As an investor, founder, CEO and business book author, I write about startups, design, how to build a good business, and I like to muse about culture in any form.

These 99% are doing something about it

Heather Ainsworth photo, for the New York Times

The New York Times reports today that  “A Town in New York Creates Its Own Department Store.”  In Saranac Lake, a picturesque Adirondacks town, the 5,000 residents  were watching their downtown steadily decline after the Ames department store went out of business.  It got so bad that they had to drive 50 miles for a pair of underwear.

A proposed WalMart created a debate about the direction of the community.  Some just wanted to get a pair of socks conveniently, and some were worried about the WalMart’s threat to the remaining local retail.  So rather than just block WalMart or do nothing (like most towns do), these people collectively invested $500,000 to build their own department store!

The article states:  “Think of it as the retail equivalent of the Green Bay Packers — a department store owned by its customers that will not pick up and leave when a better opportunity comes along or a corporate parent takes on too much debt.”

“Community-owned stores are fairly common in Britain, and not unfamiliar in the American West, where remote towns with dwindling populations find it hard to attract or keep businesses. But such stores are almost unknown on the densely populated East Coast. The Saranac Lake Community Store is the first in New York State, its organizers say, and communities in states from Maine to Vermont are watching it closely.”

Opening day for The Community Store. Photo by Heather Ainsworth for the New York Times

Here’s my favorite quote:

“It drives me crazy when people criticize how our system works, but they don’t actually go out and try anything,” says Ed Pitts, a lawyer from Syracuse who along with his wife, Meredith Leonard, is a frequent visitor to the area and has invested in the store. “This is more authentic capitalism.”

Local retail matters.  I wrote a post about this a year ago: Why you are not a sap for buying high priced milk.  Yet, I hadn’t imagined a town taking the bull by the horns quite so directly. It’s inspiring.

6 Responses to “These 99% are doing something about it”

  1. Nancy Gold

    I do not understand why you refer to the residents of Saranac Lake who raised a half a million dollars of their own money as the 99%. Ed Pitts and his wife, “frequent visitors” to the historic tourist destination and investors in the new store do not seem to be particularly economically challenged by the Great Recession. In fact, Wikipedia says the town of Saranac Lake is “popular with the power elite.”
    There is an entire generation of young adults who are referred to as “the jobless generation.” They are college graduates like my niece and her boyfriend, who actually have jobs, work hard, and are woefully underpaid. They may never be able to afford a trip to Saranac Lake, let alone investing in new socks as necessary. They are likely to remain underemployed for at least the next decade, according to the New York Times and NPR. And while they have not demonstrated with the 99%, nor participated in the Occupy movement, they are being represented by those brave souls, who, in my opinion, do not deserve to be trivialized for being activists.

    • julespieri

      Oh man Nancy…I had no intention of trivializing the Occupy movement. I can see why it looked that way from the headline. I interpreted the Saranac Lake initiative as the “Ed Pitts” of the world giving the “99%” a chance to support something that matters deeply–their own community. Saranac Lake has to have waitresses and cops, like anywhere else.

      The alternative was either having a WalMart or driving 50 miles. Neither of these would keep the town vibrant for the year-round residents. Of course the 99% would not have the capital to invest in creating the store. But they can shape their local economy very powerfully by supporting this store with buying their ordinary stuff there. This looks like a shop that is selling necessities for the most part, many of the products made in the USA. In that way I give the Saranac Lake 1% credit…the summer people don’t need this shop or the jobs it creates as much as the locals.

  2. Nancy Gold

    I agree that blocking a Walmart and buying USA made goods through a locally owned cooperative are laudable actions. But I don’t know, Jules, your stated favorite quote from Ed Pitt, “It drives me crazy when people criticize how our system works, but they don’t actually go out and try anything,” strikes me as incoherent. The folks who call themselves “We are the 99%” have been out daily (and, in many cases, nightly, as well) since September 17th, organizing and (destructive detractors notwithstanding) peacefully protesting their resentment with the growing income disparity in the US and elsewhere around the globe. Despite the fact that their message is still evolving and crystallizing, and even as they are getting evicted from their encampments across the nation, the movement they started has evolved in two short months into a powerful force; a wave, really. To say that they are “not going out and trying anything” is just plain contrary.

    • julespieri

      Nancy…I don’t know Ed. I don’t know what he intended with the quote. But I doubt he was making a veiled criticism of the Occupy movement. I wasn’t either. The movement does not have to build stores or start companies to have impact. As you say it is raising hugely important issues. Their actions matter and are getting noticed. Some people protest and articulate issues as a starting point for real change. The halo effect of this, and associated outcomes, can and should rewrite the rules on how we do business. This Community Store is a great example. It was not borne directly out of the Occupy movement, having preceded it, but it responds to the same “take back our economy” instinct. I celebrate both and don’t see one as more important than the other.

  3. Lauryn

    I love, love this story. What an awesome thing for a community to do on their own. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Jules Pieri

      You are very welcome! I can’t imagine why anyone would not be inspired by this. And it’s just on time for Small Business Saturday tomorrow.


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