Marilla Country Store

Sandy Grunzweig

The Marilla Country Store is over 170 years old. How has it stood the test of time? Tell us about your family’s involvement.

We are 172 years old this year. The store was established in 1851. It was here before the town of Marilla was even in existence. It was started as the first business to provide goods and services to settlers who came to the area to establish farms. Through my research, I believe we are the oldest country store in New York State that has been in continuous operation. And, we are one of the oldest country stores nationwide to be in continuous operation. It’s been an amazing business — the store is still in the original building and still operating very much as it did in those early days. Obviously, there’s been a change to the products offered, but it’s still very much a local country store.

To answer how the store has stood the test of time, I think it’s by always being relevant to our customers, like any business. It’s particularly important for a small business. That has certainly changed over the years from the days of when the horse and buggy were used for families to come into town and do all their shopping on Saturdays. They would buy everything they needed, from flour to clothing and material to boots and farm tools and plows. It was a big social outing. It’s always had a grocery component, as it does to this day, but it has evolved. That was so apparent during the pandemic. We were open because we had a wide assortment of grocery items for people, and during the pandemic, we added things quickly. We provided curbside service, and were able to fill orders within an hour. Our team did an amazing job. Standing the test of time is really about remaining relevant to your customers and making sure you can provide what they need.

The business has had just three families who have owned it over the course of 172 years. My parents purchased the store in 1977 and ran it for 23 years. My husband and I bought it from them in 2000. The store has had a very minimum amount of turnover in ownership through the years, and that’s allowed it to have a pretty consistent vision of the role it plays in the community.

What makes a country store unique from other stores?

That’s a good question. I think it’s a respect for the values we all share. It’s basic respect for people. The idea of true customer service and what that means, and customer appreciation. And the idea that there’s a community of people who support that business and enjoy that business. For us, that community is local folks who stop in several times a week, to people who visit a couple times a year and folks who visit from around the world. What they all find here are the values of a community and a sense of heritage. To us, a country store is about community, the people who work here, our customers and what they find when they come together in a one-of-a-kind place.

It seems like you redecorate the store every few weeks. Where do you find inspiration for your merchandising?

I have a wonderful team of really talented people. I’m always so excited to see them do something new. We certainly find inspiration in the seasons. We mix and change our displays to complement the seasons. We’re always fresh and season-appropriate when you come in.

We also look at the trends. In terms of trends, we look at what works for us, a country store, our kind of store, and what people expect to find here. We aren’t necessarily trendsetting, but we pay attention to what people like out there in the marketplace.

We also find inspiration from our customers.  When we think about what we should feature or carry, a lot of that comes from customers — from suggestions they make, or things they’re looking for, or themes they’d like to see.  We try to put everything together so it feels right for us and for our shoppers.

An example is our collection of Polish Pottery. It’s treasures like this that you pass down through your family, but the pottery still has a very contemporary feel and a timeless design that fits in with a lot of current home décor. We love it.

You have a large deli, grocery and candy section. What are your most popular food items?

This is hard because we have a lot of popular items, but the first thing that came to my mind, believe it or not, is our Lucky Charms marshmallows. You can get just the marshmallows — isn’t that great? They are incredibly popular!

The other thing that’s really popular is our spices. We have a huge selection. The price value and the freshness compared to what you can find in the grocery store is really meaningful to people. We have folks who come in a couple times a year to stock up on spices.

Birch beer is also one of our popular items.

Candy also has to top the list. We have over 500 types of old-fashioned candies, handmade chocolates and locally-made sponge candy. We locally source chocolates from a wonderful small business called Essentially Well Oiled. We’re happy to collaborate with them.

Marilla is a small town, with a population of about 5,000 people. How do you keep locals coming in and supporting your business?

There’s a mutual respect and support. We support many community groups, town activities, and other local businesses, etc. We do what we can to try to support the town’s activities.  I would say local customers return that support to us. They want us to be here. They want us to be a business they can enjoy coming to, bring visitors to, so I think people go out of their way to patronize a business they appreciate.

We’re really appreciative of the local population — we never forget them while we’re doing outreach to bring tourists or other visitors from outside the area to the store. First and foremost, we are here for our local customers and local residents. We pay attention to the things that are important to them.

