photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

The Power of One (x 600): Building a Community Store

When Pope Benedict XVI issued Caritas in Veritate in 2009, the world was still reverberating from the bank failures and global economic crisis that followed.  His message was timely, and a piercing assessment of the personal and social, as well as economic, missteps that led to the crisis.  But he was also prescriptive, laying out a course of thought and action that would lead to a stronger, better world.

The Holy Father emphasized the need for new business models that consider not only management and shareholder, but “other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference.” (Caritas in Veritate, 40)

I thought of Caritas in Veritate when I read about The Community Store in Saranac Lake.


[Link to slideshow on New York Times website:]

Saranac Lake, New York, is a small town nestled in the mountains of the Adirondacks.   The local department store went out of business in 2002 after its parent company filed for bankruptcy. Since then the residents have had to drive 50 miles to get the basics of daily life. While internet shopping partially fills the gap there are items like socks and t-shirts and sweaters that are preferably purchased in person.  Plus there is the strengthening of community that the residents get by shopping in person.

So the residents of Saranac decided to open their own department store. They began raising funds by selling shares, $100 each, and five years later reached their $500,000 goal. Around 600 residents were investors. Last October, the Saranac Lake Community Store opened its doors to the public.  As its website says, the store is a place where you can “meet a neighbor down the street,” where you are “greeted with a friendly smile and a warm hello.”

In a letter to the editor of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, a Saranac resident explains why the store deserves support:

This year, I’ll be writing another [check] for the Community Store – not because it will save women walking miles to get water, or because it will protect unique ecosystems in South America, but because it will save someone right here in my Saranac Lake family the cost of a tank of gas or the trip in a car, someone who can’t afford any extra miles.

When there is so much that the world needs, is our Community Store really so important? Yes! I know too many people living right here who are poorer this year than they were last, who are practicing household economies that they never dreamed of before now. By bringing the Community Store to Saranac Lake, I can help them while helping myself.

The Saranac community is a recent example of “community stores,” a business model that reflects what the Holy Father is talking about. It’s about more than shareholder profits. It’s committed to its community because it is the community.

One group estimates there are around 300 community stores in the U.S. today, serving small and medium-sized communities.  But community enterprises don’t have to be small. The Green Bay Packers has been a publicly owned, nonprofit corporation since 1923. Today, 4,750,937 shares are owned by 112,158 stockholders–the team’s fans.

I have written before about the power that one person has to create change. The Saranac story multiplies that by 600. It tells us there are no limits to the possibilities born out of working together for the common good.

What are your ideas? How can we use this model to help those who are poor? Would this model work in your community?