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?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Small Business Saturday on Nov 30th!

Small Business Saturday is back! Take a refreshing break from anonymous online purchasing or overcrowded mall hopping and spend a few hours with your neighbors instead.  On November 30th, from 11:30 till 2:30, we’re celebrating Small Business Saturday by welcoming some our favorite fellow small businesses to Medusa!
This year’s theme is Healthy Living.  Among those sharing in the festivities are Westerlo physician Myria Emeny, licensed Hilltown massage therapist Crystal Keyes (who will be offering chair massage sessions), and yoga instructor Loretta Pyles. We are also joined by several herbalists and all-natural body care vendors, including Kerry Keeny, of Perfectly Posh, and Rachel Ginther from Lady Liberty Farm. Several farm businesses will be joining us as well.  So now’s your chance! Stock up on this winter’s meats, gift that special someone a massage or a semester of yoga, or buy a gift basket brimming with our own local Wild Thymes chutneys.  Whatever your tastes this holiday season, there’s a little something for everyone in Medusa on the 30th!
Small Business Saturday is a national event, run in part by American Express. Shopping local, and keeping your dollars in your community is a concept that far exceeds the boundaries of AMEX, however.  Research suggests your money should be on us if we’re hoping to dig our way out of this recession. From the website of the American Small Business Alliance (, small independents build community - creating neighborhood scale enterprises that encourage cohesive relationships. Economically, each dollar you spend at a small independent is three times more likely money to your local economy than one spent at a chain.  Our size means we are more people scaled, which means we help shape the unique, quirky and cool character of our community, while leaving a much smaller footprint on our environment. We small independents create jobs, opportunities, wealth and health to a far greater degree than our chain counterparts. And we’re in it for the long haul!

If you have any questions regarding this event, give April a call at the store at 239 6980 or drop her an email at  Looking forward to seeing you on the 30th!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Creating a culture

I had the great opportunity to chat with a fellow from the American Independent Business Alliance last week.  While we didn't really share much that either of us didn't already know - sometimes hearing from a fellow traveler is refreshing; sometimes, like this time, it is also inspiring.  The fact that these folks, and their counterparts at BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) are out there, disseminating research, offering resources, tirelessly acting as cheerleaders of small independents, is of value beyond words.

And I wasn't letting him leave until he answered some of our most pressing questions.

What I wanted to know from him is this: why does it seem like there is an unbreachable chasm between those who get it, and those who do not?  And how do we press for the epiphany?

Before you decide I am offending you, odds are that if you are bothering to read this blog, you are one of the ones who make an effort to stop here instead of Hannaford to get your staples, or drop in before work for an egg sandwich, or show up on a sunny Saturday for groceries while you're at your upstate home.  You spend a few minutes bantering with me at the register; perhaps you throw a few friendly jabs in about the President's healthcare plan, just because you like to poke at a liberal now and then.  I am honored to serve you; and so when I refer to those who don't get it, I am not talking about you. 

Mostly I wonder about those folks who live fairly close, but can't quite make the effort to spend their dollars here. Where do they go for a cup of coffee?  Or a loaf of really good organic bread?  And how come I can't seem to reach them?

Joe has done a lot of grassroots organizing, and is now communicating with lots of small business folk on a regional and national level, so he's got some nuggets of wisdom to share.  In a nutshell, it's about nurturing a localist culture - developing the collective mindset that this place is worth caring about, worth protecting and nurturing.  And I think that requires folks to be brave enough to imagine truly great places, the kinds of places that are resilient and sustainable.  Places where we want to raise children, and places where our children would want to raise theirs. When you believe that it's possible to imagine those places, then it isn't so much of a stretch that you'd buy groceries at the independent grocer down the road and bypass WalMart.

And while most conversations, in real life and on social media sites, seem to revolve around how I can get folks to shop for groceries in Medusa, there is a much broader conversation to be had - how do we nurture the larger ecosystem of independent businesses necessary to recreate functioning whole communities, especially in rural areas like ours?

Perhaps it's about getting a farmer training program off the ground?  Or developing a land trust so that young farmers have access to our abundant, and woefully underutilized, land?  Perhaps it is figuring out which products are low hanging fruit, when it comes to import substitution - we can do more than produce fabulous honey and maple syrup, I think. Perhaps we can spend more time lobbying our local governments to focus on village beautification - remind everyone that we should be creating spaces that matter, places that are beautiful.  (James Howard Kunstler has spoken eloquently and passionately about this.) Perhaps we can figure out ways to create economies outside of traditional exchange - Shareable has been doing this sort of work for a while now, and we are joining with our first Repair Cafe starting in November.

