Grinnell, Iowa — In 1854, an abolitionist minister named Josiah B. Grinnell decided to locate a new town at a point where two as-yet-unbuilt railroad lines were expected to cross. It was a leap of faith, but the railroads did come and the town prospered. A college moved here from Davenport, Iowa, and took Grinnell’s name, and it prospered too. So did an insurance company, Grinnell Mutual.
And now, when other small towns face vacant storefronts and empty streets, Grinnell has an active downtown, a brand-new new public library, a new public swimming pool, and a sense of community that would be hard for almost any other town of 9,000 people to top.
There’s a Walmart down on highway 146, true, but Grinnell is full of small-town fans like Craig Cooper, the owner of Bike to You, who stopped in the downtown coffeeshop Saints Rest while I was there. Grinnell, he told me, is a great town to sell bikes in.
“It’s the right size community that I can still know my customers,” said Mr. Cooper (right), whose store is on the same block as Saints Rest. Around town, he’s known for letting customers trade in old bikes when they’re buying new ones, and for cheerfully offering even the most basic services, like putting air in customers’ tires. Among bike enthusiasts, he’s known because Bikes to You is a key player in The Des Moines Register‘s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, known as Ragbrai.
Most of Bike to You’s business comes from recreational riders, he said. Grinnell College students, as often as not, buy online—like other young people—but many staff and faculty members are loyal customers. “You accept the trends and figure out where you can still make a living,” he told me, but he added: “There must have been a time when people put more emphasis on relationships than on pennies.”
“I know my grocer, and I have coffee with my jeweler,” he said—and indeed he seemed to wave to, nod at, or speak with half the people in Saints Rest the morning I was there. He said many people in Grinnell think it’s important to know their merchants, but he acknowledged that “the American public has voted, with every dollar they spend at Walmart, for the lowest-cost structure.”
He knows better than to take that personally. And he’s doing what he enjoys. “I’m not making $100,000 a year,” he said, draining the last of his coffee, “but my lifestyle is pretty fantastic.” Then he stood and went down the block to open up.