Closing Up Shop
The Granary has only been open for a few minutes on a Wednesday morning, and already owner Leena Scholten is making a difference in the lives of her customers. One woman tentatively asks about a certain kind of aloe she’s heard will help soothe radiation burns, and Scholten shows her what others have sworn by. Another client needs guidance with selecting foods based on her health concerns, and a third praises the local eggs Scholten sells from an organic farm near Brush Valley.
Scholten takes time with all of them, her easygoing demeanor and quiet knowledge making each purchase feel personal. It’s a selling style and a unique store that are relied on by many community members, and both will be missed: After 29 years in the organic and ethnic food and products business, Scholten is set to retire and close her doors for good on April 14.
“I’m excited and happy,” she says of her impending retirement. “I look back and think I’ve offered a very valuable service to the community, because I think food is the basis of all health.”
Scholten learned that from an early age, having grown up in Helsinki, Finland and spent summers on a great aunt’s farm in the countryside.
“Food did not travel very much in those days, so you ate what grew near you. Everything was fresh and local,” she says. When she immigrated to the United States in the mid-1960s, she saw that food was produced and consumed very differently here.
Scholten settled in State College in 1974 and for a time worked at the only local natural food store, New Morning. “That evolved into the College Avenue Market, and I worked as the business manager there. Then the owner moved away, and that enabled me to open my store,” says Scholten, who bought all of the fixtures from the College Avenue Market, along with some of the inventory, and opened The Granary in 1988 in what was then a new retail and office building on West College Avenue.
“I was the first occupant of this space,” she says. “It worked out very well.”
Many of her first clients were vegetarians, in a time well before the dietary choice became mainstream.
“Back then [vegetarianism] was a little off the beaten track,” she says. “In those days, if you were a vegetarian you didn’t want to hear the word ‘meat.’ I would have absolutely not been able to have any kind of flesh, fish or fowl — absolutely not. I also never could have caffeine. Chocolate? Forget about it. Black tea, coffee, no no. People were very, very strict. So I’ve experienced the changeover to the mainstream where we now have organic meats and organic coffees.”
Scholten keeps tea brewing for customers to sip while they shop for their organic grains and other foods, ethnic food and spices, local honey, natural supplements and hygiene products, the best tahini in town according to her customers, and much more. She’s done her best to stay ahead of the curve, always researching and trying new products.
“I’ve sampled just about everything in the store. I know exactly what they are and what you do with them. Another important part of my job is when somebody says, ‘How do you cook millet?’ I have to know,” she says. “And I do.”
While her clientele has expanded with more people wanting organic, natural food and products, the bigger retailers in town have given locals more options than they used to have. Still, she doesn’t sweat the competition.
“Some people prefer to go to one place and get everything there. Some people prefer a smaller setting where you can talk with someone who knows something about the products, and you can have a friendly chat and a cup of tea,” she says. “So we all have our preferences.”
Scholten’s preference, after nearly three decades of being tied to the store, is to have more freedom to do whatever strikes her fancy. That will surely include visiting her youngest daughter, Minna Scholten, and her 2-year-old granddaughter, Alice, in Massachusetts. (Her older daughter, Liisa Bartges, lives in town.) Minna Scholten, who grew up in The Granary and is now a dietician, is proud of her mother’s life’s work.
“Food is something we all share. It’s one of the touchstones of human existence,” she says. “So the fact that she’s been able to share that with others is amazing.” •SCM