I know I certainly don't have the answers - and it often feels like we're groping in the dark. But I don't think we have a thing to lose by heading in this direction. And, you never know, these efforts, *your* efforts might just that push we need to truly start to engage our community, businesses and residents alike.

Are you ready?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

These August days...

...are the scariest.  Because it's now when things start to slow down.  Folks take holidays away, start redirecting energies towards school starting again.  Even though it's still summer, those first yellowish leaves of the locust trees start to hint at a change in the weather.

When it's cold, it's easy to understand the long, slow season.  But August days always begin with warm weather and promise.

Complicating this seasonal slowdown, lots of you tell me that times are getting tougher, and we feel it, too.  So I thought I would remind everyone that we are trying to do our best on several fronts.

First - we get these great deals through lots of our vendors, especially United Natural, but from others, too.  I want to pass them on to all of you.  While we have grand plans about how to make that happen (the circulars were great but too expensive, in store fliers are time consuming, and a front sales board is still in the works), the best thing you can do is to ask.  Bother me!  Constantly.  If you need something, I will do my best to find it, and at the best possible price.  Often we can do 20% of cost for case orders, which usually works out to a few dollars, a worthwhile investment into really good quality food at a price that is competitive with a lot of our much bigger peers. (And without having to drive to Albany.)

Second, yes, we are still trying to find a buyer for the store.  Some folks seem hurt by this news.  Truth is, the store has been on the market for a year now, with Coldwell Banker.  We recently decided to get the sign up.  Our plan was always to get the store open and running successfully - and that has been accomplished.  We'd like to pass the torch.  Barring finding someone who would work out as a buyer, we are willing to be creative, which may involve leasing the store, or closing for a portion of the year.  Fact is, our family is stretched pretty thin when one of us (usually Jason) is working seven days a week, usually 12 hour days.  Don't be hurt, or angry.  Sometimes it feels like I gave my husband to Medusa; and these days, I (and our kids) need him back more often.

Lastly, you've probably noticed that I've been taking a break from Facebook and blogging.  I'm back, hopefully with babies that are sleeping a little more at night.  Hoping to pass on lots of great stuff, here and through Facebook as well as through our email blasts.  Feedback always gets you better information, and I love hearing from you.

Looking forward to seeing you soon...April

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Festivals, gatherings, fairs, OH MY!

So much coming up, folks!  I'm going to try to give you a thorough (giggle) summary of what's to come.

Next Saturday, April 27th, is the Huyck Preserve's Bird Festival, from 1 - 5pm.  Lots of activities and crafts related to birding, including a talk by local wildlife rehabilitator Kelly Martin.  We'll be up there with snacks and beverages.  Later that evening we are celebrating Neighborday in Medusa - drop by for a drink or a snack and hang out on the porch for a while.  Maybe we can brainstorm more beefed up neighborliness here in Medusa!
The following Saturday is MedusaFest!  May 4th promises tons of great activities, and we'll be there as well, with snacks, beverages and tons of fantastic products!  The Store is also holding a yard sale that day, with everything from commercial overstocks to toys.  On May 5th, starting at 3pm, Sustainable Hilltowns is hosting a talk at Conkling Hall in Rensselaerville: Restorative Pasture Management.  This exciting discussion will be led by Morgan Hartman and Gary Kleppel, both experts on holistic management of pasture lands. Farmers, property owners, and interested residents are encouraged to attend.

Several save-the-date activities as well: on Sunday, June 2nd, from 3 to 7pm, the Town of Rensselaerville is hosting a town-wide picnic.  We'll be there with a table, as well lots of other local businesses - a great opportunity to meet your local officials and check out the myriad of amazing businesses and organizations in our township.  On Saturday, June 8, from 11- 3pm, by popular demand, we're having another health fair!  We're welcoming local physician Dr. Myria Emeny, nurse practitioner Joanne Cross and massage therapist Sarah Smigel, as well as lots of local vendors hawking such wares as herbal remedies and all natural cosmetics.

Can you believe all that his happening right here in our little corner of the universe?  So grateful - for the sunshine, finally, and for such great company!  See you soon!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Spring... where are you?

