04/06/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT
Rick Mills picks up a fresh-cut T-bone steak from the gleaming meat counter at the Walsh Community Grocery Store. "Isn't it beautiful?" he asks a visitor.
His pride is justified: Just two years ago this Colorado farming and ranching community (pop. 640) saw its only supermarket shut down after being sold to an absentee owner. With the nearest alternative 20 miles away and 4-ft. snowdrifts in winter, it became clear, Rick says, "we had to get our grocery back."
Deciding against a feasibility study—"it would have cost $30,000, and they'd have told us not to do it," says resident James Hume—the town called a meeting. There, people voted to reopen the store as a cooperative. More than 300 residents bought shares at $50 each; they raised $195,500. "People lined up to write checks," Rick says.
Today the store is thriving. It stays open seven days a week, employs 14 and grossed $1 million in sales last year, nearly double those of the previous owner. Customers love the fresh produce, organic foods—and chance to catch up on gossip. "This is the local hangout," says shopper Shalah Howard, 55. Which, in a way, is the point: "Without a grocery, a town suffers big," says James, a store board member. "This makes a huge difference."
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