(Riverton, WY) – Forty years is a lifetime achievement for many businesses, and Linda Denison of Wind River Mercantile has reason to celebrate as she attests to all of the trials and transitions, hills and valleys, challenges and successes that have made this small Wyoming natural foods store in Riverton a mainstay.
Linda and her family were from California and had lived in Wyoming from 1974-76, then went back to the West Coast to help some friends. “We started asking ourselves: Why did we leave Wyoming?” she said. “We couldn’t wait to come back…so in 1980 we came back.”
They had lived here for about a year before Linda was having difficulty finding the foods she was used to eating, including whole grains and raw nuts. “I would drive to Casper…they didn’t have what I wanted,” she said. “So my mother-in-law said: ‘You know what goes in the store. Why don’t you just open one?’”
Linda was a bank teller at United Savings at the time. Six months later, her mother-in-law asked her if she had a list of distributors yet.
“I said, wait, are you serious? I don’t even know where to start,” Linda chuckled. “She was like, ‘I’ll back you, just do it…go to the library, look in the yellow pages, see what’s in Montana, see what’s in Utah, see what’s in Colorado…’
“Once I got the catalogs from those companies, I was hooked.”
Living ‘The Dream’
Linda started really small in December of 1983. “I was in Guthrie’s building on 5th Street, one block north of the post office, for eight years,” she said. Guthrie eventually said that he needed the building, so she moved into what was, at the time, the dollar store on 3rd Street.
“The rent was so reasonable, and I was closer to Main Street,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is the ticket. I’m gonna move my store‘…because I had to, anyway, right?”
Linda was there for just a couple of years when, in 1994, the building where the store is currently located became available. It used to be a craft store, and the owners, Chuck and Shirley Powell, were retired and would leave for the winter and come back during the spring and summer months.
“It became vacant, and what was really strange was that I had a customer come in and say that he had a really interesting dream with me in it,” Linda said. “He said that he usually doesn’t dream about people, but in this dream, he said I was telling him about a building that I was buying on Main Street, and it had trees out front and windows up top.”
One of Linda’s customers who worked in a beauty salon on 3rd Street used to come over to her store, buy one piece of licorice, and keep telling Linda that she needed a bigger building. “I said, ‘I know…do you know of one with windows above it?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, right around the corner!’”
When the Powells returned, Linda visited them and inquired as to whether they would ever think of selling their building.
“Chuck said that I’d have to talk to Shirley because it was hers and her dad built it,” Linda said. “A few days later, Shirley came over and asked me if I was serious, and I told her yes and that I didn’t want to deal with banks or realtors. So she drew up the papers–knew how to do the contract, the insurance, everything–we had a lawyer look it over, and I made the payments. Isn’t that amazing? It was like, God meant for this to happen. I couldn’t pass it up. So forty years later, here I still am!”
Working through the challenges
Over the years, Linda said the biggest challenge was getting deliveries. “For the longest time, we used to have to drive to Casper to get groceries,” she said, referring to her and her husband, Daniel, and other store owners in Lander and Thermopolis. “They (the distributors) said when we came up with a four-thousand dollar combined order, they would drive to Riverton.”
The store owners would all get together, and take the trips to and from Casper to get their products and supplies. Linda said that Thanksgiving was especially challenging. “We bought a special truck to hold all these turkeys, and we got a cover for it to protect them from the weather,” she said. “I think we did that for almost two years when they said they’d finally come.”
Though the distributors said that they would deliver to Fremont County, “it’s still been a challenge,” Linda added. “Roads sometimes close, like I-80…sometimes I think ‘How am I going to keep doing this?’ when distributors close, or they no longer offer stuff. There was a gentleman who used to go to Montana and he would get (Bronze Chief) wheat. He no longer does that, so I can’t get their cereal, their flour, or their grain. Stuff that I’ve sold for years and years, I can’t get.”
During COVID, Linda said that there were a lot of long waits to get products. “In this industry, everything is dated, so you have to constantly watch and rotate,” she said. “There were all these scares about not being able to get vitamin C or zinc…but people would come in because Smith’s would say that they could only buy one pound of hamburger. I was able to get the local stuff and keep it stocked…so I got the overflow when the other stores were wiped out.”
“I think COVID started a trend where people started to pay attention…people who had never been into a health food store were coming in.”
The Merc on Main Street
The Wind River Mercantile is a natural foods store, with shelves and displays filled with natural, homeopathic, and organic products, including food and products from local farmers and vendors. Linda said a couple from New York came into her store in the summer, and told her they had to go to “three different stores to get what I have in here,” she said. “It’s been my life; it’s been my lifestyle when you can’t get what you’re used to.”
Linda occasionally consults her customers and has been able to guide them when they ask what she’d recommend if they want to go natural.
“Usually, folks are already to a point where they’re saying that they’re not where they want to be,” she said. “It could be they had a reaction to a drug, or are looking for something after surgery, or whatever. So they, just on their own, want to know what is available. And of course, nowadays it’s the Internet instead of books…you should see my library! I can’t, of course, prescribe, but we can suggest what might help. It’s just so important…in these days, especially…to try and eat clean.”
Linda said that the products most purchased at the store are for inflammation. “Probably turmeric or curcumin,” she said. “They’ve come out with some that are alternatives to curcumin because it’s a blood thinner, and not everybody can take it. Then there are other antioxidants that people use for stress…herbs for calming and anxiety… there are a lot of good things for digestion. Mushrooms and collagen have also been the growing trends.”
Linda said that a natural, homeopathic lifestyle is a lifetime thing. “Some people dabble for a little bit if they don’t get the results they want, then they move on to something else. But I tell them these are not drugs. It takes time. Start with one thing. Take that from a month before you take something else because otherwise, you’re not going to know how your body’s going to respond. I tell everybody to start detoxing first. You don’t want to take all these supplements if you’re toxic…your body’s just going to dump them. You need to clean the cells. Start with your blood and your liver, colon…clean everything out, and then start on a program. We have simple little cleanses that are really easy to take.”
The Secret to Success
After 40 years, Linda said that the secret to business longevity is customer service. She also says that she “couldn’t have done it without all of the wonderful employees and help I’ve had throughout the years,” she said. “I’ve been very blessed.”
“I always listen and ask people when they come in and want certain things, or heard about this or that, and I’d say, ‘I can order it for you,’” Linda continued. “I try to cater to what they need…after a while, you get to know them and their conditions, and you can ask how they’re doing. I think just friendly service is important. They are important.”
Wind River Mercantile is located at 223 East Main Street in Riverton. You can visit their website, or find them on Facebook where they frequently post updates about their store, specials, and information about the products they carry. Call the store at 307-856-0862 or email [email protected].