Friday, August 22, 2014

What it's like...

Have you ever wondered what it's like to run a store like ours?

I mean, it's probably pretty easy to figure out the potential shortcomings - there's the long hours. You are, as one customer put it today, married to your business. But I have to think that the Lewis family probably feels that way about running a dairy farm, too.

You also aren't going to become a millionaire running the place. Sometimes, it can be a whole lot worse than that, too. Sometimes the electric bill will keep you up at night. But that can happen even without a store full of expensive coolers.

And there's the fact that you can never make everyone happy, all of the time. Sometimes I feel like I can't make some of you happy, any of the time. As I mentioned on Facebook, a recent email blast bought me a good bit of hate mail a few weeks back. And some of the remarks in there could make your hair curl. But I'm pretty tough - and you'd be, too.

But, like a lot in life, the value of running an operation like this hidden and immeasurable.

I have never known so many people - and had so many people interested in my well-being - ever, in my whole life. It really takes your breathe away.

We have never been in a position to serve others in the way that we do now. Yup, we sell you stuff. Sometimes it's stuff that we'd rather not sell you. I'd rather not sell gas, for example, but we are back in the gas business, because so many of you need it, and you would rather get it from us. Frankly, I'd rather not sell you cigarettes and tobacco, either.

But there is so much more in that interaction than selling you stuff.

I hear how you are feeling. I hear about your grandchildren going off to college. I know about what happened to your son's wife, and if your friend made it through surgery. I hear about birthdays and weddings and births and deaths. For just a few minutes you share you.

And it makes us better people. Better listeners. Better friends. I know that sounds corny and a little ridiculous. But it is the truth. I get to listen, without judgment, and hear about so many of your lives. It is an honor.

And that is mostly what it's like to run the store. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

About the gas...

So here's the thing...

We don't have gasoline available right now for a lot of reasons. And I thought perhaps one blog post might get you all up to speed.

First, it was a slow spring. Let's be honest, the economy isn't great - we are all doing what we can to get by. And when you get a long, cold winter, and a slow start to the summer, it is hard on us all. So we have taken a brief pause from offering gasoline to catch up on bills with our gas company.

Second, now that I have your attention, I need for folks to realize the economy of gasoline. Regardless of your politics, gasoline is a hard commodity. (And please don't email me and tell me who's responsible; I don't care.) We sell gas because so many of you want it, and have expressed to us how important it is that we have gasoline available for you in the village. But there is an unspoken agreement that you can't just use us for gasoline, especially now that John Ray and Sons keeps us within pennies of other area stores.

Why?

Because we don't make much money - pennies, really - on a gallon of gas. So when you drop by to fill up and refuse to buy anything else in the store, well, that means we are really just a public service. And while we do enjoy serving our community, gasoline doesn't keep the doors open, and it doesn't feed our kids.

Bottom line: if you want gas, you need to buy groceries. Some of you will bristle and be mad at me. Some of you will be put out and never come back. But that is the reality of the situation: we choose to offer you the best possible price on everything that we can, and that means your responsibility is to choose us (sometimes, not always and not for everything) above Price Chopper and Hannaford and Honest Weight and Trader Joe's and all of the other big groceries that are many miles away. It's really very simple.

And listen, as many of you know, we also have rather special gas. In addition to the regular unleaded, we have been carrying ethanol-free gas, which is a superior product for small engines. We do try pretty hard to get you the products you want.

So there you have it. We're not holding out on you on purpose: as soon as we catch up on as bills, we will put gas back here. But I can't promise it will always be here - it is totally up to you. When you tell your friends how cool it is that we have ethanol-free gas, remind them that we also have amazing organic bananas and make a mean deli sandwich. Because buying a few groceries makes all the difference.

Thanks, as always,
April

Thursday, May 1, 2014

2 Days till MedusaFest 2014!

Fantastic things afoot!

Medusafest 2014, as you know, is this Saturday, and we have an amazing lineup of speakers, musicians, and vendors for you!



I wanted to give you a sneak peak at some of the cool folks that will be joining us!

