End of Era for Martinsburg Grocery Store

Due to the declining economy, customers chose wholesale stores instead of small town businesses

For decades, Mennonite families from the rolling farmland around Martinsburg would ride into town, hitch their horses near Ed's Riverside market and fill their carts with weeks' worth of supplies.

Tuesday marked the end of that era.

The Riverside, Martinsburg's only full grocery store, was set to close, putting an end to some 38 years in the borough. And with no more Riversides to transfer to, the store's 19 employees have been left jobless.

"I've been through this twice now. This is my last stop," said Manager Dave McConahy, a 36-year veteran who transferred to Martinsburg after the Duncansville Riverside closed in 2008. "I feel bad for our employees. But I really feel bad for our customers."

McConahy said the business survived on local seniors, who preferred to shop near their homes, and Mennonite farmers, who rode in their buggies to Martinsburg for weekly or biweekly shopping trips.

On Monday afternoon, as the shelves sat nearly empty and the few remaining items were marked 50 percent off, a few Mennonite families wandered the store, picking through the handful of supplies that remained.

"Martinsburg is the center of the agricultural community. We're not going to drive nine, 10 miles to do shopping on a regular basis," said Alvin Martin of Henrietta, who rode to the Riverside every other week to buy hundreds of dollars' worth of food. "We had a place to tie up our horses back there. We could walk to the bank."

The only viable alternative, Martin said, is to hire a non-Mennonite driver for trips to Altoona, Roaring Spring or East Freedom.

And if they travel that far, they're likely to gradually take all their business -- grocery shopping, farm supplies, banking -- to a central location outside Martinsburg, he said. Aside from a Dollar General outside the borough, Roaring Spring's Giant Eagle is the closest alternative.

"It's a pretty big deal for us. It really is," Martin said. "You can't feed a family on a dollar store."

Founded in 1975, Ed's Riverside has been the only supermarket in Martinsburg since at least the early 1990s, McConahy said. But, like the Duncansville location that closed in 2008, the market experienced a steady decline as the economy grew worse and customers shifted to big-box stores.

Some farmers and older customers, who employees said disliked the "hustle and bustle" of larger stores, remained loyal. But even some Mennonites have slowly taken their business elsewhere, Martin said.

"We have ourselves to blame, to some degree," he said, noting that some in the money-conscious community have switched from small-town stores to wholesalers like Sam's Club.

"We're farmers. We value a dollar," he said. "But on the other hand, we possibly shot ourselves in the foot this time."

Among those set to lose their jobs are career-long Riverside veterans like Cathy Burkett of Bellemead, who spent 39 years at the local stores. Like McConahy, she transferred to Martinsburg after losing her job at the Duncansville location.

"I've been through this before. ... We'll see if I can do something with my degree," Burkett said.

Workers at the Kopp Drug Store next door said they're set to introduce bread and other food staples, an attempt to at least partly fill the void left by the Riverside's absence. The grocery store officially closed at 6 p.m. Tuesday, but McConahy said they might shut down early.

On Monday, as Riverside employees chatted at the registers, a few customers looked over what remained: a single jar of kosher dill pickles; two packages of light bologna; a shelf of scattered pharmacy items.

Among them was Margaret Martin (no immediate relation to Alvin), carrying a baby in plain Mennonite dress in one hand and filling a cart with the other. Aside from a few country stores like Zimmerman's Bulk Groceries, distant big-box centers are the only comparable option left for families like hers.

"We can just go to Walmart with a driver," she said. "There's not much to do about it."

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