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Colorado’s Oldest Grocery Store Changes Ownership

The new popular San Luis Market will continue the unbroken 165-year legacy of R&R as a social and economic hub, with the goal of increasing mutual aid and strengthening local food security by partnering with farmers and to farmers in the region.

Under the direction of Devon Peña — the Acequia Institute founder and professor at the University of Washington — the store will become a local cooperative. The Peoples Market is largely supported by a Community Health Project Grant from the Colorado Health Foundation.

“There’s nothing new here,” Peña pointed out in his plans for the popular market. “Everything we do is based on local, place-based knowledge. It is a revival of cultural memory and a restoration of traditional land ethic and traditional relationships between people.

The market has always been more than just a grocery store, Romero said. “I call it an institute. This is where people get to know each other and understand certain things in life.

Felix Romero outside the R&R Market in San Luis, a business he owned for 52 of his 165 years.

After half a century of managing the Main Street staple, Romero will now have time to do what he loves: writing. He is finishing a book about the region that he started years ago but never finished.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said of the retirement. “How soon will I recover from this, I don’t know.”

As this story draws to a close, its sequel is already being written: Peoples Market has just awarded local farmers their first grants to grow food for the market’s inaugural 2022 season.

Left to right: Enrique Molina, Jose Molina, Devon Peña, Charlie Maestas, Ronnie Cordova, Alonzo Lobato Sr., Alexis Lobato, Amayas Maestas, Carlos Lobato and Huberto Maestas are the first farmers in the community to contribute to the popular market in San Louis. Photo courtesy Shirley Romero Otero

San Luis was first called San Luis de la Culebra, from the name of the River it was decided. The Culebra weaves like its namesake mountain snake through desert fields 9,000 feet high, one of many rivers feeding an extensive hand-dug irrigation system acequias.

Founded in 1851, San Luis was one of the first permanent settlements in what is now Colorado – although Spanish and Mexican forces were trying to settle land grants in southern Colorado for many years, unsuccessfully fighting tribes such as the Southern Ute, Diné, and Jicarilla Apache. Locals tell stories of Aboriginal ancestry, warring nations and their own citizens, founded at a strange time: after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, before the territory of Colorado. Whatever it was then is now; a mixture of the Old World and the New World which creates a specific solidarity.

Growing up just outside of San Luis, Romero’s mother used to send him to the R&R Market for basics. “I used to ride my farm bike,” he recalls.

Yet the legacy of his store-owning family was not front and center. “We didn’t really realize how important it was until later in life,” Romero said.

Now he is a legend. In 1857, four years before Colorado became an official territory of the United States, Dario Gallegos and his business partners opened the oldest continuously operated store in what would become the state of Colorado. Early products included pulses, cornmeal, coffee, salt, cloth, and tobacco. In order to replenish the city’s stock, 11-hour round trips were made to St. Louis by horse and wagon, with goods frequently intercepted by native tribes.

The story was current. Antonio Alcario Salazar, who took over the store with Gallegos’ widow in 1874, was from Abique. In 1851, he marched to San Luis with his mother after his own father was killed by indigenous Utes while trying to establish a village along the Río Culebra.

Although fires destroyed the store in 1895 and 1947, it was rebuilt on the same land and expanded. As a trading center, it brought the region’s first agricultural machinery, barbed wire fences, and alfalfa seed.

Romero browses through old photographs in the attic of the R&R Market, now the popular San Luis Market.

The inhabitants grew corn, beans, peas, potatoes and cattle. Growing up, Romero’s family also grew most of their own food. He helped irrigatepicking potatoes, packing hay, feeding animals and cutting firewood.

“We didn’t have much, but we were happy kids,” Romero said. “We just survived by working.”

Romero took over operations of R&R Market with his father, George, in December 1969 after graduating from Adams State University in June.

