Hillsdale Natural Grocery Store sells a variety of bulk goods. Collegian|Cal Abbo

In the shadow of St. Anthony’s steeple, Hillsdale Natural Grocery occupies a space neatly hidden among several local store­fronts.

Walking inside, the prompt smell of spices over­whelms even the most expe­ri­enced con­noisseur. The spice room easily doubles the size of a college dorm. That’s what cus­tomers like the most, Michelle Nauta, the store manager, explained.

“You would be hard pressed to find the selection of spices and herbs we have,” she said.

Hillsdale Natural Grocery prides itself in spices, nuts, natural sup­ple­ments, and a diverse selection of diet foods; this isn’t the most unique quality. The store operates as a com­munity-owned coop­er­ative, meaning it isn’t con­trolled by an indi­vidual, but col­lec­tively by its members.

In 1971, according to Nauta, several fam­ilies wanted healthier food products than what Hillsdale could offer.

“They would actually get together, make their order, run up to Ann Arbor, get the food, bring it back to somebody’s house and split it up,” she said. “From there, it grew into opening up a store­front.”

One of the original members still comes in to help break down boxes, Nauta said.

Hillsdale Natural Grocery is open to the public, but only paid members can par­tic­ipate in its own­ership. For $12 per year, anyone can become a member, which grants access to special dis­counts as well as voting priv­i­leges at member meetings.

“Last year, we had … about 300 members,” Nauta said, flipping through a bright yellow legal notepad she found under a stack of papers.

At the annual meeting, six board rep­re­sen­ta­tives are elected while a pres­ident and vice pres­ident are elected bien­nially. Members also give feedback on product samples the store is con­sid­ering.

This uncon­ven­tional business model orients the store toward the interest of its members rather than a profit motive. According to its website, “Profits are returned to the business in the form of improve­ments or increased member ben­efits.”

Dianne Metevia, Pres­ident of the store’s board, believes that member own­ership is vital to the store’s success and identity.

“We pretty much make deci­sions on what the store does,” she said. “If they have ques­tions or any­thing, we advise them.”

While Nauta handles day to day oper­a­tions, the board ensures that members have a voice in the overall direction of the store.

Members also have the oppor­tunity to vol­unteer at the store to earn a further dis­count. For three hours of work, which could mean taking inventory, cleaning, bagging, or other everyday tasks, members receive a 15 percent dis­count for the fol­lowing 30 days.

Metevia said she per­sonally knows several people who take the oppor­tunity to vol­unteer.

“That’s part of the co-op,” she said. “If you go and help, you get a further dis­count.”

Some­times Metevia vol­un­teers herself even though she already receives the dis­count for being on the board.

The store’s uniquely natural products, in addition to its co-op model, drive its niche role in Hillsdale. According to Metevia, every­thing in the store is natural from the turmeric and brazil nuts, to the quail eggs and locally-pro­duced honey.

Unlike other grocery stores, cus­tomers can buy bulk items like spices, nuts, coffee, and even cheese in any amount they wish.

“You only get what you need and then you don’t waste space in your cup­board because you don’t have use for the whole con­tainer,” Joan Krauss, the assistant manager, said.

“A lot of people don’t under­stand you don’t have to buy a whole pound. You can get a quarter of a tea­spoon,” Krauss added. “Maybe that new recipe you wanted to try out, you don’t have to put out so much money for that spice.”

Natural sup­ple­ments line the wall behind the checkout counter, inducing squinty stares and endless ques­tions from cus­tomers. These are a main feature of the store; many cus­tomers come asking about natural solu­tions to problems usually addressed by pre­scription drugs with annoying side effects.

“To get a better selection of the sup­ple­ments and spices, you’d have to go to Ann Arbor or Lansing,” Nauta said.

Metevia added,“If you have a question about some­thing you might need a natural remedy for, they can show you in a book and give you sug­ges­tions.”

Hillsdale Natural Grocery boasts a wealth of infor­mation about natural living between all of the employees and the books laying around. Krauss said employees at the store often help cus­tomers shop for common diets like gluten-free or keto as well as more spe­cialized ones like a blood type diet.

“If they come in with a list of things that they need for their diet, we try to accom­modate what it is,” Krauss said. “Hope­fully we have some of the things on the shelf. If not, we look in our order book and see if we can obtain it. We don’t have all of the answers but we can gen­erally get in touch with somebody who can help the cus­tomer.”

The store dis­tin­guishes itself from larger ones by focusing on serving its cus­tomers, no matter their needs. Cus­tomers can request special orders at no extra charge and often spend a lot of time talking to the clerks.

Krauss said many new cus­tomers are sur­prised that the store is member owned.

“I think that gets people more involved in giving us their input, because they feel like maybe they’ll actually be heard. Most people come in feeling free to talk to us about what­ever’s on their mind. It’s not always just Hillsdale Natural Grocery. I almost feel like a bar­tender some­times,” she said, laughing.

Krauss’s job revolves around the service she’s able to give. “We take the time to talk to people,” she said.

“We learn from them as much as they learn from us, too.”

Nauta’s role, which she described as a “Jack of all trades,” barely feels like a job to her.

“I love the people that come in here. I love the dif­ferent things that we carry. It’s kinda sorta not like work,” she said. “There’s a lot of work involved, believe me, but it doesn’t feel exactly like work.”

Though the store has stayed busy since its opening, it has expe­ri­enced some hardship, espe­cially when bigger grocers move into Hillsdale.

“We took a hit when Walmart came in. We took another hit when Kroger revamped,” Nauta said. She added that she expects the same thing to happen when the new Meijer opens.

However, Nauta is con­fident the store will stay in business due to its strong mem­bership and quality of service.

“Nowadays, it’s all about con­ve­nience. People are in a rush,” she said. “But we have a very loyal fol­lowing of people in the area and that’s what’s keeping our doors open.”