In the cramped entrance way of Riverside Grocery the ad read: “Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. Payment upon return. Must supply your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.”
My friend Josh, who worked at Riverside after school on Wednesdays, found it. The fact that a paper advertisement for time travel appeared on the wall of the store seemed fitting. Riverside has always felt like the bookstore from The NeverEnding Story. Its aisles are narrow and crowded with rare and exotic goods stashed here and there. Generations of Yukoners can remember buying penny candy from jars still kept behind the counter. The store is an anachronism, a place where the passage of time and the limits of space don’t seem to apply.
Riverside Grocery, originally named the Co-Op, has existed on the corner of Third Avenue and Lowe Street in Whitehorse since the mid 1950s. Leona Commons’ family purchased the business in 1982. Commons began working at the corner store when she was 17. “I was 20 when I bought it from my family,” she tells me.
For three decades Leona and her husband Pat have run Riverside as an independent, family-operated corner store. In today’s world, where chains like Mac’s and 7-Eleven often seem to dominate, mom-and-pop outfits like Riverside are increasingly rare.
When asked the secret of Riverside’s continued relevance, Commons shrugs her shoulders and says, “as you evolve you just choose which way you’re going to go and what you believe in. I’m more passionate about our products than in Frito Lays. It just turned into an extension of the way I like to live my life.”
Commons may feign nonchalance when it comes to the continued success of Riverside Grocery, but among her clientele the store has cultivated a reputation as a place that has just about everything, so long as you can find it.
The store’s inventory is astounding. Alongside the more ubiquitous corner store products of cigarettes, newspapers, and chips, you can find fresh bottles of organic chocolate milk from Vancouver Island, massage oil imported from Italy, and woven bags from Japan. There is an entire wall devoted to chocolate.
Have you ever wondered what a raw chunk of turmeric looks like? You can find out at Riverside. Within these tiny, irregularly shaped walls, the world seems to shrink down to the width of the aisles.
“There’s no schematic layout here,” Commons explains as we walk through the store. From an architectural perspective the wedge-shaped Riverside Grocery looks like it was designed by someone with a taste for whisky and a loose interest in the works of Burnham & Co., the architects of New York’s famous Flatiron building. In an instant I’m lost amongst the incongruous passageways. There are at least four different levels within the tiny store. The backrooms and basement are stacked high with dried goods, each box containing a new product.
Linda MacKeigan has worked at Riverside for the past 19 years. “I guess one of my favourite things about working here is receiving orders and seeing all the strange and weird things we carry,” she says. MacKeigan believes part of Riverside’s success has to do with the remoteness of living up north. “Living here it’s hard to get certain items. We do what we can. We order from umpteen different wholesalers. (Commons) is open to trying new things. You don’t have to special order something, just mention it and we’ll try to bring it in.”
After 32 years in the grocery business Commons’ approach to inventory is unpresumptuous. “I still don’t understand why people buy what they buy,” she admits, “but we’ll try anything once. Even if we just have one customer that really wants something, we’ll bring it in. We have one case of everything.”
Like so many small businesses, the personal touch of customer service is something that Commons believes keeps bringing people back. “We tell people how they can cook things. We Google a lot of things for people. We help them out,” she explains. From MacKeigan’s perspective, it’s important Yukon residents have options when it comes to buying groceries. “Some people prefer big box stores,” she says, but MacKeigan is also quick to point out that bigger doesn’t mean better. “I hate going into a big store not knowing where stuff is and the staff not knowing either. Our staff will take people, show them where a product is, and be able to explain what the product is used for.”
Since incorporating more fresh organic produce into the store in the mid-1990s Riverside staff have noted an increase in business. “We’ve been here for a long time and we’re in a good place right now,” says Commons. “We have stable sales and a good amount of staff.” Riverside currently has 11 employees, four of whom are full time and have worked there between three and 20 years.
When it comes to the future of Riverside Grocery, Commons is unsure which way things will go. “I don’t know,” she says sighing, “I guess one day I’ll get tired and then it will just close. I’ve just come to work and done the exact same thing for the last 30 years. It has been great.”
For now Riverside Grocery remains open, adapting almost imperceptibly as the decades pass by. It’s the corner store you can pop into for a pack of gum or wasabi peas, it’s often the only place open on holidays, and as MacKeigan reminds us, “If you just open your eyes and take a second, you will see that it’s an amazing place.”
Pavlina Sudrich is a time-travelling, penny-candy-loving freelance reporter based in Whitehorse.