*  Loretta Pyles is one of our favorite people *and* an amazing yogi. She will be offering a yoga class on the front lawn of the church from 11:30 - 12. Learn some deep breathing, stretching and strengthening that will help you manage stress and have more peace and vitality in your life.  All levels are welcome. Wear loose comfortable clothing.  No yoga mat required. She'll have information about her classes, and lots of wisdom about yoga and meditation in general available!

*  Susanna Raeven, from Raven Crest Botanicals, will be offering artisan skin care products, herbal remedies and delicious herbal tea blends -  hand crafted and locally grown with organic methods at Raven Crest Farm in Berne, NY. 

* Deb Consolver will be having a Spring Inventory Reduction Sale that day.  All Tupperware will be discounted 20%-50% . 

* Our friends from Naturelogues will also be there!  Naturelogues will be selling framed and matted nature photography as well as note cards. They will also have information available about their natural history presentations. (We join them at Huyck Preserve events and they are amazing!)

* Medusa's own Kerry Keeny will be offering henna tattooing - and she is an incredible henna artist!

Mountain Winds Farm's Randy Grippin will be in attendance, selling his famous hilltown maple syrup, maple goodies, eggs and chicken!

And many more!! I am inserting a tentative schedule below - there are also kid's games available on the field behind the firehouse, and the huge church rummage sale going on all day!


Festival Schedule

Gates open at 9am.

Small Business fair: 9am - 4pm

Firehouse kitchen and barbecue: 11am - 4pm, serving hotdogs, hamburgers, salads and the chicken barbecue

Art Lab: staffed from 10am - 2pm

Talks
* 11am, Robert Nied: Center for Rural Sustainable Communities
* 12:30pm, Bill Logan: Local author, and focus of the documentary, Dirt!

Music
* 12pm: Medusa Moonshine
* 1:15pm: Peckham Hollow
* 2:30pm: Ron Torven Band (who will be playing on our porch from 11am on, too)
* 3:45pm: Bill Pfleging and band




Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Last independent standing?

Recently, the Altamont Enterprise published a piece on the state of economic vitality in the Hilltowns. We weren't surprised by the topic - Marcello has appeared at Sustainable Hilltowns meetings, and generously suggested he join me at the store for a further conversation. I think I must not have been at my most inspiring...

Some of my customers thought the article was a bit dark, but I thought it wasn't inaccurate, just hit a bit close to home for a lot of us. (Incidentally, a thank you to Rich Ronconi, who responded a particularly inane letter in the Enterprise, essentially suggesting that the time for general stores has come and gone.)

It's been a long, cold winter. And we are ready for spring. I responded to the Altamont Enterprise article, and Sustainable Hilltowns will be meeting again on Friday. I thought I'd use this forum to attempt to provoke a few of you into a greater discussion, though.

This bit, from Marcello's article, really annoyed me:

"Rocco Ferraro, executive director for the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, said how much of a bargain a customer perceives is at least as important as customer service.
“Is there a critical mass of activity that will serve that area as a destination, not only for the local consumer but for a broader market reach, to enhance their chance of survival?” Ferraro asked rhetorically of rural communities.
The planning commission is a co-operative board among Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga, and Rensselaer counties that analyzes data and develops regional policy recommendations.
With rural populations flat or declining, Ferraro said, rural businesses are challenged. The Hilltowns each have populations projected by the commission to increase by less than 200 people by 2050. Rensselaerville is projected to gain just 17 people. Populations in the Hilltowns range from 1,843 in Rensselaerville to about 3,361 in Westerlo."
First of all, I haven't the slightest clue that that initial question even means. Second, isn't this the agency that ought to be trying to answer questions, not just ask them rhetorically? Seriously, I hope the Enterprise was as stunned by this profound inability to provide insight as I was.

I think we are trying to find answers. Really, I do. I think Medusa is continually filled with folks who ask some really hard questions - how do we encourage more farming? Should we facilitate the entry of more young farmers, or should we work on the infrastructure and hope providing the right environment will attract them? How do we convince more folks to shop local? Will small communities like ours stick around in a worse economic downturn - should they? And if we think they should, what sorts of community resilience measures should we be putting in to place to help them weather future economic storms?

