Last Saturday (June 6) I attended a meeting at the Bovina Community Hall to discuss the future of Russell's Store. The Bovina Historical Society has received a planning grant through the MARK Project Inc. MARK is a not-for-profit, tax-exempt rural development company that unites efforts and secures resources to build and revitalize communities in and around the Margaretville area.
The Bovina Historical Society became the owners of Russell's Store in 2000 after the death of Marjorie Russell. It has been a challenge to maintain the store but many people in Bovina agree that the it is an important component of life in the town. After a brief hiatus, the store is open again under the proprietorship of Bea Sonhi.
One of the main attractions of the store is its long history. There has been a store on the spot almost since the founding of Bovina. In the 19th century, the first owner was James Cowan, who purchased the property in 1823. He sold it in 1846 to Robert Murray. Ten years later, T.E. Hastings became the proprietor (the picture above dates from about 1880, when Hastings owned the store). Mr. Hastings had the store until 1893 when Andrew Doig purchased it. On New Year's Day, 1919, Cecil Russell became owner and proprietor. The store would stay in the Russell family for 81 years until the death of Cecil's daughter Marjorie.
Cecil ran the store alongside his wife, Isabel and later his daughter. The Russells kept the store open six days a week, only closing on Sunday and on a few holidays a year. During most of the time the Russells had the store, dairy farmers were their main customer base. Cecil allowed farmers to buy their groceries on credit. Farmers paid up once a month when they got their monthly milk check.
The main labor for Russells came from the family, but they hired after school and summer help too. I was one of those privileged to work at Russells. Starting in 1968, I worked there off and on for a decade, working after school, a couple of summers in college and for several months after I graduated college. I started by 'putting away the freight' once or twice a week. This was essentially hauling upstairs to storage boxes of canned goods so they would be where they wouldn't freeze. I didn't exactly love hauling all that stuff up the stairs, but I imagine it was good exercise. I do recall very fondly the arrival of the brown sugar. Russells sold it in bulk, weighing it out in paper bags as requested. It would come in a 50 pound sack that Cecil would open then have me dump into a large barrel in the back room. Every time I finished dumping the bag, Cecil would ask 'Have a sample?' I always accepted the offer!
One of the interesting activities that I got to do two or three times was the annual inventory. Cecil kept everything, so I found myself inventorying shoes, hats and tools that had to date from when he first opened the store. I was particularly attracted to a couple of the old style hats and bought three of them. And he charged the original price on the hats, something like $2. People used to say that you could find anything at Russells. I can attest to that.
Marjorie kept on running the store after the death of her father in 1982 and her mother in 1985. Ill health forced her to quit working in the store in 1997 and she died the first day of the new century on January 1, 2000.
Marjorie bequeathed the store to the Bovina Historical Society so that one of Bovina's oldest places of business would be around for future generations. The society could have decided to make it a static museum, but instead determined to keep the store open as an active place of business. Doing so increases its value and should help ensure that it stays around as a store for many years to come. So when you're in Bovina, be sure to stop by, wish Bea good luck and make your purchases. You'll be glad you did.