When a Jewell grocery store announced earlier this year it was closing its doors for good, the community made clear it would not give up the store without a fight.
A fight which was quickly won, as it now looks to reopen early next month.
It all started in January, when Heartland Market at 607 King St. in Jewell — owned by rural grocer Nick Graham at the time — announced the store’s permanent closing. With only a few days’ notice, everything was discounted to 50% off and a sign in the door read, “Thank you for letting us serve you over the years,” as previously reported by the Tribune.
The store, which had run as Anderson’s Meat and Grocery for more than 25 years prior, was the city’s only grocery provider, and was seen as a staple in the community. That’s why, according to Garren Zanker, something had to be done to ensure it stayed that way.
“This was my first job when I was 15, when it was Anderson’s Meat and Grocery,” said Zanker, a Stanhope native who later attended Iowa State University, worked at Fareway for 19 years and then at Hy-Vee for another four years. “I just feel obligated to (be a part of saving the store), and it’s nice to know that I can be here for my community.”
That’s also why Zanker became part of a group of local residents who began working to not only save the store but turn it into a community-owned market.
Fundraising for the community market
The group, which consisted of a five-member board of directors and volunteers, created Jewell Market LLC, and started selling shares for $400. They also began reaching out to community members for donations and hosting fundraising events every Sunday.
According to Zanker, “Every Sunday we had something, and every Sunday we ran out and had cars wrapped around the corner,” which cemented his belief the support to keep the store running was there.
Mischelle Hardy, who has lived in the area since 1998 and was also one of the first board members, previously told the Tribune losing the store was not an option for the community, because “having a grocery store is a huge part of people moving into the community.”
Hardy also said the closure would affect every person within the area, because for the roughly 1,200 residents of the city, they need to drive at least 10 miles to access fresh produce and vegetables. For older residents, this is a major complication, and for campers at nearby Little Wall Lake there would be less reason to visit town.
The group set an initial goal to raise $220,000, allowing them to restock the shelves, cover three months of expenses, make necessary repairs and work with a grocery store warehouse. They met that goal on May 10, and by time of publication they had exceeded the goal, raising more than $250,000 between shares, donations and grants.
That’s how Jewell Market became a reality.
Stocking the shelves
In early May, as soon as the goal was met, work to prepare the building for reopening began.
The board of directors, which has now grown to have 10 members, offered Zanker a full-time position as the store’s manager, and hired two other full-time employees, four part-time adults and a handful of high-school-aged kids.
With the help of volunteers, they put up new signage, repainted the interior, updated the electrical and “a lot of other stuff that you won’t really see when you come in, you won’t notice it, but it’s more updated and up-to-code,” Zanker said.
On Tuesday, the store’s new shelving was already installed and the aisles were lined with carts filled with products waiting to be put away. There is still a lot to do before opening day, Zanker said, but “it’s getting there.”
“There is no way we can have Walmart or Hy-Vee’s selection, that’s just not going to happen, but if we have the essentials and take care of the (community’s) fresh produce and fresh meat, then at least they know they can rely on us for a dinner,” Zanker said.
He hopes to open at the beginning of July, and encourages shoppers to check the store’s Facebook page for updates.
Alison Hassebrock, secretary of Jewell Market’s board and life-long resident of Jewell, said she looks forward to welcoming people into the new store, to show them the result of the community’s support and the selection which includes locally-sourced products in addition to its grocery and meat.
“I am looking forward to not having to drive 20 minutes to go get groceries, and I also continue to look forward to seeing the community rally together to support each other,” she said. “The market is going to carry local products made by people who we’ve known for a long time in our community, and the idea of just being able to come together again is also amazing.”
She said the community itself is the reason the market has gotten where it is today, and she is grateful to the businesses and individuals who contributed.
“We’ve seen different organizations come together and local businesses donate, which is not an easy task when you are already a small business owner. We saw many businesses from our Main Street community come forward and donate contributions or proceeds to us. We’ve seen lots of fundraising come from individuals who just want to give,” she said.
“I think that everybody knew there was a vested interest, and because everyone is vested in it, I really believe it’s going to be a success. And we will all reap the benefits of that success.”
A community habit of coming together
For the citizens of Jewell, coming together in a time of need to save something the community relies on having is not a new concept.
In 2001, community members came together and created an LLC to save its hardware store, Jewell Farm and Home, and as Hardy previously told the Tribune, “that’s been going wonderfully, and it’s seen success for 19 years as a community-owned LLC.”
For Jewell Market, they used the core structures and ideas to recreate that success, and according to Zanker, it’s been working — despite the fundraising period taking place during a global pandemic. As COVID-19 continues to spread across the nation, Zanker said having the store is more important than ever before.
“Especially now, it’s important for us to have community spirit and bring everybody together,” he said. “That’s what something like this does.”
It’s also, according to Iowa Workforce Development Director Debi Durham, who wrote a letter to Zanker following the store’s announcement in May it had reached its goal, “inspiring.”
“Grocery stores play a vital role in small communities, both economically and socially, and yet they are disappearing from rural America. The citizens of Jewell rallied to buck this trend through smart, strategic thinking and Iowa grit,” Durham wrote. “I wish you all the best in your efforts to reimagine Jewell Market as a cooperative that will help drive a strong local economy, not only through this time of recovery but for generations to come.
“Jewell represents what I love about Iowa.”