In fall 2016, Marsh River Cooperative’s board of directors was facing a harsh reality: find a way to bring in more volunteers and increase sales or risk seeing the fledgling nonprofit close its doors, most likely for good.

Now, nine months later, it's a much different story for the Co-op, which occupies a former hardware store in the center of this quaint Waldo County town, selling food and other goods that are made within a 10-mile radius of the business. Sales have increased dramatically — some estimates peg growth as high as 50 percent compared to last year — and the Co-op is regularly adding new products to its shelves, Kim Jacobs, board president, said.

“Things are definitely looking up and we’re working toward being sustainable,” she said.

Assistant Manager Matthew McKillop said the increase in sales could be due in part to the fact the Co-op is now offering even more products than before. Previously, the store would have about $10,000 in inventory at a given time and this year the Co-op is averaging about $15,000 in inventory.

That is by any measure a turnaround worthy of celebration when compared to the rather dire situation painted in the nonprofit’s 2015-2016 annual report. At that time, the Co-op was struggling with back-to-back years of elusive profits, anemic sales numbers and a dearth of volunteer labor.

Board members looked at ways to cut costs but quickly realized that reducing some of the store's expenses over which they had control, such as wages or inventory, could have far-reaching negative consequences. As well, saving money on utilities would require an upfront investment of $8,000 to install an energy-efficient cooler money the store simply didn't have.

Fortunately for the Co-op, it benefits from a unique arrangement with its landlord, a founding member of the store, who collects rent only if the Co-op is profitable. In addition, rent is capped at a maximum of $1,000 per month.

Based on figures provided in the 2015-2016 report, the Co-op ended its fiscal year last year with a net loss of $600, and that amount was offset by an influx of donations and membership income. The year before that, the Co-op lost about $1,500. Though money seemed, on the surface, to be the most pressing problem, the board and its volunteers realized the problem was more complicated than just the bottom line.

The shortage of volunteers forced the board to hire a part-time assistant manager for 25 hours a week and a cashier for six hours per week just to ensure the store was staffed. While the Co-op had a roster of 25 volunteers, in reality most of the day-to-day work of keeping the store open fell to a core group of about 15 people, who simply could not devote more of their time to the endeavor.

McKillop and Jacobs noted that with more volunteer labor, the Co-op could be open more and thus increase its sales.

With more sales, the store could potentially hire more paid staff and then not have to rely so heavily on volunteer labor. By solving once piece of the puzzle — either bringing in more volunteer labor or increasing sales — they theorized the other pieces would eventually fall into place.

A shortage of labor and slow sales growth weren’t the only challenges facing the Co-op, though. McKillop at the time noted that the store typically served as a "fill-in" stop for customers looking to grab a loaf of bread or other item that they ran out of during the course of the week after they completed the bulk of their shopping at a different store.

McKillop attributed that to the fact the Co-op is a bit off the beaten path, but also to a perception among some that the Co-op's inventory is too expensive. While some goods may be more expensive, especially locally produced and organic items, many of the store’s other offerings are on par with goods found at other area businesses.

With a goal of keeping the doors open, board members issued a plea in fall 2016, asking for more people to step up and volunteer to staff the store. The call didn’t go unanswered and Jacobs said a number of people signed on over the winter to help.

So far, the recruitment efforts are producing the desired effect. With the additional revenue coming in from increased sales, the Co-op increased hours for its paid staff, Jacobs said. There’s also talk of adding more paid staff, if the budget will allow it, to bolster the store’s labor force. That’s a move that has some conflicted, Jacobs among them, because when the store was founded, organizers envisioned the nonprofit would be operated and managed by volunteers.

Looking ahead, McKillop said he feels it would be beneficial to the store to have a core group of employees to handle day-to-day tasks, while the volunteers would supplement that labor force.

Also, even though more volunteers have offered to lend a hand at the Co-op, Jacobs said the store is still struggling with staffing, particularly during the summer months when the weather has people more inclined to hit the beach or hiking trails than to stock shelves.

The Co-op will also need to find a replacement for a longtime board member who helped keep the books in order for the store. And, Jacobs said, the Co-op is always looking for more board members to help take over more of the work that keeps the store operating smoothly.

Despite those challenges, Jacobs said the Co-op is much more stable than it was a year ago.

Asked what’s ahead, Jacobs said it would be nice for the Co-op to host more events, as the store was founded on the idea that it would be a community hub for the town.

For now, though, it’s enough that the Co-op has found some success and managed to stabilize what seemed like a dire situation last fall.

“We can definitely say things are going in a really good direction,” she said.

The Co-op is located at 5 Veterans Highway and is open Monday from 2 to 6 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.