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Cornering the market

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When a newcomer steps through the door at the Corner Market in Bertha, it's obvious.

"They look pretty bewildered," said owner Vicki Larson with a smile.

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For most customers, the wooden floors between the efficiently packed aisles are familiar stomping grounds. And the faces that frequent the cozy confines of the Corner Market are well acquainted with one another.

"You know everyone," said Bertha resident Robbi Burrows about the store where she is a regular customer. "I adore it, love it."

The store is also convenient, she said.

Harriet Pokorney of Bertha shops at the store as often as four times a week, she said.

"It's so handy," she said. "They're so friendly in here and helpful."

Grocery worker Kim Gavin has worked at the Corner Market for a year and a half, she said. She enjoys meeting the parents of her kids' friends.

"I know more people now than I ever knew," she said.

The store hosts many friendly conversations about the weather, school events and town politics. The charming locale with its red and white gingham curtains is more than a friendly oasis, however. The Corner Market is Larson's livelihood and passion. The store is also an important part of Bertha's past and present.

While many downtowns no longer boast small, independently owned grocery stores, the 99-year-old building on West Main Street continues to stock an extensive inventory. Customers can pick up Cocoa Pebbles for breakfast, food for finches, granola bars for a snack, a fresh bouquet of flowers, and all the essential meat, dairy, bread and produce to create a meal at home.

The store has gone by names such as The Golden Rule and Jerry's Supermarket during the past century. Larson gave the store its current moniker when she bought it 17 years ago this October.

The decision to buy the Corner Market was both a leap of faith and an act of necessity for Larson.

At the time she was divorced and single with seven children ages 1 to 15 years old. She did not want to raise her children on public assistance, she said. She needed to find a way to make a living.

"That's why I did it, out of pure necessity and survival," she said as she recalled delving into the uncertain world of entrepreneurship.

Prayer was also an important factor in deciding to purchase the store, she said.

"I believe the Lord had a big hand in it," she said.

She took out loans and made the purchase. Owning a small business in a small town comes with its share of challenges, though.

The success rate for stores like hers is next to nothing, she said.

"I was very fortunate to be able to work my way through the difficulties of business," she said.

The blessings came with a price. She and her family had to make sacrifices.

Larson worked full time at the store and took bookkeeping classes at night, she said. Her mother watched the children. It was a busy time, but she knew she had to do it, she said. Her children were in agreement.

Running the store became a family affair. Larson recruited her six daughters and one son to help with the business.

"When they got old enough to carry out groceries they came and helped," she said.

Not surprisingly, the kids didn't always enjoy helping out at the store.

Her oldest daughter, who was 15 when Larson bought the store, just hated it, she said. Now she has a successful career with Hilton Hotels in California.

"Our older ones say it taught them more than they will ever admit to," she said.

All of her kids have done very well, she said.

"They've learned work ethic," she said. "Whether they wanted to or not, they had to work."

Larson's husband of 13 years, a nurse, also helps at the store, she said.

"The business has just been a part of our family," she said.

And Larson is the head of the grocery store household. She is at the store seven days a week. She does all of the bookkeeping and she knows the inventory inside and out. When a new customer comes in and doesn't know where something is she can tell them right where to go, she said. Knowing the inventory helps her to do all the ordering so she knows if things will fit or not.

Finding a place for each box of cereal or new flavor of potato chips is important in the modestly sized store. Every nook and cranny is used for organizing the wide variety of products.

Little Debbie snack pies line up in front of the cash register. Baskets laden with oranges and apples are stacked at the end of an aisle. A giant gum ball machine stands by a pole near the cleaning products. And a short row of small shopping carts is tucked between the newspaper stand and a display of DVDs for rent.

Larson enjoys everything about running her small store, she said. The people, especially, make it really fun.

There is one long-time employee in particular Larson mentioned. Albert Becker has worked for 52 years in the building the store occupies.

"I've been blessed by the job and by the Lord," he said.

The 74-year-old started working in the building when he was 22 years old, he said. The business was known as The Golden Rule.

The store has undergone a lot of changes since then, he said. Becker remembers milk selling for 49 cents a half gallon. Campbell's Soup once sold for 25 cents a can for most varieties.

The prices of products weren't the only changes over the years. Becker recalled stoking the furnace with coal during cold weather.

Larson is the fourth owner he has worked for, he said.

She has contributed to the changes Becker has witnessed throughout the years. Larson replaced the chest freezers with upright ones. She also purchased new meat and dairy coolers. She added video rental and the selection of helium balloons. Her husband redid the hardwood floors.

Larson has more changes in mind for the future. She plans on moving the rental movies to another location in the store so she can put two round tables by the window, she said. She would like to serve coffee and rolls in the morning.

The change will be relatively inexpensive and make for a brighter spot, Larson said. She described it as a "fun, little face lift."

Thoughts about the store absorb a lot of Larson's attention. Some of her children have asked her why she doesn't sell the store, she said. They tell her it takes so much of her time and consumes her.

Larson has thought about selling the Corner Market, she said.

"And then I think about what will I do then, and will I like it as much as what I do now," she said.

A lot of people can't say they like what they do for a living, Larson said.

"I do love what I'm doing," she said.

The business is part of who she is, she said. It also plays an important role in the vitality of the community. The Corner Market is the only grocery store in Bertha.

She does admit to getting tired of some things, she said. Especially when there are a lot of breakdowns or there is a problem with an employee. Then she has to look at the big scheme of things, she said.

"I thrive on this," she said sitting at the back room desk where she punches numbers and keeps track of every detail of her business.

"If you like what you're doing and it keeps you going ... what more do you want in life?" she asked.

Inside the red brick walls of the Corner Market Larson obtained a living for a family and a life in Bertha. It certainly would be hard to write up a better grocery list for a small town store.

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