Sometime near the end of October, I was making pumpkin soup with a friend of mine. There was one missing ingredient: fish sauce. We meticulously sifted through the shelves of a local grocery store, but came up empty-handed.
We got the staff involved in the search – still nothing. Just before giving up, my friend suggested we try Riverside Grocery and, there, tucked amidst other exotic odds and ends, was our fish sauce.
“That type of thing happens constantly,” says Leona Commons, who owns Riverside Grocery with her husband Pat. “We try to always have what people want.”
My editor told me the story of how he wanted to take his kids to the top of Grey Mountain and fly a kite. He tried the usual suspects in town and came up kiteless. Then someone suggested Riverside Grocery and it saved an idyllic day.
It’s legitimate to wonder how such a tiny grocery store always seems to have the missing ingredient. Perhaps they employ some little-known principle of quantum physics when they stock the shelves, or maybe it’s magic.
The truth is less mysterious but more pragmatic: “We have a rule where each item gets only one row to itself.”
When you consider how tightly packed the rows are, the math begins to add up. Plus, Commons is always on the lookout for new speciality items to include in the Riverside roster. When asked about her latest discovery, Commons answers without hesitation, “We just started to bring in jars of chipotle peppers.”
One more row.
Riverside Grocery has been in the Commons family since 1982, and, in that time, Leona has noticed as the process of stocking rare items has changed. “They used to send salesmen by here once or twice a year, but now you have to be self-motivated. They don’t care if we buy from them or not.”
Judging by the density and variety of products available, there is plenty of motivation still present. Interestingly, Riverside Grocery didn’t always have the luxury of so much space.
“There’s been a store here since the 1950s,” says Commons. “It used to be called The Co-op.” Standing in the storage area, Commons points in all directions as she details some of the changes. “[The store] used to be a lot smaller. There used to be a fishing-tackle store and a bookstore in here.”
One wonders whether the smaller version of Riverside Grocery would still have fish sauce. Probably.
So, are there any future plans to expand beyond its current walls?
“Its not that we don’t want to do renovations, but there’s nowhere else to go. We are right up against our property line,” Commons explains.
So Riverside is staying put, as it is, and it is hard not to find a little bit of comfort in that. It is “the little wedge-shaped grocery store that could” and it has a way of working its way into people’s hearts. One does not need to look beyond the staff to find evidence of this.
“We’ve got some good staff. One person has been here 20 years; another person, 15; another person, 12; and another person, 10. It’s like an extended family,” says Commons.
And with that, Riverside Grocery raises one final question: Do tightly-stocked businesses produce closely-knitted relationships?
Riverside Grocery is the perfect testing ground for this theory.