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End of an era – Northside Grocery closes after decades in operation

Every morning at Northside Grocery, the “coffee club” gets together to do what all the best coffee clubs do – solve all the world’s problems. Six or seven Russellville gentleman congregate in plastic lawn chairs in a corner near the soda fountain each morning to swap stories and talk shop. July 3 will see a sad end to this long-standing tradition as Northside Grocery closes its doors.

The coffee club just might be Northside’s longest-standing tradition.
The coffee club just might be Northside’s longest-standing tradition.

The gas station and convenience store has been a Russellville staple for longer than almost anyone can remember. No one’s quite sure when it first opened. “I talked to a lady yesterday, and we traced it way back to the ’50s,” said Pete Smith, coffee club member who owned the store from 2001-2014. “This lady is 78 years old, and she told me she came here when she was 2 years old.”

James Gardner, another coffee clubber, has been coming in for 49 years, since the third or fourth grade. He can remember stopping by for candy and cold drinks. “That was back in the day when you could probably buy two somethings for a penny,” he said.

When Smith and Matt Cooper were considering closing the store in 2014, then-employee Judy Miller decided to take the leap and buy the business. “They just made me such a great offer,” Miller said. “I wanted to try it because I wanted Northside to stay open. Now I’m the one who’s going to be closing it. That’s killing me.”

Miller began working at Northside in 2004, covering Tuesday and Thursday night and Saturday morning shifts. But as a longtime Russellville High School cafeteria worker, since 1994, she said she has found owning the store to be beyond her capacity.

“It’s just too much,” Millers said. “I said I wouldn’t start another school year trying to run the store.”

She can remember stopping in the store herself as a young person growing up in Russellville.

“Northside has always been good to me,” Miller said. She cries when she thinks about no longer getting the chance to interact with customers who have been coming to Northside for years. “Kids I know who have come through the high school will come in here, and I keep up with them that way. I have made a lot of good friends. I’ve watched a lot of them fight personal battles,” she said. “It’s just going to be hard.”

The small store has seen plenty of changes over the years. Coffee club members can remember when the gas pumps used to be out front, instead of to the side of the building. The back portion of the store used to be small apartments.

Brittney Williams has worked at Northside for about three years, beginning her job with previous owner Smith. She has opened the store each morning and worked as morning cashier – a position that gives her the opportunity to interact with the coffee club. It’s what she’ll miss most about Northside – “just having them come in every morning and giving us a good laugh” – along with all of her customers, just “knowing everything they want before they walk in the door, and when we’re out of stuff and they give me a hard time.”

For the past year and a half, Miller would make it a point to stop by the store every morning to check in before heading to work at the school. During her 30-minute lunch break, she said she would check in at the store or run errands. After work she would go back by the store, about 2 p.m. Even when she wasn’t at the store, there was still work to do to keep it running – accounting, tax computation and paying bills. She closed the store herself each night at 9 p.m. and made a bank deposit. “There comes a time in life when you have to realize you have to slow down,” she said.

Northside Grocery’s last day will be July 3 – Miller’s birthday. “I told my sister, ‘I don’t know where I’m going, but as soon as it’s closed and everything is picked up, I’m going somewhere for a few days, just for peace of mind.’”

Miller has two children: Matthew Miller, who works at Miller’s Affordable Furniture, and Jason Miller, who works at the furniture store and is running for Franklin County Commission.

“Everything comes to an end at some point in time,” Williams said. “This is its time, I reckon. It’s sad, but we’ll have stories. We’ll always have memories and pictures and stories.”