“My dad called me one day and said, ‘How would you like to get into business?’ And I said, ‘Uh, I don’t have any money,'” Romero recalled with a laugh. “And he said, ‘Well, we’re going to come in as partners. I’m going to put the money in, you handle it. And it’s going to be a 50-50 thing.

It was 52 years ago.

Felix and his father George took over the R&R Market in 1969.

“The first day we opened the store, I had no idea what was going on,” Romero recalls. Overwhelmed, “I’d find myself walking through the aisles, you know,” he laughed.

His memories of the early days of operating R&R are tinged with the vibrancy of local characters.

“It was fun. The 20th of the month is when old people get their pensions. It was like a vacation,” Romero said. “The town was booming. You couldn’t get people in here. sometimes. Those were great days.

One of her favorite aspects is being a trusted ear. Sitting in the back office, people approached the window to “ask me for advice,” Romero said. “I enjoyed that. Any problems, they would come to me.

This caught the attention of the local priest.

“Father Pat, one day he said, ‘What, are you giving me a confession contest now?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah! The only thing is that I can see people talking, and you can’t! »

A staple of the local social sphere, R&R also provided basic food items, such as milk, bread, meat and beans, Romero said. His family has always supported the local barter and trading economy by exchanging produce with local farmers for fruits and vegetables that they would sell at the market. “We traded with farmers here, and for anything coming from New Mexico,” Romero said. “We traded apples, Chile, you name it. We used to trade wheat to make flour.

Romero remembers his father bringing 100-pound sacks of wheat to the flour mill on the outskirts of town and returning to the store with sacks of flour.

At a time when the banking system often did not lend money to farmers and ranchers in Costilla County, Romero’s family extended credit for provisions.

To pass the shepherding season, “guys who had sheep would open a credit account, and we would carry it for a year,” Romero said. “And in the end, in the fall, when they sold their lambs or whatever, they never failed. They came to pay me. We continued like this for many years. And it was like that before me,” Romero said. “We are all a family. If someone needed something, he came to see me and I never refused him.

Romero said it’s those everyday community connections that he will miss the most.

Romero and Borrego worked side by side at R&R Market for 19 years.

Carmelita Borrego, who was hired by Romero’s father 19 years ago, said she wished her boss the best.

Borrego remembers the day she met Felix; it was also the day his family gave him a job. She worked across the street at a gas station that was for sale.

“That day, I found myself without a job. So Felix’s dad is there and says, ‘Don’t worry. You have a job across the street. Cross the street if you want a job,” Borrego said.

They have become like family, she says. “I will miss it very much. When someone opens the doors to you in their heart, you have to appreciate it.”

Borrego and other staff will remain in the market through its transition and beyond, Peña said.

“We have about 100 years of knowledge and skills on this staff,” Peña said. “They are the experts.”

Peña’s plans for the market include contemporary reflections on the self-help Romero remembers, such as a revolving loan program, as well as expanding the market’s function as a center for nutrition education. This is all part of a rebirth of the solidarity economy that Peña and Romero recall as essential to the survival of the region.

“It’s not just a building. It’s a tradition. It is an institution. It is the heart of the community,” he said. “It’s what brings people together, not just to buy food, but to share their lives.”

The popular San Luis Market “anchors the main street”, said Peña, who noted that the main street was “on the verge of being reborn”. It is essential to bring back the R&R services provided historically, such as a place where local producers sell their crops.

A regional shift has occurred over time, moving from a system of barter and exchange to a primary monetary economy, Peña said. It started in the 1850s when the area was changed from Mexican law to a territory of the United States. Like a the dividing line was drawn between Colorado and New Mexico, the land and water deeds were challenged by the new government, creating the start of poverty for many in their new lives. The subsistence lifestyle has been challenged as it continues through privatization and rehabilitation commons throughout the second half of the 20th century. All along, farmers made economic decisions, limiting herds and food and crop production on the same scale. As cultures changed, the local diet and the availability of certain fresh foods also changed.