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"We had to save our city": How a radically rural small town persevered through a pandemic

Fall foliage in Keene, N.H.
Posted at 8:04 AM, Oct 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-21 09:51:25-04

KEENE, N.H. — This story begins with a roll of toilet paper.

In March 2020, a few days after so many businesses learned they’d be indefinitely closing their doors to in-person customers, a restaurant owner in a small town of 20,000 decided to try to put smiles on devastated faces.

“On a whim, we knew a toilet paper shortage was there,” said Luca Paris, owner of Luca’s Mediterranean Café in Keene, N.H. “We had bought toilet paper just in case, but we couldn’t use it, so from the first day, every to-go order had a roll of toilet paper in there.”

Each customer at Luca’s got a delivery bag with an order of food and a free roll of toilet paper. On each roll, Paris had written, “WE GOT YOUR BACK … SIDE.”

“What started happening was, they got home, and they laughed,” Paris said. “All we heard on the news were things happening that were bad: numbers rising, people were scared. For five seconds, we changed that.”

It’s the kind of gesture that, during that tumultuous period, defined Keene. Business owners and various individuals discovered new ways to connect. They invested in their community. Now, a year later, their community is reinvesting in them.

“What people don’t get about small towns is that it’s just a community wrapped in a small place,” Paris said. “We have that mentality of being here for each other.”

In many ways, Keene is a singular small town. It’s large by rural standards, but it’s hours away from a major city. Boston, New York, and Montreal are within driving distance but not nearly close enough to claim Keene as a suburb.

“Keene’s a unique place,” said Joe Tolman, owner of Bulldog Design. “It’s kind of isolated.”

“It’s a small map dot,” said photographer Lisa Scoville. “But there’s just enough people here to make it work.”

But when the pandemic forced everyone inside, Keene’s size threatened to work against it.

“Our livelihoods are built upon how well our towns are doing,” Scoville said. “And if our town isn’t doing well, if our people aren’t doing well, then we have no curb appeal. No foot traffic is coming in.”

Ted McGreer’s owns a shoe store named Ted’s Shoe and Sport.

“There are several towns right across the border in Vermont and even in New Hampshire whose downtowns are just kind of vacant,” he said. “We had to almost kind of save our city.”

How did they do it? With those small gestures.

“Our focus was, ‘No negative,’” McGreer said.

He helped arrange one of the first virtual 5K races in North America. Instead of paying for an entry fee, they would basically buy a gift certificate at a business of their choice. The 5K, McGreer said, raised roughly $25,000 in gift certificates.

A few blocks down, Tolman began The Great Gray Tee Project.

“It was creating T-shirts for local companies that they could sell and we would produce,” he said, “and they would receive the proceeds. Little Keene, New Hampshire raised $110,000.”

And Scoville decided to take and post a series of front porch photos of essential workers in the area.

“I wanted to make sure that everybody got the recognition they deserved,” she said, “so that the people at home could have a connection they couldn’t experience right now.”

Now in 2021, that high morale has turned into an enduring business.

“Business is amazing,” Paris said. “I’ve never seen so many people come through our restaurant doors.”

“It’s the best year we’ve had in 21 years,” McGreer said. “We’re probably up 32%. I do think people came back with a vengeance we never expected.”

Keene is used to being a center for small-town collaboration. Since 2018, it’s hosted the Radically Rural summit, where attendees from small towns nationwide arrive in Keene to learn innovations and ideas surrounding journalism, health care, the arts, and more.

“Radically Rural is about the collective,” said Mary Ann Kristiansen, founder of Keene’s Hannah Grimes Marketplace and co-founder of the summit. “It is about collaborating. It is about sharing freely great ideas that are working in different rural communities.”

The summit is about bringing together communities who are often siloed and don’t get the natural benefit of collaboration.

“We started the event really to help rural communities build density,” she said. “We have rural areas, isolated pockets, and we’re looking to bring them together.”

The cooperation seen at the summit, so many in Keene say, is the same quality that helped the town persevere through the pandemic—from a virtual race to rolls of toilet paper.

“I think it stems from doing for others in a way that’s going to benefit you without even trying,” Paris said. “When something goes on, everyone comes together and makes it happen.”