A from-the-source family store closes its doors

Twenty-nine years of marriage, and we're down to our last three, original dinner plates. Numbering 12 in 1981, their count was four by the turn of the century. Then a few years ago, one more slipped from my grasp.

I observed at the time that it was just the everyday stuff, not the company china. So much less of a tragedy, one would think.

But as I stood there holding the crisply broken pieces back in place one last time before placing them in the trash, I realized what a lifetime of family experiences had been layered over the surface of this common pottery. For me, the memories were etched into the fragments as palpably as the delicate crackling in the glaze of my mother's favorite teapot that gives it such character.

Richey's Market has been this town's everyday dishes. Nothing fancy but famed for its great produce, meat and service. All presented with the biggest collective smile a business can muster — day-in and day-out. In those unpretentious surroundings, friendships have been formed, recipes shared and philosophies aired. All while pushing grocery carts up and down the aisles.

It began with a single downtown store in 1961, owned by Jack and Vera Richey and Jack's brother, Purman. Their focus has always been selling the best local produce and meat that they could find. By 1971, brothers Leroy and Shi joined the business, and it grew to six markets: three in Corvallis and three in Albany, all personally managed by Jack. By 1981, they had scaled back to one store on Circle Boulevard.

Over the years, plenty of second- and third-generation Richeys have earned their retail chops working there. A team of Richeys currently run the produce department, led by Jack's son, Tony, and effectively flanked by Leroy's kids, Terry Richey and Pam Rieseberg. Shi's son, Don, runs the meat department, and Jack's son, Larry, is the store manager.

Jack, of course, continues to be a visible force, doing plenty behind the scenes but also roaming the aisles, straightening cans and bottles and interacting with customers. He probably keeps a dust rag hidden in his back pocket. Leroy is always there, if not physically, in spirit through Terry and Pam's deeds and work ethic.

Aside from a whole lot of Richeys, you never know who you'll run into. Richey's Market has maintained an eclectic clientele, from neighboring seniors who thank their lucky stars to be within walking distance to such a wonderful store, to folks who make the drive clear across town.

My relationship with Richey's Market goes back 32 years. In the autumn of 1978, my dad and his pal, Frank, drove me up here from the San Francisco area to start graduate school at Oregon State University. I lucked out by finding an apartment way out on the north edge of town on Circle Boulevard, right across from a modest, little strip mall anchored by an independent supermarket.

On that first day in my new digs, I trotted across the street to stock up on groceries. Because my California hurry-up attitude had hitched a ride with me, I have a vivid memory of waiting behind folks at the check-out line who seemed to have all day. And they were all chatting up cashiers who seemed to have equally abundant time to provide each and every customer with better conversation than you'd encounter at your average cocktail party.

I did a lot of toe-tapping and glaring in those days.

But once my outlook mellowed, I discovered what a great resource this market had become for me. I could gauge the progress of the seasons by its produce aisle, from the earliest rhubarb and peas that came straight from the Richeys' own fields, to regional apples and winter squash. One time, I asked when to expect pickling cucumbers, and Terry was able to tell me the exact day of delivery, plus the entire backstory on why the grower was a little slow to deliver.

And then, of course, there's Pete Caday's corn. The first week of deliveries bring the early varieties, long on tenderness and sweetness, and always a better experience than the California and Washington corn.

When I became a food writer, I found myself calling Richey's for produce tips so often that I finally put their number in my Rolodex. Heck, during corn season, it should have been on speed dial.

Terry's dad, Leroy, made the bulk of the produce runs up through the '90's, driving hours on end to produce-rich regions of the Pacific Northwest, such as Yakima Valley, Hood River and Walla Walla. On the lucky occasions when I'd encounter him, with sparkling eyes and dry wit, in the produce department, we'd stand over whichever load of fruit or vegetable he'd just hauled into the store and share its heritage.

He could tell me which apricot varieties would be coming into season and when, where the region's cherries were the sweetest and most flavorful and where the store's melons would be coming from. They'd drive a semi down to California to load up on fresh-from-the-farm fruits and vegetables not available locally, keeping expensive middlemen and extra delay out of the loop.

Richey's made-to-order deli sandwiches have come along on our sunset hikes up Marys Peak, and their popular "planks" — hot, gooey layers of cheese, ham and turkey on french bread — are a delightful lunch or dinner treat on the occasional Saturday, which is the only day they're made.

This last Monday, as I pushed my cart through produce, there was Leroy's daughter, Pam, at one of her usual posts, prepping a pile of fresh lettuce. They're hearing from so many folks in these last few days, but I had to join the lamenting chorus. "I know," she said. "It is sad for everyone. A customer came by the other day, and her cart was squeaking. I commented on that, and she said 'It isn't squeaking; it's crying.' "

I still use the remaining three plates from my first set of china. They're a reminder that it's the everyday experiences, conducted around those everyday dishes, that build up to make a life. It's the kind of below-the-radar accumulation that doesn't even seem precious until you're looking back and you realize that it underpins all the "significant" outcomes you thought were taking place around the good china.

Sort of like shopping at Richey's Market — something we've all just taken for granted until being forced to reflect on our future without it. That Richey's is going to be so intensely missed by so many people is one of the reasons I love this town: a community that took a little getting used-to for this California girl until she could appreciate the value of grocery clerks "with so much time on their hands." That's when I really arrived.

So thank you, Richey Family. It's been a delicious half-century. Bon appetit.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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