Originally published Sunday, November 13, 2011 at 10:03 PM

New York village loses store, opens its own

Community-owned stores are fairly common in Britain, 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.

The New York Times

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The residents of Saranac Lake, a picturesque town in the Adirondacks, are a hardy lot — they have to be to withstand winter temperatures that can drop to 30 below zero. But since the local Ames department store went out of business in 2002 — a victim of its corporate parent's bankruptcy — residents of the village, with its year-round population of 5,000, have had to drive 50 miles to Plattsburgh to buy basics like underwear or bed linens.

It's a situation familiar to many communities these days. But rather than accept their fate, residents of Saranac Lake did something unusual: They decided to raise capital to open their own department store.

Shares in the store, priced at $100 each, were marketed to local residents as a way to "take control of our future and help our community," said Melinda Little, a Saranac Lake resident who has been involved in the effort from the start. "The idea was, this is an investment in the community as well as the store."

It took nearly five years — the recession added to the challenge — but the organizers reached their $500,000 goal last spring. By then, some 600 people had chipped in an average of $800 each. And so, on Oct. 29, as an early winter storm threatened the region, the Saranac Lake Community Store opened its doors to the public for the first time.

By 9:30 in the morning, the store, in a former restaurant space on Main Street opposite the Hotel Saranac, was packed with shoppers, well-wishers and the curious, who seemed pleased with the mix of apparel, bedding and craft supplies for sale.

"Ooh, that's nice," said Pat Brown, as she held up a slim black skirt (price: $29.99). She and her husband, Bob, a former professor of sociology at a local community college, bought $2,000 worth of shares in the store early on, and later bought a few more during a fundraising drive.

"This is a small town trying to help itself," said Bob Brown.

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 U.S. 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.

Indeed, community ownership seems to resonate in these days of protest and unrest, when frustration with Wall Street, corporate America and a system seemingly rigged against the little guy is running high. But rather than simply grouse, some people are creating alternatives.

"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."

Saranac Lake is filled with tourists who come in the summer months to hike, canoe and unwind, swelling the population threefold.

Come winter, though, the town's Main Street quiets down and local residents reclaim places like the Blue Moon Cafe, which dishes up food and gossip. So when the local Ames store closed, few major retailers were interested in taking its place, despite the town's efforts to woo them.

Wal-Mart was the exception. But the idea of a megastore larger than two football fields sharply divided villagers. At heated town meetings, people would shout: "You can't buy underwear in Saranac Lake!"

In the end, Wal-Mart decided not to pursue the store.

That's when a group of residents exploring retail alternatives heard about the Powell Mercantile, a community-owned store in Powell, Wyo. The Merc, as it is known, was established in 2002 after the town's only department store shut down.

Following the Powell model, the Saranac Lake organizers put together a business plan and assembled a volunteer board of directors made up of professionals.

Many residents, and even board members, were skeptical that the store would ever open. "We had our dark hours," said Alan Brown, the treasurer.

Those have been dispelled, for now. The first day, the store rang up $7,000 in receipts.

Not surprisingly, underwear was a big seller.

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