew the longer that space was empty on main street, the bigger problem it would be for all of our businesses," says Sharon Earhart, who directs Powell's Chamber of Commerce. "It's a domino effect... then people don't stop there on that block."

Community leaders, including retirees and active business owners, went into action. Many had taken part in a downtown rescue effort 20 years earlier, when two dozen storefronts stood empty. Today Main Street features elegant streetlights and lots of red brick, Berkes reports. The cafes, hardware store, pharmacy and other shops seem busy. But when the department store left town, all that was threatened.

Initial attempts to attract another chain store fell flat. Then the Powell group heard about a town in Montana that had opened its own store.

"The group chartered a plane, flew up to Montana, and returned inspired," Berkes says.

"Somebody closed a store on them but that didn't stop them from having a clothing store in their community," Earhart tells Berkes. "And we felt the same way... and we thought, we can do this."

The result is "The Merc," short for mercantile. It's a small-scale department store with a variety of clothes for children, women and men. Eight hundred shares in the store were offered at $500 each, raising $400,000.

Retired pharmacist Ken Witzeling, who chairs the mercantile's board, says The Merc gives Powell more than just another place to shop.

"People up and down the street, they proudly say this is our store," he says. "It isn't that store or this store. It's our store."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.