Business, Economics and Jobs

Small town in New York reveling in new, community-owned department store

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The Saranac Lake Community store opened last October and has been pleased with its business. (Photo courtesy of the Saranac Lake Community Store.)

In the picturesque town of Saranac Lake in upstate New York, population 5,000, you will find restaurants, an Army Navy store, art galleries and a brand new department store.

It's not a Macy's, nor a Target, not even a Walmart. This one is all local, owned and operated by the residents of Sarnac. The Saranac Lake Community Store sells underwear, socks and spools of thread. It was a community's response to having to drive 40 miles for sheets and a hope to avoid the wrenching debate that often comes when Wal-Mart says its interested in coming to town.

The store was the brainchild of residents who were frustrated with scant shopping options after an Ames department store went out of business in 2002.

See photos from the Saranac Lake Community Store at hereandnow.org.

Melinda Little, president of the store’s volunteer board of directors, said the Ames closure meant an hour-long trip to get basic supplies. Village officials decided not to rezone, which meant no Walmarts would be built nearby.

"The good thing about the whole Walmart situation was that it really engendered a great conversation about, 'OK, maybe not Walmart, but we do need something to replace Ames,'" Little said. "A committee came together to approach other national retailers of a more appropriate size about coming to Saranac Lake, and the demographics just didn't fit their business model."

Saranac Lake is a bit unique among small towns, in that it's small in the winter, but during the summer it grows much larger as tourists flock to the nearby Adirondack Mountains to escape the summer heat. The community decided it was time to take their future into their own hands.

Residents started raising capital for the department store by selling $100 shares to local residents.

Last spring, they reached their fundraising goal of $500,000 in capital, selling 5,417 shares to 750 investor, and started construction. They were inspired by Powell, Wyo., which has established its own mercantile for the community.

Saranac Lake finished in time for an opening Oct. 29. Since then, the store has been doing brisk business and has become an anchor for the downtown economy. The store has three employees.

"It's going well," Little said.

The store did a brisk holiday business, before slowing down into the winter. April was especially tough, but that's no surprise to the store's local owners, who know their neighbors often go away in April.

"But we're still a little bit ahead of where we thought we'd be," she said. "Our goal for the whole calendar year is sales of $500,000. We're on track for that," Little said.

But profits aren't going back to the investors any time soon. All the excess proceeds will be reinvested in the store for at least the next three and possibly the next five years, Little said.

"Again, following the Powell Merc model, they declared dividends five years after being in business," Little said.

The store's trying hard to be a model member of the local business community, not carrying items that are carried by other businesses in town.

"This store is about filling a void. It's not about going head-to-head with other retailers," Little said.

The hope is to be an anchor for retail in the community — and not the sort of anchor that drags everyone down.

Little cautions any small community thinking about getting into the retail business. You better have a lot of volunteers willing to put in hundreds of hours if you hope to make a go of it.

"We started this effort in 2006 and we opened our doors in late 2011. So it's not a quick fix," she said.

In Business, Economics and Jobs.

Tagged: PowellNew YorkWyomingMelinda Littlebusiness.