You have impressive five-star ratings on Google, Tripadvisor and Yelp. Do you have a tourist following as well?

We do. We have supported efforts of the Greater East Aurora Chamber of Commerce and Visit Buffalo Niagara in bringing tourism to Western New York. We get visitors from all over the world. We have a guest book in the museum, and it’s fun to see people sign it from Germany, England, Australia, Japan and from all over the United States. We have Canadian visitors who come in regularly. We get bus tours. We are grateful to have customers who bring their out-of-town guests to visit.

You obviously love what you do, which is evident in your videos on social media. What do you love most about Marilla Country Store?

There’s a lot to love. Certainly the heritage and what the store has stood for and provided to the community for all these years. I think it’s really special. In this day in age when businesses come and go and things are always changing, to have a business exist this long, to think about everything that’s happened in the world in the last 172 years — the fact that this building is still standing, that this business is still operating in much the same way it always has, gives me a real sense of awe and appreciation for it. We are the caretaker of that torch.

On the other end of the spectrum, I love the smells, the aroma of the store. When you walk in you smell the old wood floors, the cinnamon-roasted glazed nuts that we’re making, the mix of foods and spices. And upstairs all the candles and soaps. You walk in and it’s a step back in time, both in the age of the building and the sights you see and the aromas you smell. It’s one of the things I love the most.

Tell us about the Museum at Marilla Country Store.

It’s wonderful. People love to visit. When my parents bought the store in the ’70s, every room was packed with merchandise that had been in storage for decades. To my parents’ credit, they worked really hard to find money to buy pieces of that inventory before it went to auction — in addition to buying the building. Original fixtures, old advertising sheets, so many things that reflected the store over those 150 years were able to be retained with the store. When my husband and I bought the store, we took what used to be the wallpaper room on the second floor and we set up the museum. We unpacked all these treasures and staged a museum that everyone could come and visit.

It’s an amazing thing to see what products used to look like, what the price points were, what ads used to look like. It’s a cool sense of connection for people to see what everyday life used to look like back then. We do tours for anyone who asks, and for the local elementary school. Year after year, the kids will come in for their community days in the spring, and they learn about the store. They start hearing the stories when they’re in kindergarten, and as they age, they start telling the stories back to me, which is really cool. It’s so important to retain the history and knowledge of things in your community. Even adults who moved from town come back and reminisce about riding their bike to the store.

We have the original safe where the proceeds of the day used to be kept because there were no local banks. In 1917, three robbers broke into the store in the middle of the night and attempted to dynamite it open. The owner of the store lived right up the street, and he had a trigger string attached to the store. So he knew when they broke in. He grabbed his shotgun, ran down the street and confronted the robbers. They had a gun battle on the front steps of the store and one of them was shot. They got away. They were never found or identified, but a local man was soon reported missing.  The theory is that he was the one who was shot and his buddies buried him in the woods.

We actually live in that same house now, the one the owner lived in at the time. Luckily, we haven’t had any attempted dynamite robberies!

What do you plan to do to keep the Marilla Country Store running for the next 170 years?

Well, one of the questions we get is: Do we sell online? And the answer right now is no. I think of us as an antidote to online. Shopping online is about the convenience, speed and price — get it done and move on. Visiting the store is a totally different experience. Here, it’s about enjoying the sights, the aromas and a slower pace. Shopping with family and friends, or for your own peace of mind. Perhaps online is a future endeavor, but for now, the magic is visiting here.

Hopefully we can find a buyer for the business. My husband and I are in our 60s and we love it, but it’s a lot of work! We would like to see it sold as an operating business and have it continue. That’s our goal. We’ll be looking to find someone who can love it as much as we do. It’s a business that deserves to see its 200th birthday.

The people who staff the store now and in the future are also going to be the reason the business goes on. The fellowship between staff and employees throughout the years is really special. We’re blessed to have had so many wonderful employees who appreciate what the store is and have enjoyed keeping it as a treasured business.  We have had mothers and daughters, and even a great grandmother and great granddaughter, who have shared working at the store. In fact, we’ve had multiple generations of the same family work at the store. And we’ve had employees who have met working at the store and married. That’s pretty cool history in the making!



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