SAN LUIS, Colo. — Each morning as the sun curves over Main Street in this isolated desert town, Felix Romero takes the worn wooden steps from his upstairs apartment to his downstairs grocery.
He flips open the lock on a scratched blue door, turns on the lights and begins to sweep, just as his family has done since 1857.
But R&R Market — the oldest business in Colorado, built by descendants of Spanish conquistadors in the oldest town in the state — is in danger, at the edge of closing just as rural groceries from Maine to California face similar threats to their existence.
“If that little store closes, it’s going to be catastrophic,” said Bob Rael, director of the economic development council in Costilla County, where San Luis is the seat. “Reality is going to set in. Who let this happen?”
Across the country, mom-and-pop markets are among the most endangered of small-town businesses, with competition from corporations and the hurdles of timeworn infrastructure pricing owners out. In Minnesota, 14 percent of non-metropolitan groceries have closed since 2000. In Kansas, more than 20 percent of rural markets have disappeared in the past decade. Iowa lost half of its groceries between 1995 and 2005.
The phenomenon is a “crisis” that is turning America’s breadbaskets into food deserts, said David E. Procter, a Kansas State University professor whose work has focused on rural food access, erasing a bedrock of local economies just as rural communities face a host of other problems.
In New York or Los Angeles, the loss of a favorite establishment is an event to be mourned. But in this ranch town, where the closest reliably stocked market is 40 miles away, the threat to R&R Market raises questions about the community’s very survival.
Mr. Romero and his wife, Claudia, have worked in this shop seven days a week for 48 years, doling out bread and tamal flour, diapers and fishing rods, medicines and ranch tools. Now, they have reached their 70s and are trying desperately to sell.
The problem is finding a buyer at a time when owning the local grocery is a high-risk endeavor, and when President Trump’s budget proposal for 2018 calls for billions of dollars in cuts to aid for rural America, including programs like food stamps and business loans that help small groceries.
The White House has said the plan is intended to reduce the debt burden for future generations. But it has Republicans and Democrats alike expressing fear for rural districts.
To visit San Luis is to enter a world that has persisted despite, or perhaps because of, the most extreme of circumstances.
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