Community is what we make it - and even though the Enterprise does point out correctly that there are fewer and fewer of we independents around - you always have the choice to make it better.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What's trending in Medusa?

I couldn't resist. Sentences that begin with "What's trending..." have annoyed me for several months now, and I have, of late, adopted the if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em strategy.

So here's what's predicted to become unspeakably popular in Medusa over the next few months.

First, we are following this article to the letter. We will be boosting our digital presence. No, I still don't have a conventional website. But, I will continue to bother you ceaselessly on Facebook and here, and through email blasts. Because I am not one of those mom and pop's being left behind while the waves of digital masters overtake us. No way. Not us.

Also, apparently even though I constantly whine about when people will "get it", by which I mean shopping local and voting with their dollar, and embracing community and all that stuff, you actually *are* doing it. According to aforementioned article (posted by a fellow who undoubtedly has his finger on the pulse on all that is local): "The percentage of online search queries focused on local businesses continues to accelerate, with an even greater growth in local search via mobile devices." I read that sentence this way: you are looking for us! Yay!

There was also some promising news in another piece, constructed by someone who seems to care deeply about we rural small businesses. (And, really, I am as shocked as you are that there is actually someone out there defining the business trends for those of us that are rural and small.) Here's a tidbit I had to share:  
Trend 3. Brain Gain brings 30-44 year-olds to small towns
After decades of the “brain drain” of young people graduating and leaving small towns, a significant return flow of adults is changing rural dynamics.
 Now, while I might sound a bit tongue-in-cheek about some of these articles, this "trend" is not only incredibly exciting, but we are witnessing it happening. I don't have the space (or the inclination to ruin the surprise), but there are more amazing projects blossoming in our area than I can count. We have a growing population of talented, creative and highly skilled knowledge workers who are putting down roots in our community, spending countless hours building businesses, and investing emotional energy into transforming themselves into locals. (Maybe we'll even see the metamorphosis of what it means to be "a local".) Frankly, it's incredibly impressive and speaks volumes about our chances of becoming a vibrant economic ecosystem that can withstand the uncertainty of the next few decades.


So I'm ending this with a plug. We are helping out with MedusaFest this year - and I would love to see a huge turnout from our small business community.  Setup fee is nominal - $10 to the Firehouse, which is both a deal and a great cause - and we could be capitalizing on an unbelievable opportunity. We are shaping the future. We're rural, connected, creative and passionate, and we have the power to create the types of communities that understand the challenges and embrace the possibilities.

Are you in?




Friday, January 10, 2014

First rant of a brand new year!

So exciting, you can taste it, right? This year's going to be your best yet. Ours, too.

But this is that once-a-year reminder that we need *you* in order to have good years. Actually, we need *you* in order to be here at all. Obvious? Maybe. But sometimes you know I can't pass up an opportunity to state the elephant-in-the-living-room obvious. (I feel like that about climate change, too, but that's another blog.)

Just to recap, we have survived the recent mutation of Bryant's to TOPS, and endured (and not, I'm sorry to admit, without a wee bit of dark words aimed their way) opening of the a Hannaford in Cairo. We sell tobacco and cheap beer and run a whole foods store, which effectively makes us delightfully hard to pigeonhole, but we are not immune to such tremors in our local economic ecosystem.

Like a convenience store, we sell gas, which I hate, but you don't. And we sell some of the best groceries in a 30 miles radius.

But here's the thing.

The reminder, if you will. That last part takes effort on your part, because I know it is easier and often cheaper for you to buy all of your groceries somewhere else. But if you do, this store will not survive. Now the last time I wrote something like that, many people dropped by to remind me that they buy lots of groceries here. (Thank you - we are incredibly grateful!)

I know that, but it is January, and with several long winter months to come, I am compelled to call the rest of you out.

