Both have a junior college. Both were named All-America Cities in the 1990s. Both have populations of fewer than 6,500 residents. Both have a rural flavor residents hope to keep alive.
And both were featured in The Smithsonian Magazine in October 2004 — which is how residents in Saranac Lake, N.Y., learned about the Powell Mercantile.
Saranac Lake’s only department store closed in 2002, the same year Powell opened The Merc.
After residents in Saranac Lake learned about the community-owned Powell Mercantile, they wanted to know more about it. So five years ago, Sharon Earhart of Powell traveled to Saranac Lake, sharing the story of how Powell residents gathered together to create The Merc. Earhart served as the Powell Valley Chamber of Commerce director when The Merc was created following the closure of the clothing store Stage. She also was an original founder of The Merc.
At the end of Earhart’s week-long visit to Saranac Lake in 2006, more than 200 residents attended her presentation. Following that trip, Earhart left believing, “These guys are going to get it done.”
“They have so much pride in their community,” Earhart added.
From that initial visit, it took the New York community about five years to open its store.
By contrast, it only took The Merc founders about a year to open after raising more than $400,000 in just three months by selling shares for $500 apiece.
Earhart said part of the reason it took longer in Saranac Lake was because residents also were dealing the possibility of Wal-Mart opening there.
“They started with a controversy, but we just started with, ‘We need to fill this empty store,’” Earhart said.
Earhart said she is impressed with the community and its dedicated residents.
“Their tenacity just blows me away. They’re just wonderful people,” Earhart said.
Over the past decade, Earhart has spoken to an estimated 50 communities throughout the U.S. about starting stores based on The Merc’s model.
“People love the idea, but the key is to get the right people who are dedicated to follow this through,” Earhart said.
The idea for The Merc is based on a similar store in Plentywood, Mont., where the community sold stocks for $10,000 apiece. While most of the investors were Plentywood business owners, Earhart said original Merc founders knew the Powell model would need to look a bit different. Instead of relying on business owners, The Merc founders looked to residents in the Powell community, selling shares for $500.
“We knew that the more stockholders you have, the more owners you have — and then the more shoppers you have who will support it,” Earhart said.
In Saranac Lake, store shares sold for $100, broadening the support base even more.
Earhart said the model for a locally-supported store needs to be tailored for each community, to fit its needs and resources.
For most of its nine years, The Merc has operated in the black. There have been some tough years recently, but as The Merc approaches its 10th anniversary, Earhart said it’s thriving.
The New York Times featured the Saranac Lake Community Store in its Sunday edition, mentioning The Merc as the store’s inspiration. CBS’s The Early Show, The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s online magazine and CNN Money all have spotlighted The Merc since its 2002 opening.
Earhart said when it comes down to it, Powell residents decided they needed to invest in the community.
“Part of that is the old thought that, ‘We can take care of ourselves,’” Earhart said. “Powell’s always had that attitude — we’ve never expected anyone to take care of us. And I think it’s because we’re an ag community.”
Does Earhart plan to visit The Merc’s sister store in the Adirondacks, now that it’s up and running?
“Absolutely,” she said.