Throwback on Broadway

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Along Broadway where businesses tend to come and go is a little grocery store with plans to make itself a downtown presence.

Robert and Mary Gentry own and run The Corner Store, and observed their first year of business in December. They wanted to have a place for people to buy groceries without having to travel very far.

"We really thought downtown needed it," said Mary.

"Save-a-Lot used to be on Spanish Street, and when it moved, we thought someone was going to open a grocery in the downtown area," Robert said. "So we thought we'd give it a go. We did a little research to see if it was needed and how to go about it and decided to go at it ourselves."

It was slow going at first, the Gentrys said. They learned that owning a grocery store takes patience.

"It takes time for people to recognize you are there," Robert said.

Once people learned that there is a grocery store downtown — at the corner of Broadway and Middle Street — word traveled fast. People who live nearby find it convenient. People who work nearby have found it's a good place to go to pick up the fixings for lunch or to stop in on the way home for an item or two they need for dinner. Customers have been returning to the spotless store for the Gentrys' warm friendliness.

"Every day we get lots of new customers coming in for the first time," Mary said. "We've lived here over 10 years, and we've met more people this past year than in the whole 10 years."

The Gentrys are not new to owning a business. They also own Jewelry By Gentry and have sold their handmade fine jewelry at the yearly Arts and Crafts fair as well as on the arts and crafts circuit. They plan to travel less, place their jewelry for sale in local galleries, and concentrate on being a downtown presence with The Corner Store.

However, they are open to any and all advice from established business owners. Robert said he welcomes an association with other businessmen from whom he can learn. He especially appreciates that the Convention and Visitors Bureau mentions The Corner Store whenever they welcome the passengers who disembark from the Delta Queen and the other excursion boats on the Mississippi River during the summer. Most of the boats' stops in Cape Girardeau are on Mondays, when some downtown businesses are closed. The Corner Store is open Monday through Saturday, but on the days the boats arrive, Robert and Mary pull out all the stops — they put out their sidewalk signs welcoming the boat passengers, and to make sure everyone knows how to find them, they send out an unmistakable welcoming signal: bubbles.

On warm sunny days as well as on days the boats dock, customers are drawn to the store by the music playing outside and the bubbles dancing across Broadway.

While at a craft fair last summer, they saw a bubble machine, and both got the idea at the same time: "We need a bubble machine," Mary said.

"Everybody loves it," Robert said. "People tell us it makes them smile or it makes their day."

Bottom line: It brings people in the store. Last summer they gave away free soft-serve ice cream one day a week. It was a marketing strategy that was worth the investment in soft-serve ingredients, Mary said. That brought people in, and whether it's for ice cream or curiosity about bubbles, those who come in come back and become regular customers.

Make no mistake; The Corner Store is not a convenience store. It's a grocery store that just happens to be convenient. In their effort to become a valuable part of the downtown neighborhood, Mary and Robert listen to their customers and stock what they ask for. There's such limited space in the small store that they want to have items on hand that will fly off the shelves almost as soon as they arrive. Customers are often surprised to find they can buy whole- wheat pasta there, or soyburgers, even olive oil, along with the to be expected lunch meat, bread, milk and canned goods.

Especially popular are the farm fresh eggs which sell out almost as quickly as they come in. The eggs are delivered weekly from a local farm, Family Friendly Farms. The Gentrys began selling them as an alternative location to the farmers markets and found the eggs to be so popular the no longer carry any other eggs.

"They're a big asset to our business," Robert said of the eggs. "They're beginning to bring in customers in general, and our regular customers have converted to the brown eggs."

Robert said he is negotiating with local farmers to sell fresh produce at The Corner Store, in addition to the outdoor farmers markets during growing season. It's important, he said, to support local growers and offer his customers the freshest possible food.

Students from Southeast Missouri State University often have a sweet tooth that needs to be satisfied, and they drop in for the little bags of fruit-flavored Tootsie rolls — Frooties — sold there. Others come in for a quick microwavable sandwich, a soda or ice cream. During the February ice storms, the store was packed with people who walked over to buy what they needed because their cars were stuck.

The store celebrates every holiday, selling items for Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter and all in between. In addition to the food items, there are gift selections, T-shirts, baseball caps, jewelry, handbags and toys.

The couple hopes to be able to offer a limited delivery service, as a special convenience for older residents, and to offer hotdogs and nachos at lunch for the working crowd, emphasizing that service is as important as merchandise in a neighborhood business.

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