Becky McCray and Deb Brown both come from small (very small) Midwest towns, and have seen what has happened in rural communities over the past decades. They’ve created a company called because they “believe small towns can best be saved by their own people using their own resources.” They offer a weekly newsletter for free, and resources such as videos, courses and toolkits  for a fee.  

I was intrigued by their promotion of the concept of shared spaces, and how this can help retailers in smaller communities to succeed. Deb and Becky kindly offered to share their insights about this idea with the readers of this blog.

“We don’t have any standard answers or templated plans here at SaveYour.Town that we try to force onto every town, but we do have one recommendation that works for almost every town. And that is to divide big spaces for small businesses to share. In every small town, we see empty buildings that are hard to renovate and put into use. It’s expensive to bring them up to standard, and often it’s hard to get ownership transferred. We often hear that it’s hard to bring people downtown when there’s not enough to do there because there are so many vacant spaces or so few businesses.

Shared spaces offer a quick solution. When you have multiple tiny businesses in a single space, that generates critical mass, giving customers more choices. They also incubate more full-scale startups that graduate and move into buildings of their own offering even more life and activity downtown. 

In another challenge, I think every small town’s existing businesses struggle to keep up with the pace of change today, whether it is keeping up with marketing, or surviving the online competition. Believe it or not, shared spaces offer a solution here, too. When you create more tiny startups, you infuse new thinking into the whole business ecosystem. You can even put lively new startups inside existing businesses, putting them in direct contact and encouraging a little exchange of ideas. 

When we talk about shared spaces, the first thing people think about are shared retail spaces. Any retail space that has sat empty for one year or more, time to think about dividing it up!   The Village, Washington, Iowa, is one of our favorite examples. A huge old department store building sat empty for years, while the owners struggled to find any tenant that could fill the whole thing. Finally, a group of locals worked together to take 15,000 square feet of retail space, and divide it up into individual storefronts facing the inside of the building. It looks just like a little village inside the building. Each storefront is only a few hundred square feet, so tiny retail businesses can fill them up. Inside the tiny village square in the center, they set up push carts and card tables to give even smaller retail opportunities for even tinier startups. So you can start a business just on one table, then move up to a pushcart, then step up to fill a tiny storefront, then graduate to a space of your own in the downtown. 

Shared spaces don’t have to be downtown. Coppes Commons, in Napanee, Indiana, is in a huge former manufacturing space. The 100,000 square foot factory is being renovated, step by step. In the space they have already renovated, you’ll find an always-changing variety of small businesses are offering locally made, handcrafted and freshly baked items.

Shared spaces aren’t limited to retail. Co-working space can be as simple as a shared office. Think of all the people who run a business from their laptop or just from their phone. All those kitchen-table sized entrepreneurs could use a space to sit down and work outside their house, but they can’t afford to renovate a whole building just to have a place to work part of the time! 

One successful small town co-working space is in Pella, Iowa. Founder Joel Bennett said “Our focus was to provide a space where local small business people and entrepreneurs could work and collaborate in an environment that felt more professional than a coffee shop, more interactive than a home office, and more interesting than a table at the public library.” 

One of the simplest shared space ideas is Business inside a business. Think how many businesses you see in your town that aren’t using all of the space they have available. Maybe there’s a professional firm with an extra office, or an insurance company with a lot of empty space in the front room. Imagine new tiny businesses popping up inside of them! 

If you want to see an example that’s already happening in your town, walk into your local hair salon. You’re likely to find that the women who work there are actually independent contractors who rent their booths. Maybe there’s also a massage therapist seeing clients in a side room. They’re all tiny business owners. Look around at the retail displays. Besides the hair care products offered by the salon owner, you may see scarves and candles and all manner of retail items. These are pop-up temporary businesses, often set up by other potential entrepreneurs testing out the market. Except they don’t call themselves that. They think they’re “just” selling something as a side business. 

Shared Arts spaces can combine both retail and studio space. An arts space project is called Artisans at the Dahmen Barn, near Uniontown, Washington, population 300. A local family donated their old barn, and the Community Development Association renovated it for a retail store, several artisan studios, classroom space, bathrooms and a kitchen. They’ve been so successful they had to add a building they call the Loafing Shed as an addition! Artists aren’t the only ones making things that could use a shared work space. There are all kinds of makers, small manufacturers, crafters and craftspeople who could use shared working studios, shops or even garages. 

Finally, why not make a shared space that is a bit of a combination of different ideas Beth Reynolds shared an example with us, too. She said, “I started my job here in Ashland Massachusetts two years ago and have created a space that you would love called The Corner Spot. It is a pop-up park with a pop-up business incubator that serves as a brick and mortar store for any business wanting to pop up during the spring, summer and fall months. (We do winter events there too.) It also serves as a community gathering place for food trucks, music and a beer garden. Young people love a place to gather, listen to music, eat food and socialize. My little spot has proved all of that.”

Want to hear more? Every week SaveYour.Town offers a free newsletter, and you can sign up here. Each month they film a video about a challenge addressing issues in rural communities that their readers have told them about. You can bring them in to speak, do workshops, stay for a few days and/or keynote at a conference. Becky and Deb are also out in many communities throughout the year, so they know about the issues facing small towns first hand.

Happy Retailing,

Carol “Orange” Schroeder

Please note that there will not be a Specialty Shop Retailing blog next week because I’ll be attending the Las Vegas and NY NOW gift shows.