KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Grocery stores in rural America are often the economic engines and social centers of their communities, yet profits are hard to come by in sparsely populated areas. And that's forcing many of those stores to close. Now residents in one tiny North Dakota town have banded together to buck that trend. Meg Luther Lindholm has their story.
MEG LUTHER LINDHOLM, BYLINE: The town of Bowdon in central North Dakota sits like a tiny island surrounded by fields of soybeans, wheat and corn. Looming at the far end of the town's only paved street is the old brick school, which has been closed for years. Yet there are still signs of life.
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LINDHOLM: The Bowdon community grocery store is in the center of town. You'd have to drive 18 miles to find another food store. And without it, Bowden would all but disappear. That almost happened when the store's previous owner died. Nobody stepped up to buy a failing business.
PATTIE PATRIE: Without a grocery store in Bowdon, we were probably heading towards our demise.
LINDHOLM: Pattie Patrie chairs the town's economic development committee and watched this town's decline for years. But she and other longtime residents loved Bowdon and wanted to figure out how this store could be saved.
PATRIE: It was never a question of well, let's just let it go. Everyone in our town realized that we have to come together to solve this crisis.
LINDHOLM: People bought $10 memberships and $50 equity shares to jointly purchase what is now the Bowdon community grocery store. The goal is only to provide food for residents, the town's cafe and other businesses.
DAVID PROCTER: So the example of a community-owned store in Bowdon is wonderful. And it is an example of what we are seeing more and more across the Great Plain states.
LINDHOLM: David Procter tracks small-town stores for the rural grocery initiative at Kansas State University. He says that with the threat of more stores closing all across the country, communities are increasingly stepping up.
PROCTER: We are seeing more and more nonprofits run grocery stores. We're seeing high schools run grocery stores. We're seeing government step in and assist with the purchase and establishment of grocery stores.
LINDHOLM: The challenge of community ownership is figuring out how to get above the break-even point.
BRENDA GOODMAN: Hi. How are you doing today?
GOODMAN: I've still got the cottage cheese and the dried cheese curds, yeah.
LINDHOLM: Inside the Bowdon store, Brenda Goodman is restocking a large cooler while calculating how much more to buy.
GOODMAN: If I at the end of the month have a 1 or 2 percent profit - net profit - we're celebrating (laughter) because a lot of times, it's a half a percent. So we're talking maybe 100 to $200.
LINDHOLM: A new network of small-town grocers in North Dakota is now sharing tips and ideas. In Bowdon, residents opened a thrift store and a bakery to try to raise money to keep their grocery store open. The gambit is that with a bit of ingenuity, they can keep this store and their struggling town viable for years. For NPR News, I'm Meg Luther Lindholm.
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