General stores, thermometers of rural commerce
The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia
The Medusa living room: A customer of the Medusa General Store sits in its front window reading a book on March 8. The area is a gathering place for the store’s events and spontaneous debates.
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HILLTOWNS — If an elderly customer called during a bad snowstorm, Jake Clark drove basic supplies like toilet paper and milk from the Fox Creek Market.
A group of retired men talked in the store every morning as they sat and drank coffees. Memorabilia from a local man’s adolescence were displayed for sale above shelves of grocery products.
The market, known under a former name as “the Berne Store,” was closed by its owners, Joe and Caroline McMahon, on March 7 due to Mr. McMahon’s weakened health, said Richard Ganser, the market’s manager.
While the Fox Creek Market closed for its own unique reasons, the only store of its kind in the hamlet was emblematic of a small-town business that is desired in many rural communities.
Rural areas that, like the Hilltowns, are close to urban and suburban centers frequently struggle to maintain their own businesses.
When Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier grew up, his parents had run a general store in East Berne, which he likened in recent years to “downtown Beirut” when he first ran for public office.
“You weren’t competing against Price Chopper, and Shop Rite and Walmart. People weren’t as mobile as they are today,” said Crosier. “Things evolve. Things change.”
Crosier said he is seeking possible owners for the Berne store.
"I think they made it their business, being friends with some of the people,” Ganser said of the McMahons. Ganser lives with his wife and son in the second-floor apartment over the store. He said more than 100 pizzas were sold the day before the store closed. Mr. McMahon hugged and kissed customers farewell.
Ganser said he grew up in New York City but moved to the Capital Region for a slower pace of life, where, in food service, customers don’t rush in and out. If customers didn’t have their credit cards, McMahon would allow them to pay the next time they came in.
“To me, it’s easier for him to make friends up here,” Ganser said of his son. “In the city, you’re always worried about people moving.”
Ganser had worked at the Knox Country Store, the last independent business in the hamlet north of Berne, now closed and unable to be re-established under the town’s current zoning law. A proposed business district before the town board includes the property.
Ganser was hired by the McMahons in the fall with the hope he would cut costs and modify the menu to serve dinner specials like prime rib, fettuccine Alfredo, and roast pork. He stocked the coolers with craft beers, which he says sell better than the cheaper, larger-scale beers.
“The business is great,” said Ganser, casting off concern for the market’s future. He hopes he can rent it from McMahon. On a Friday evening, the store’s last on March 7, four other workers were at the store.
The market is in a central location near the intersection of routes 156 and 443 in the Berne hamlet. When Stewart’s Shops considered opening a franchise shop across from the school down the road, the market’s independent way of business was contrasted. McMahon was concerned his store wouldn’t survive if Stewart’s moved in.
Crosier believes more businesses can be better, attracting people to the area and boosting competition, he said. He expects the Hilltown Community Market, a farmers’ market in the Berne hamlet slated to be closed this summer due to low demand, will be re-opened eventually. The parking for its former location in the Masonic Hall wasn’t adequate, he said. “It’ll work,” he asserted of another market. “Maybe we have to move it up into East Berne where there’s more room.”
Charles Marshall, a real estate representative for Stewart’s Shops, said on Wednesday he was not aware of the market’s closing and his company has no contracts for stores or properties in Berne.
“It actually would affect our decision,” Marshall said of the market closing. “There are just some markets that are served by an existing business. The market is generally big enough for one player and especially if it’s an established player.”
Marshall estimated the area from which customers come to the store in the Berne hamlet, because it serves a rural area, to be expansive, including West Berne and East Berne, where the Countryside Market is linked to an Exxon Mobil gas station.
Big-box stores, with their bulk-priced inventory and all-under-one-roof variety, have larger customer bases that make it difficult for smaller stores to compete with them.
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.
Cities and suburbs are expected to grow, with a younger generation tending to choose urban living. After 60 years in decline, regional cities’ populations saw increases in the 2010 census, Ferraro said.
People aged 62 and older make up 18 percent of the total population in Berne (16 in Knox, 23 in Rensselaerville, and 19 percent in Westerlo), according to its 2010 demographic profile from the United States Census Bureau. By contrast, the numbers for 20- to 29-year-olds in the Hilltowns are lower than those in neighboring Guilderland and the city of Albany.
Ferraro said the Capital Region has historically seen migration of adults away from its counties, but the populations have been buoyed by more births than deaths, the baby-boom generation of those born between 1946 and 1960 being the most prominent example. The number of babies born to millenials — those reaching adulthood around the year 2000 — is not replacing the number of baby boomers who have died, he said.
“So, in order for this region to grow, we have to attract people from the outside,” said Ferraro. “How do we do that? Jobs and quality of life. Where are those jobs going to be? That’s a good question.”
Planners have suggested placing homes inside of or close to hamlets, where elderly residents who prefer living in rural environments can walk to businesses. A senior-housing project is planned for a site just outside of the Berne hamlet, to connect to its new wastewater treatment facility. Conceptual plans for a separate project on Knox Cave Road of 20 apartments for elderly people were approved by the Knox Planning Board this month.
“We would like to have stores and a post office and the necessities of life so that, when we get old, we don’t have to drive off the Hill for every single thing,” John Elberfeld of Knox said of himself and his wife, Jane McLean. The couple was at the Medusa General Store this month for the most recent meeting of Sustainable Hilltowns, a group that meets to discuss the local economy and way of life in the Hilltowns.
For four years, April and Jason Caprio have run the general store in the rural hamlet in Rensselaerville. They opened the store in defiance of the modern economic trends of globalization and franchising.
Jason and April Caprio grew up on either side of the hamlet. Ernie and Ruth Bell owned the store then, when it had a tire distribution center in the back. The Caprios saw re-opening Bell’s store as a way of helping the community.
“Go to your local Walmart and see how often they plow your local church parking lot,” said Jason Caprio.
The Medusa store has been for sale for two years, Jason Caprio said. The Caprios, who have hosted festivals, space for other businesses, and art shows at their store, call their endeavor public service and say they never wanted grow old at the store. They are raising five children and haven’t had a vacation since they opened the store.
In January, Michelle Catalano and her sister Sheena Tymchyn closed the Highlands Restaurant in Knox, which they had opened with their father in 2006. It’s now for sale for $249,000, which its real estate agent, Ravi Modasra, considers a competitive price.
“They’re getting to the point where they want to really retire and move on,” Modasra said of the owners. A message on restaurant’s website also cited economic pressures at the time it closed in January.
The 1780s farmhouse contains a dining area with an addition encompassing its tavern and an apartment on the second floor.
“In the off season, it’s not close to market generators,” said Modasra. “Ideally, it would work for someone that’s up there for the summertime and wants to capture that market and run a seasonal property.”
Catalano and Tymchyn acquired a special-use permit from the Knox Zoning Board of Appeals when they re-opened the business.
Zoning laws typically allow land uses to continue, even if they don’t conform to regulations, if they were started before the laws were created. A restaurant had been run from the site for at least half a century.
“I think the value of the property is the fact that it is grandfathered-in under that special-use permit, so there’s definitely a time-frame issue that has to be taken into account for any subsequent owner,” said Modasra, “and they have to make sure they can do a zoning verification.”