Colorado's Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains form a giant petri dish where cultures have thrived in isolation from the rest of the world for centuries. The latest experiment has been the town of Crestone, home to 18 spiritual centers—including ashrams, stupas and a Baptist church—and Curt's natural grocery store.
Curt's is technically known as the Crestone Service and General Store, but the locals call it Curt's after the owner, Curtis Ward. Groceries, supplements, and health and beauty products crowd the 1,300 square feet of aisles in the 200-year-old mural-covered building that straddles a creek. The store's wooden floors are as warped and wavy as the creek itself; there are no bathrooms, and the water is delivered the old-fashioned way—from the well.
Recently, a supplier propped a case of olive oil atop a leaning tower of food. The oil fell and hit a case of glass soda bottles, spilling oil and soda everywhere. "It was awful," says store manager Lynn Ertle. "That happened at the high point of the store and then everything flowed down to the low points."
In spite of the trials of an old building, there are some things that make Crestone a paradise for a health food store. For one, the nearest conventional grocery store is an hour away. Secondly, many of the spiritual centers rely on Curt's to provide supplies for their pilgrims on retreat. As you might guess, people who are attracted to the spiritual power of Crestone also like to eat natural food. Some believe that Crestone is home to one of the great energy vortexes in the world. The geology beneath Crestone is a huge shelf of quartz, a mineral that is believed to be good for channeling energy.
Finally, Crestone is in the shadow of two of Colorado's famous fourteeners, mountains that are more than 14,000 feet tall, which attract hordes of hikers each summer. The Great Sand Dunes National Park is just an hour away, and even skeptics agree that there is a special quality of tranquility in the air.
Ward and his wife, Bernadette, bought the Crestone Service and General Store in 1982 as a regular old general store and gas station. As more spiritual centers moved into town and the area began to attract people who sought lifestyles that included eating naturally, the Wards gradually began to replace their conventional items with natural and organic foods. Now about 98 percent of the products in Curt's are natural or organic. In the summers, the store sells locally grown produce, and local honey is a hit all year round. Curt's even offers bio-diesel at the gas station, for which it has a small but loyal customer base.
The Wards ran the store themselves for 20 years, but have hired staff in recent years. Ertle, who used to be a manger at Wal-Mart, was hired 18 months ago and she guided Curt's through some changes.
"There used to just be stuff everywhere. You'd find taco shells in one aisle and then taco sauce in another," Ertle says.
She and the Wards did some reorganizing and also got rid of stuff that wasn't selling. "People here are pretty set in their ways, and [not stocking certain things anymore] upset some people. But I think that now they are used to the new way and things are moving forward," Ertle says.
Although isolation is part of what makes Crestone special, it also creates obstacles for stocking fresh produce and other perishable items. Supply trucks only come to Crestone twice a week, and on one of those days, Crestone is the last stop of a 24-hour drive. After all that time in a refrigerated truck, the produce would arrive frozen and barely edible. Produce Manager Lindsey Taylor has gone a long way towards improving the quality of produce by meeting with suppliers and talking with them about the specific needs of the store.
"Being able to put a face to a name on the phone has been great," Taylor says. "It's made a positive difference in the produce we get." Taylor also works with suppliers on orders from Crestone's ashrams and temples. Many of the spiritual centers hold frequent retreats as well as having regular residents. They are able to request items through Curt's, and Ward passes on some of the savings on big orders.
Although Curt's is a small store, it has a full-time staff of seven and two part-timers because the Wards still do a lot of things the old-fashioned way, including stickering every item by hand and running a cash register without a scanner. Summer, the tourist season for Crestone, can get pretty hectic.
"All of a sudden, a busload of people will show up at once and then things get crazy," Taylor says.
But not everyone who lives in Crestone is there for the spiritual centers or outdoor activities. There are folks who don't like, resent or can't afford "hippie food."
"I think that Crestone can be divided into two distinct factions: There's the old mining people who were born here, and I love 'em, but they'll still drive the 54 miles to get their groceries." Taylor says. "Then there are all the spiritual people."
There is also a bit of small-town teen angst. Both Ertle and Taylor laugh about the "pilgrimage" of the store mascot. Half of Moolah, a wooden cow that used to stand outside the store, was found in a tree; the other half floated down the river a ways before getting caught. Luckily, that seems to be the extent of any community troubles. Curt's makes an effort at community outreach by donating food to the annual Crestone Music Festival and other town activities.
One of the great things about having a health food store in Crestone is that despite the isolation, the people who frequent Curt's are often au courant with the latest trends in healthy living.
"Lots of our customers are travelers, and so they'll come back and say 'I was at Whole Foods, and I really liked this,'" Taylor says. Or they will request an item and Curt's will begin to stock it.
Big plans are on the horizon. Restocking and reorganizing the shelves has boosted sales, and the new income may go toward a move to a bigger space. Ward would like to move into a 4,000-square-foot store that would have room for stocking refrigerators and a receiving area.
"And plumbing," says Taylor.
"Yeah, bathrooms would be nice," says Ertle.
The new store's name would reflect the health food aspects of the products, and everybody is anticipating a few growing pains, but for now, Curt's is just Curt's.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 6/p. 82