Like so many villages tucked in the folds of the French countryside, the centre of Sauxillanges faced a near-certain death.
Surrounded by rolling hills in the rural Auvergne region known for its cheeses, the 1,250-strong community had one grocery store in the heart of the village.
In 2016, the shop closed down, as had the pharmacy and the florist in its place before. As often as can happen, the owner envisioned up scaling to a medium-sized supermarket located on the village’s outskirts instead.
But a dozen inhabitants had other ideas. They decided to buy the shop, and in September 2017 a small cooperative called l’Alternateur (The Alternator) opened, run by volunteers – today, including a nurse, several teachers and pensioners – selling mostly organic and local products.
The project received the blessing and support of mayor Vincent Challet, who is hoping to be re-elected March in local polls across France, which will be a major test for President Emmanuel Macron and his ruling party as they plan for a 2022 presidential vote expected to be a showdown with the far-right.
“The future of shops in rural areas is a worry shared by many council members, because people don’t want to live in the centre and would rather live on the outskirts,” the 54-year-old said.
“L’Alternateur is part of these alternative, eco-friendly experiences, which offer something different and local.”
“It’s a change of society… It’s there that our future lies,” he said, pointing out the artisan soap maker and the organic bakery, which recently opened.
Maxime Escot, 39, is a regular customer.
He lives in the closest town, 13 kilometres (eight miles) away, Issoire, and is willing to make the journey because he’s looking for “organic products, a lack of intermediaries, a different economy” he would like to see more of elsewhere.
“It works very well,” he said. “The idea is to encourage village life.”
A lot of organisation
Pumpkins, marrows and nuts cohabit in the front window with tinsel and other festive decorations still in place in early January.
Inside, Agathe Sartre, 75, dressed in an orange jumper and a beige apron, welcomes customers with laughing eyes behind her glasses and a warm smile.
A tourist guide abroad for many years, she has been living in Sauxillanges for the past seven years, and now transforms into a grocer several hours a week.
“We’re all volunteers. Every month we sign up on the rota. The grocery shop needs four people a day, it’s a lot of organisation,” Sartre said.
A large board hangs in front of her, with 60 volunteers’ names slotted in under the days, which are divided into two shifts.
Such a system allows the shop to open every day of the week.
Inside, fruits and vegetables line up next to batches of refrigerated products.
On the shelves, sugar, flour, oil, cleaning products, tinned food and honey are all stacked. In total, there are more than 500 different items.
L’Alternateur has set itself a golden rule: not to compete with the other shops in the centre, namely a butcher’s, three bakeries and a bookshop.
“We try to sell a maximum of local and bulk products,” said Sartre.
Labels indicate how far the products have travelled: 10, 50 or more than 50 kilometres.
“In ‘Alternateur’, there is ‘terre’ (earth in French) and ‘alternative’,” said the pensioner, with a warm smile.
On delivery day, the volunteers – Mady, Line, Louis and Agathe – take the boxes from the street into a cold-storage room, which they acquired thanks to the first profits they made.
Since opening, the enterprise has proven successful. “Sales are growing and we would like to find larger premises,” said Mady Romero, a 75-year-old volunteer.