I know spring is around the corner.  Can feel it.  Want to know how?

Because winter blues have reached critical levels.  Between illnesses and losses, perceived grievances and petty arguments, we simply can't take anymore "winter" without imploding.  You know I'm right.

So in the spirit of welcoming spring, with her warmer temperatures and lazy, almost-ice cream afternoons, I thought I'd share a bit about what we're planning.  (And of course you can still stop by and complain that it is still winter outside- I am still whining about it, too.)

Easter is next weekend.  Although I haven't gotten a ton of interest in Easter egg hunting, I personally think it is about the most fun thing possible this time of year, so we'll be hiding eggs around the village.  It is my expectation that there aren't too many of you that an resist a search for colorful plastic eggs with CANDY inside. 

Sometime in April and May, we will be organizing two different events.  Gary Kleppel, a professor at UAlbany and a Knox sheep farmer will be doing a talk on intensive grazing, which will hopefully lead to a discussion of land use on the hill, especially in the town of Rensselaerville.  (We'd also like to convince a few other knowledgeable locals to join Gary and make it a panel presentation.)  His research, incidentally, focuses on the same sort of ideas that are the subject of this talk:

We're also going to be showing two short TED films about the alternatives to conventional education - really cool, thought-provoking pieces that we're hoping to use as a springboard into a spring and summer filled with MAKE magazine inspired, tech-craft workshops.  (Among the ideas that have made the short list are squishy circuits and giant spin art.)  Yes, these are scary times in modern schooling.  Let's create something different...

We will, of course, be hosting Music on the porch, every Saturday, all summer long.  It's free, folks.  And sometimes it's really good.  And even when it isn't, we have a fantastic time.  I have a long list of musician volunteers - if you somehow missed the call, drop me a line.  I still have a few spots open.

And... MedusaFest is coming up in May - and there's a town-wide picnic at the town building on June 2nd! 

So, really, I know it's winter.  It's been cold and miserable, and I don't have a baby that sleeps through the night.  You don't always like my politics (for which I will never apologize) and we (you included) occasionally step on toes.  It's still the year of the snake.  And there is, without a doubt, greatness lurking.  You wouldn't want to miss this, would you?

Friday, February 1, 2013

No one makes anything anymore, Or why you should care deeply

Years ago a longtime mentor of mine lamented that he didn't produce anything.  As an academic, his brilliance is carefully cataloged in journals and scholarly tomes.  I told him I was making cheese and bread and joked a bit about using my degree; I am, after all, something he "produced", in a way.  Since then he has taken up photography and done more long distance biking.  Capturing beautiful moments on paper seems more like making something these days, I guess.  And doing it from the saddle of a bicycle gives life a heady depth that sitting on dissertation committees sometimes lacks.

A friend, another academic of sorts, recently made a similar remark, pointing out that the work coming out of his fine arts field was esoteric, and perhaps a bit pointless.  Heavy on the commentary, a bit light on the contribution.  No one makes anything anymore, he told me.  A universal problem of our civilization, he called it.  (Kinda makes you grin, doesn't it?  I mean as bad as things are, doesn't that seem like a problem you could solve?  It is also one of those challenges that doesn't cross your mind if you are walking 20 miles for water or waiting in a refugee camp for food.  Lucky, we are.)

It seems much of our world feels this way.  Here in Medusa, we have been discussing alternatives to education, especially those alternatives that have wide democratic stripes.  Having control over your own learning feels like a prerequisite for really making anything of import; it also feels like the only way we're going to unleash the creativity we're going to need to make it through the next several decades.  We have grand dreams (and when I say "we" I might occasionally just mean me, since the rest of my ragtag bunch of idealists tend to be a bit more realistic in our five year plans) of bringing the coolness of Make Magazine to Medusa.  Make! is the ultimate in DIY learning - supporting a beautiful technological anarchy that has been blossoming as we become more and more disillusioned with what "education" has become. 

I find it so thrilling that we are blessed to be living at a point in history when we are both embracing the local (with Slow Food and tiny home ecovillages and the like) while living at the pinnacle of technological progress.  We have such incredible opportunities laid out before us.  I think Medusa is the perfect place to locate one of MIT's FabLabs, for example.  They could be used in the design and construction of solar panels, or any number of products that support renewable energy.  Or we could use the web to implement a local version of a sharing economy, and support the transition to a world that embraces community and collaboration.  (And if you are a member of the Tea Party, don't bother sending me emails: that is not code for communism.)  Really, I think the possibilities are limitless.

