At first glance, a notice in a recent issue of The Spearville News looked like an ordinary sale advertisement for Kelly’s Corner Grocery. Instead, the ad revealed discouraging news about the store from owners Kelly and Kayla Persinger: “With yearly sales spiraling down for the last three years, we have no choice left but to close our doors.”
The couple thanked their loyal customers in Spearville, Kansas, a community of around 800 people, before announcing a complete inventory liquidation sale, effective immediately. Our little community’s response to the prospect of losing this historical town hub has been sadness and dismay. We took it for granted that the store would always be there.
Rural grocery stores are not just about convenience—they are cornerstone businesses and important economic drivers for small towns. They provide local jobs and tax dollars. They provide rural residents with produce and other healthy foods, and they prevent rural areas from becoming food deserts.
The former Spearville Mercantile (aka the Merc) celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010. Its retiring owners sold the grocery store to Kelly Persinger. The store, located on the corner of Main Street and Avenue B, was renamed Kelly’s Corner Grocery. Over the years, Kelly added a sandwich counter and dining area that featured lunch specials and served ice cream, pop and other goodies. In addition to groceries, produce and a great meat counter, Kelly’s offered gift items and greeting cards as well as various household and school/office items. They also organized the Southwest Produce Hub, in which participants committed to purchasing produce packages every other week.
But the diversification of products provided, excellent customer service and positive additions to encourage people to “shop local” still weren’t enough to keep the business open. Competition from larger grocery stores and chain stores in bigger towns is fierce. Operating costs for rural retail businesses are high, and distributors require minimum orders that small grocery stores with a lower sales volume struggle to meet. And online shopping trends mean that not even big box stores are immune from closure.
Kansas State University’s Rural Grocery Initiative is a collaborative partnership with other agencies aimed at helping rural grocers develop sustainable business models. RGI reports that small towns in Kansas and other states are looking at alternatives to the traditional single-owner model for operating a rural grocery store. For example, ownership of Little River’s grocery store was transferred to the city, which upgraded and remodeled the building and now leases it to the Kansas store’s operators. Minneola, not far from Spearville, reopened its hometown market as a community-owned store, and residents bought shares in the business. Cody, Nebraska, even has a rural grocery operated by students at the local high school. Other towns are looking at nonprofit, cooperative or public/private models to keep their rural grocery stores going, according to RGI.
Perhaps Spearville residents and city leaders might consider alternative solutions like these. For now, after Kelly’s Corner Grocery closes its doors for the last time, we’ll need to drive 17 miles to get to the nearest grocery store.
My challenge to anyone reading this whose hometown market remains open for business: Shop there today! Don’t just stop by occasionally when you run out of eggs, bread or toilet paper. If you take your local corner store for granted, it may not be there next year.
Shauna Rumbaugh can be reached at 620-227-1805 or firstname.lastname@example.org.