Friday, February 27, 2015

Embarking on new adventures

The open road...  We are yearning to get away for a bit. It's so cold and so hard to see the spring from my window next to the woodstove. The only newness I smell is the sleeping baby bundled up in her sling.

So it seems like the perfect time to hit the road. But we have a little something more than a vacation in mind.

We want to come back with stories.

Not just beach stories - we aren't very good tourists, really. (Tourism and large families just doesn't work.) We are heading out to uncover America. We want answers - we want to find out if there are other places, other communities, with firehouses and churches and cool little nature preserves, who have made strides in their struggle to become more resilient. We want to know if rural places just like us can tackle the big problems - like climate change and inequality and dismal economic conditions. While I know there isn't a magic bullet, I am still hopeful that bright, engaged people are making a difference. somewhere

I want to find those places.

So we are sending letters out - we wrote to Bill McKibben today, and he wrote back! - to find out if we can raise money and find those places. Then we are going to talk to those people and write about them and bring you back the stories. And take pictures. Hans says we must take lots of pictures. (It would be so much easier for him to just come along and take the pictures, but 6 kids AND a large dog in an RV... well, we just might need to lease the Tardis instead.)

And then we are going to learn from those places. And make things happen.

And so here's the kicker. We don't have much money, so we are asking for a little help from friends and fellow travelers (excuse the pun) to help us eat and buy gas. We'll be forging ahead with our 1976 RV, six kids (and maybe a few extras), a big tent and our sleeping bags.

We have a campaign set up at Indiegogo, and a Facebook page. Planning to get a more permanent home on the web soon, too.

You never know, maybe we'll get back and find that the next best thing would be to open up a general store in Medusa. You just never know.

Stay well, friends, and I hope our paths cross again soon.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Clearing the air...

So we closed. As of Dec 31st, we are longer operating the store. I was originally going to just post a note on Facebook, and be done. But I decided, after having some time to breathe, that a blog entry might clear up a few misunderstandings.

1. We are closing because running a store in our region is a lost cause.

Wrong. Our store supported a family of 5, and then 7 and 8, for years. It covered many mortgages and debt. Can someone else also do it? Yup. You won't make a ton of money - who, these days, is? - but it will be satisfying and successful.

We have always said that we had no intention of running the store forever. We had few employees capable of handling the day-to-day operations, which left one of us there, 12 hours or more a day. It meant that Jason literally worked 7 days a week, with a handful of postal holidays off, for years. That's too much.

Smarter folks might do it differently. Might do it better. Someone on my Facebook page wrote that we "weren't worthy to own the store". But we believed we were responding to a need, and to some degree, we were right.

2. We are closing because there aren't enough customers.

It is slower in the winter. I have tried to gently prepare you all for winters for years now - and by preparation, I mean that constant reminder that if you stop shopping here in the winter, we cannot survive. Mostly, folks remembered. But run the numbers - if the folks that live in the surrounding townships were to spend even $20 here every week, instead of Walmart or Stewart's or Hannaford, or Trader Joe's or Honest Weight, you wouldn't hear from me, and your store would thrive throughout the year.

I have lots of folks come in to remind me that the store was really incredible when Ernie and Ruth Bell ran it - how they remember their family coming here for their groceries once a week. Yet they can't buy more than a pack of cigarettes now. Or regaling me with near-mythical stories of the products that the Bells stacked in here, from floor to ceiling. They forget that we nearly doubled the size of the store. We might not sell glass or tires, but we offered a lot more fresh food than he ever did. And let's be honest, you wouldn't buy tires from me anyway.

3. We are closing because April (or Jason) pissed off too many customers.

I have no idea how to respond to this one. We have opinions - wallflowers wouldn't have reopened the store.

But it also never seems to occur to anyone that we are held to a much higher standard than a cashier at a big anonymous grocery store. We are somehow expected to offer you everything you want, for bargain basement prices, soothe your ego when today's paper offends you, solve your latest health crisis, all while carefully staying on the right side of your politics. And then you should be able to drift back to your life, anonymously. We cannot, always and flawlessly, live up to those expectations.

4. We are closing because we offer the wrong kind of products.

This is a favorite of mine. If only we offered product x instead, you would shop here instead. If only the water was priced 10 cents cheaper or we offered brand x instead of brand y, you would shop here. Take a walk in our shoes, just for a few minutes - how could we possibly satisfy everyone's cravings?

A corollary of this is the nasty messages I have gotten, accusing us of "forgetting" the locals, and that's why we are "being forced to close". Stunning, when you think about it. Often, in the same message is the accusation that I am somehow trying to force you all to eat organic food. Jason and I sold beer, loose tobacco, cigarettes, and gasoline. We ran a Boar's Head deli and sold Freihofer bread. All of these are were the results of direct requests.

Do you know what else "locals" wanted? Organic and gluten-free breads, fresh vegetables, Bob's Red Mill and organic pasta. They wanted junk food and sweets and Heather Ridge Farm chicken. And even though you would get angry because we were out of hotdog rolls occasionally, I stocked all of those things for you, local or not.

The problem was a simple one, and I have pointed it out to near-delirium: if you don't make a concerted effort to shop in Medusa regularly, whether or not we necessarily have this week's cheapest grapefruit or your flavor of potato chip, you risk us leaving, and then your choices are forever limited. Shopping local is, from this perspective, purely pragmatic. If you don't want to have to drive all the way to Greenville for gas, or just needed an ice cream sandwich, or really wanted to make a healthy dinner without driving all the way to Albany for the ingredients, then you had to make the effort to keep the store running. Too many of you chose Walmart and Honest Weight for us to want to continue.

We will forever be grateful for this experience - it was an amazing ride. This isn't goodbye - we love the hill towns and will continue to be involved. But it is the end of the Medusa General Store, at least for now.

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.


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,

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

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

* 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?