We're hosting a meeting - and I am crazy enough to think that the process of gathering amazing people together is as much making something as anything else in the arts and sciences - and I think you should be there.  We are all about building prosperous, self reliant communities; let's start with the one we know best.  This time, we'll probably touch on sustainable farming and renewable energy, buy local business campaigns and the emerging sharing economy.  Some of it might focus on how to connect with other local groups.  But either way, we're making something worth checking out. 

Are we solving a great universal problem?  I'm not sure - and who am I to say?  But I know we just might be solving some small problems, right here at home, and lately that seems to be where we should all start.

Friday.  February 8th at 6pm.
(And if you need bribery, Chris and Samantha just might bring cookies and farm fresh milk again.)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Enter the new...

So we're looking for someone...

As always, we have plans.  Lots of them never come to fruition, because the plans always, always outnumber us.  But we are facing the huge need to get the back cooler room done, and somehow configure an attic office to reduce the mess out front.  We have signs that are halfway through the design stage, and shelving that needs to go up.

And we need at least one reliable, part time person who wants to be a partner in this endeavor called MGS. We are looking for someone, who, frankly, really likes people.  And who thinks that eating good is a pretty damn fine idea, but who isn't above selling loose tobacco and cheap beer.  We need a person who can offer ideas, help with buying and researching, but who isn't afraid to get dirty.  Because mostly what we do is clean.

If you think that making cheese for retail just might be a good idea, if you aren't afraid of getting up early or being here late, and if you actually think making great bread from flours we might someday mill here in Rensselaerville is not just crazy talk, then maybe you should come chat with us.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Oh, January.

If there's ever a time you'd like to make the switch to buying local, I can guarantee that January is when your behavior will have the most bang for the buck, at least in our community.  In the spring and summer months, lots of folks are lured here by our fishing streams, by our crisp, clean air, by the undeniable attractiveness of hiking our trials or biking our roads or staring blissfully at our amazing ancient mountains.

But, January.  January is often cold.  And snowy.  (Though not as much lately.)  January is when everyone is trying to catch up from holiday bills and December fiscal battles with their accountants.  No one wants to drive in January; no one is much up for more frivolity, having gotten partied out for the holidays.  Everyone hibernates and January is so slow.

Luckily, for my local farmers and processors, it is also the time when they can breathe a little, with crops buried snugly under snow till sunshine and longer days return, and we can plan.  Or cook up schemes. This January, February and March, we are planning on doing just that.

Our amazing gallery opening (and if you missed Hans' work, the photographs are still blessing the front of the store, and are for sale!) and talk by Otter Hook's Chris Kemnah, inspired a lot of interest in such things as crop mobs and local economic development.  We want us all to do better.  We want Walmart to, frankly, not do so well.

And we're not alone.  An interesting article from the Tyee out of British Columbia caught my attention: local enterprises that work together.  Isn't that a beautiful idea?  And so simple.  One of my goals for the year is to work towards some sort of sustainable chamber of commerce on the hill.  Lots of enterprises, working together, for the betterment of each other, and our community, hopefully with future generations in mind, is bound to create something special.

Another way of doing better is to get serious about creating some sort of local currency - it will keep our dollars in our community, or, in some cases, keep them from become dollars at all, as they remain exchanges through individuals.  A cool recent article from Resilience also noted that we can set up electronic systems for money exchange - so even though I may be sentimentally attached to the original version of the Ithaca dollar - there are actually better ways of exchanging goods and services.

You know me - I don't want to have to beg folks to start growing winter greens for me, or bring me more local meats, or eggs (staring at Tim!); I don't want to keep hounding you all to do something about finding my local value-added processors a place to make their amazing jams or fudge or pickled products.  Frankly, my kids (and my poor husband!) would be thrilled if I would ratchet it down a notch or two.  But I think this stuff is vital to our long term sustainability - both the store, and much more importantly, this community.  And I can't do it alone.  Honestly, I wouldn't want to do it alone.

So take this as a gentle reminder - there's lots afoot this time of year, even though it seems like folks are hibernating.  We are deliberating on things that will set in motion our progress for years to come.  (Okay, that last bit might be a bit over the top, but you never know.)  One thing's for sure: you don't want to miss this!