Local Features
10:05 am
Mon November 10, 2008

Riley's Food Market

Murray, KY – Recently, MSU students from India planted a tree honoring Mahatma Gandhi on the land at the corner of 16th and Main in Murray. On this site once stood a family grocery store. Next, Martin Tracy of Murray recalls when he and his family traded with Riley's Food Market and became a part of its community of customers. He enlisted the help of the store's proprietors' Thelma Riley Bailey and her husband Jack Bailey of Murray in this remembrance.

Murray resident Dr. Martin Tracy travels internationally as a social services consultant. His father Dr. J. Albert Tracy was head of the speech department for 24 years at Murray State Teacher's College then Murray State College. Thelma Riley Bailey and her husband Jack Bailey live in Murray and fondly remember the community of customers they came to know through their service at Riley's Food Market, built in 1934, by Ezra Walton (E.W.) Riley.

Well into the 1950s in small towns around the country, mom and pop grocery stores were the primary suppliers of dry goods, staples, fresh produce, and canned goods, as well as gas and oil for car and home. Small family-owned neighborhood food shops still thrive in large cities around the world, especially in ethnic neighborhoods. However, in mid-size and small towns in USA, family grocers are gone, replaced by franchise convenience stores connected to national brand gas stations as well as, of course, giant supermarkets.

Murray was among the small towns in western Kentucky that used to have several family-owned grocery stores, including Riley's Food Market. It was a two-story, wood framed building across the road from Murray State Teachers College on the corner of 16th and Main Streets built in 1934 by Ezra Walton (E.W. Riley). Mr. Riley's daughter Thelma and his son-in-law Jack Bailey who knew me and my family when we were among their customers generously shared memories with me earlier this year. They described the day the store got situated where it served the community for decades. [insert byte].

To go into Riley's was to enter a cornucopia of bulk dry food staples, canned good, seasonal vegetables, fruits, cookies in large jars, and candies packed into narrow rows of shelving, standing atop the creaky wooden floor. In summer, children would cool down by reaching into the large metal container filled with ice sitting near the entrance grabbing a six-ounce coca cola, RC, or Nehi grape soda bobbing in the cold water.

Riley's was unique among the local neighborhood stores in that it also had a butcher who special cut trucked in meat. [insert Thelma's byte on the meat]. Mr. Riley, Mr. Fuqua, and Jack Bailey were all excellent butchers and knew just what each family liked in the cut of meat. There were also live chickens kept in a pen and nothing in the meat counter was pre-packaged. The bologna and liverwurst, at 15 cents a pound, came in long cylinders that were sliced to order. Mr. Fuqua would save soup bones for customers and one young person loved to visit Mr. Riley for a meat department treat. [insert byte].

Regular customers always expected the Rileys to understand their personal needs. Thelma and Jack recall one customer who made a special purpose for anticipated guests who couldn't come after all. [insert Jack's byte]. Local farmers shopped and traded with the Rileys on Saturdays. People expected service 24/7 [insert Thelma's byte] Produce also came by truck from nearby towns [insert byte]. Although county dairy farmers did sell pasteurized milk, some of the Riley's customers preferred otherwise [insert byte].

Riley's market sold cookies in bulk and the clerk would pick them out and put them in a poke, which is what we called a paper bag. Thelma remembers one farm kid's enterprising barter system. [insert byte]. Only certain kinds of candy were available in the summer because no one had air conditioning. [insert byte]. Ice-creamed didn't come packaged then [insert byte]. The store also carried general merchandise, including cloth, dolls, toys, and hunting supplies [insert byte].

Western Kentucky was tobacco country and most people smoked cigarettes and quite a few chewed or snuffed the dark fired tobacco grown locally. While inexpensive by today's standards, cigarettes were not cheap so Riley's food market customers strategized economies [insert byte].

During World War II there was rationing and price control on goods sold in the store which proved to be a headache for Mr. Riley [insert byte]. At that time soft drinks, especially Coca-Cola were in demand and hard to get [insert byte].

At the end of the summer, the store stocked up on vegetables and fruit for customers to put up for the winter. Murray College operated the cannery at the time and it was open for the community for such provisioning. During World War II, when her husband, Jack, was serving in France, Thelma Riley Bailey would send him canned goods to remind him of home [insert byte].

It was Riley's Food Market's practice to itemize individual purchases onto a pad, which was deposited into a drawer for later tallying up the monthly bill - a precursor to the credit card system. One could charge and pay at the end of the month without interest [insert Thelma's byte on credit and the two tobacco men]. Charging a purchase was certainly expedient for lower income customers, but more than just being convenient, it established a bond of trust between Mr. Riley and his customers. And beyond trust, the credit system created a sense of community among his patrons who shared similar needs and lived in comparable circumstances. Our supermarkets cannot match these services that so many of us now remember fondly.

For WKMS, I'm Martin Tracy. I was seven when my family and I started shopping at Riley's Food Market in Murray.