I can't have everything you want, whenever you want it. That sort of vision of a store - the ones that sell you everything from cheap January tomatoes to 99cents-a-pound boneless, skinless chicken breast - cannot work for this store. Indeed that vision was created by the large groceries, who have all but swallowed up folks like us over the past decades. I can only provide what I get reasonably, which changes from week to week. I will always have fresh produce, but a whole lot more of it in the spring summer and fall, when I can get some of it locally. I try to always carry the fresh staples - lettuces, carrots, peppers, apples and bananas and the like - but there are lots of items that I sneak in when we can get them at great prices - crimini mushrooms, brussels sprouts, green beans, and pineapple.

I will always have meats, but most of the time they will be frozen. I won't sell you cheap chicken for two reasons: I will not sell meat that was raised under gruesome conditions, and I work pretty hard to get products like chicken and beef and pork locally. Local producers can *not* sell you chicken (or beef or pork) for grocery store prices and survive. Period.

I try to always carry all of the other staples - you can get beans and rice and pastas from me always. Jarred sauces and canned items, too. Tons of baking items, snacks and chips, granola and cereals.

And I will often bring in whatever you ask. (I'll try anything - I love being a buyer!)

In light of that, I really don't think my request is as ballsy as it may sound at first blush. Buy what I can get. Really. Maybe just try it for a few weeks, or maybe just once a month. But decide that you cook meals based on what is available, not based on what you might have been daydreaming about at lunch two Tuesdays ago. This is exactly how people used to eat - and it may be how we are going to be forced to eat again, should fuel prices start rising again.  While I can't say that you would be eating a 100 mile diet (not by a long shot), we are in this together, and as I convince more farmers to grow again, and I'm able to source more and more foodstuffs locally, you will be able to buy them.

And in the meantime, you'll be keeping your dollars local, and making sure we last another year. It really is a win-win. And even if you have to tolerate my less than clever, not-even-remotely subtle self, I think it is worth it.

Best wishes for a happy new year!
April


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The power of anonymity

I discovered something the other day.  Call it an epiphany.

I love playing with ideas - Jason does as well - and our store is a bit of conversation that we ceaselessly toss about and dissect, always looking for the sides that we might have missed. Why didn't this work?  What can we do to improve this? How can we attract these people? What else should bring in? What about that "retail experience"? Are we really in the business of disappointing people? (I.e., you don't have bulgar?)

But something dawned on me. I remember going to big grocery stores with my kids, years ago. We had a blast, and I could never understand why so many parents left their kids home. But we rarely ran into the same person twice - even the cashiers were often different. I went to the same one, every week, yet it felt like the butcher never remembered me. The guy who weighed out salmon was pleasant, but distant. It was the opposite of our store, in fact - shopping at the larger groceries was a completely anonymous experience.

It's different in Medusa - and I know that's got to be strange for some of you, even as we approach year five. I sell tobacco and beer. I even sell condoms. (For the record, I don't think I have ever sold a pack of condoms. Maybe I should offer the colorful, studded ones.) I considered assuring you that I don't remember a thing about what you purchased five minutes after you leave the building. (That's the truth - blame it on the Lyme Disease.) Honestly, though, why would you care if I did?

Because there is something incredibly powerful about being anonymous, isn't there? It speaks to the current American experience - it is why we build cookie cutter developments that are fully auto-dependent. It explains why our small local churches are losing parishioners, and why the firehouses struggle to recruit new members. It is delightfully easy to be an individual without any ties to a world greater than Facebook. It makes New York City work - but that sense of community-less-ness is also why there are so many former City refugees gracing our villages.

What sort of places are we creating? This is important, I think - if we really want to create places that matter, places that breathe creativity and inspire beauty, then we can't be anonymous. There is no room for nameless individuals in our struggle to build (and re-build) our communities - only active participants. If we are serious, and I think more than a handful of us are, about the vision of self-reliant, sustainable communities - the kinds that have lots of weird little stores like ours - then you have to be willing to be a bit more vulnerable - a bit less anonymous.

And, in the long run, isn't it cooler that I know what kind of beer you like best anyway?