Since early March of 1978, Altamont residents have been turning to S&W Supermarket for the essentials close to home—produce, fresh meat and cheese, boxed and canned goods, frozen foods, and household sundries alike. And in a time when many small towns have lost their grocery and general stores, the city of Altamont still has a close-to-home place to go for that last-minute toilet paper run, after-work ice cream perusal, or weekend grocery trip.
Interviewed in his office on a weekday morning, owner/operator Jerry White had plenty to say about small grocery stories—first and foremost, “personal.” As opposed to big box stores, mom-and-pop shops are often more willing to meet the individual customer’s unique needs, can be more familiar with their stock, and often have more of a stake in the welfare of their towns and the people who live in them.
“Jerry Spilker at the Home Center knows where widgets are. [A major hardware store’s employee] might not,” White continues. “The local pharmacy, the local hardware store, the local furniture store will help you.” At S&W, for example, employees routinely offer to carry groceries out to customers’ cars, regardless of the weather—White himself recalls carrying a bag of groceries outside in a 2017 snowstorm, when locals flooded in for fear of traveling outside Altamont to shop at larger stores.
Additionally, local stores often give back and reinvest generously with the community. S&W donates to schools, churches, and the local fire department on top of seeking out locally-based services like plumbing and electric (and, as our print readers may notice, advertisement). When you shop at a mom-and-pop store, “you’re not just helping the merchant… you’re helping the community,” says White.
This drive to buy, sell, donate, and serve the local all falls into a growing sentiment that calls itself the Buy Local movement. And White takes this movement very seriously on all fronts—he stocks local eggs from Shortlegs and Eggs of rural Altamont, Doug McCain’s Barbeque Sauce, Cookie Jar cookies and pastries, and Prairie Farms dairy products (while Prairie Farms is headquartered in Edwardsville, the cooperative sources dairy from family farms across the Midwest, including the Siddens, Wolff, and KJ Holstein farms that outlie Altamont). In the warmer seasons, he stocks local corn, asparagus, strawberries, and pumpkins, all grown locally and often much fresher than the produce stocked at chain groceries, which is often shipped cross-country before it hits shelves.
White also makes a point to keep his hiring local. High school and college students, often done up in dress shirts and ties like White himself, have long been a key fixture in the store. Many of these students have gone on to be successful in their own right: “I don’t know how many engineers we’ve had [as former employees,]” says White.
But running a community grocery or mom-and-pop in the digital age is an uphill battle. On top of competition from chain stores and online retailers (though White notes that the online sector’s footprint isn’t as evident in Altamont), small grocery stores are “fighting a myth,” as White puts it: the myth that big box stores are overall cheaper or more worthwhile. While major retailers can afford to squeeze down prices on essentials in order to compete, small retailers like S&W retaliate where corporate entities often can’t or won’t, offering extra customer service and the ability to directly serve community members and their needs. Though, that isn’t to say small grocery stores never fight back in price wars: White recalls one instance when he sold two percent milk for 99 cents a gallon with a purchase of $20 in other products. That same 99 cent milk cost White $2.50 per bottle to stock.
Despite the battle against corporate chains and big retailers, White holds out hope for S&W’s future. He looks forward to a day when Altamont’s main street bustles with shoppers and traffic on a Saturday morning—that, he believes, will be an indicator of community loyalty renewed. “If we lose the sense of loyalty in community… we lose the community.”
Starting to Buy Locally?
The Altamont News also urges readers to be careful when choosing to shop locally. When possible, pick a trusted mom-and-pop store over a local branch of a chain, and be careful when reading advertising material and when researching shop local initiatives—not all initiatives and retailers that use the “buy local” or “shop local” phrases are actually local. (For instance, while researching this article, we found shoplocal.com, which is a ZIP code-based advertising aggregator for a number of chain stores rather than a site supporting small business.) When in doubt, ask your trusted local business for their recommendations—often, they deal with other small or local businesses and can point customers in the right direction.
Consider shopping at the businesses, ventures, and people associated with other local businesses. If you buy groceries at S&W, consider stopping at The Open Door for lunch, and think about visiting The Cookie Jar for your morning Danish. Get your produce at the local grocer, but also visit the farmer’s market and the pop-up stands for additional fresh goods. Shop around at the local plumbing, electrical, and lumber services before heading to Menard’s or Home Depot. Putting money back into multiple facets of the local economy helps every venture stay open, and ultimately helps foster a healthy local business environment.
Additionally, look out for local ads, and spend time consuming the material that local businesses run their advertisements with. Many small businesses, like S&W Supermarket, advertise exclusively in local publications: if you pass up on the local paper and the local radio station, you might miss out on information about businesses who primarily advertise through those mediums. Despite the proliferation of online advertisement, not every business runs advertisement online.
And finally, keep an eye on the Altamont News for local business updates, circulars, and feature stories.