Village store revival? German towns opt for community over big-box retailers

Why We Wrote This

When local shops close, it’s not just a loss of convenience for townspeople, but also a loss of community. Some Germans are trying to reverse that by bringing back “dorfläden,” or village stores.

Isabelle de Pommereau
When retailers closed their doors one after the other in Farchant, Germany, Peter Böhmer took matters into his own hands and rallied villagers around resuscitating the local dorfladen.

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Since the 1970s, tens of thousands of dorfläden, or village stores, have vanished from Germany’s rural areas, driven out by discount retailers. But people like Peter Böhmer are reversing that trend. A few years ago, he reopened the dorfladen in his village of Farchant, and it has been going gangbusters ever since.

Today his bustling shop is a sturdy community anchor with 14 employees, serving an average of 300 customers daily. Their “going local” vision earned it the title of “Village Store of the Year” this past winter at the International Green Week food industry trade fair.

“Instead of selling bonds, you’re selling groceries and humanity to your fellow residents,” says Gunther Lühning, president of the nonprofit German Association of Village Stores. With sustainability having risen to the top of national agendas, Mr. Böhmer is playing his part, cutting transportation and pollution costs, boosting the local economy, and strengthening his community.

“Whoever thinks ahead buys locally”: The sign inside the dorfladen captures Mr. Böhmer’s philosophy. “There is incredible energy,” he says. “People are coming up with new ideas every day.”

It’s noon on Saturday in this remote village of 3,800 nestled in the foothills of the Austrian Alps. Life inside the dorfladen,
or village store, is in full swing.

Villagers gather to chat over a cup of coffee, grab their daily yogurt, or purchase local wurst. Peter Böhmer, the banker-turned-founder-and-manager of the five-year-old dorfladen, navigates between shelves of various staples and stacks of cheese before swinging over to a group of women seated by the window. He balances a tray of macchiatos served in porcelain cups.

Outside, a rainstorm is brewing. Inside the store – a 1,400-square-foot food co-op of sorts – life is good, like it used to be when Mr. Böhmer was growing up. At that time, Farchant still had at least two bakeries, two butchers, and four general stores. He could pop over anytime to get his gallon of milk.

But things changed in Germany. Discounters began pushing out dorfläden with their rock-bottom pricing and large selection. As people’s shopping habits turned digital, brick-and-mortar shops were left struggling, and village centers drained of their life. As retailers closed their doors one after the other in Farchant, Mr. Böhmer said he felt like a part of his soul also disintegrated.

A key moment came seven years ago when the village’s last grocer moved to a neighboring industrial park. Mr. Böhmer had known the family since childhood. The shift coincided with a time of turmoil for him, and it unleashed new energy.

Disillusioned with the financial world, Mr. Böhmer had quit his job at the local savings bank to become a jack-of-all-trades at an Alpine hikers’ hut nearby. Doing anything from milking cows to serving meals to hikers on a 5,250-foot mountain summit, he felt in harmony with his surroundings.

“I reconnected with life,” he says. “I had time to reflect upon my life.”

The idea of resuscitating a local store in his village crystallized during that time. More than just retailing, Mr. Böhmer envisioned rallying villagers around a shared effort to harness local talent and resources, and make Farchant a healthy community for the long haul.

It was a difficult journey. Fifteen discounters had settled within a 3-mile radius. How could a tiny general store survive? Ultimately, though, a market study showed not only that villagers wanted a grocery shop back, but also that they were eager to help make it happen. The village came together. Some 300 residents each bought a piece of the dorfladen for roughly €200 ($225), raising the €70,000 ($78,600) necessary for it to come alive. The Farchant dorfladen opened on Aug. 13, 2013.

Improved quality of life

Today Mr. Böhmer’s bustling dorfladen is a sturdy community anchor with 14 employees, serving an average of 300 customers daily. Their “going local” vision earned it the title of “Village Store of the Year” this past winter at the International Green Week in Berlin, the world’s largest food industry trade fair.

“Instead of selling bonds, you’re selling groceries and humanity to your fellow residents,” says Gunther Lühning, president of the German Association of Village Stores, a nonprofit group promoting the spread of community stores in the country. With sustainability having risen to the top of national agendas, Mr. Böhmer is playing his part, cutting transportation and pollution costs, boosting the local economy, and strengthening his community.

Although the dorfladen’s income has doubled, profits get reinvested in the store. “With their money, shareholders want to make sure the store survives,” says Mr. Böhmer.

While tens of thousands of village retailers have vanished from Germany’s rural areas since the 1970s, new ones are popping up every month. They come in a variety of forms – some offering postal services, others medical services – testifying to an increasing willingness on the part of ordinary people to take the initiative to improve their communities.

This pushback against big-box stores and the way of life they define taps into a surge of environmental awareness that has been sweeping Western Europe. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Farchant. Here, Mr. Böhmer’s dorfladen “is only the start, a tool to implement his vision for a future where people collaborate, driven by solidarity and concern for local products,” says Christina Hertel of the Technical University of Munich. Mr. Böhmer, she says, has turned villagers into “agents of change to build a community that tackles its own problems, instead of waiting for others to take care of them.”

Of the 300 village stores established in Germany since the 2000s, roughly 100 were launched within the last five years, in part thanks to visionaries like Mr. Böhmer, says Dr. Hertel. She says there is a “shift in values” among young Germans “who want to see their kids grow up in a well-functioning village.”

That appears to be true among young people in Farchant. “They, too, are beginning to understand that this ‘ever greater, bigger, faster’ way of life has reached its limits,” says Gabriele Möckl, a village retiree. “They’re coming back to the way things used to be and going local – buying local eggs, milk, cheese, and meat. A stake is securing the future of the next generation.”

“New ideas every day”

“Whoever thinks ahead buys locally”: The sign inside the dorfladen captures Mr. Böhmer’s philosophy. “There is incredible energy,” he says. “People are coming up with new ideas every day.”

Take the villager who raises her own cattle on a small patch of grass. Mr. Böhmer persuaded her to offer her beef to her fellow residents, making her one of four local farmers he relies on for milk products and meat. He says he chooses his suppliers carefully from within a 60-mile radius.

The beef he offers is quality meat, coming from cattle fed on local grass, not grain or hay. “I see every animal that gets slaughtered,” Mr. Böhmer says. Recently three local calves were butchered, yielding 860 pounds of meat. It was processed into small packages of 10 to 20 pounds each. An ad in the local paper let people know about it, and they could sign up for a cut of their choice. “We use the whole animal, not just fillets.”

At the meat counter, Sabine Strobl is giving customers tips on how to prepare and store lamb. As a certified butcher, she is part of an old German trade in high demand these days. She could work anywhere, maybe for more money, but Farchant is where she was born. “Here you deal with people,” says Ms. Strobl. “Unconsciously, you’re doing social work.”

“I work here for the cause, to keep the village alive.”

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