The corner door pushes open to a soft “dong.” That’s it. No automatic swoosh of doors ushering you into a neon-lit extravaganza of restaurants, dry cleaners, coffee shops, post offices, liquor stores, pharmacies, and groceries. Nope. This door you have to push with your hands. And it pushes open only into a small mom-and-pop store. No bustling of people stocking shelves, no clang of shopping carts being rounded up by a machine in some football-field parking lot, no crackling voice announcing “help needed in aisle twenty-five.” Nope. Not here. Just a warm hello from the smiling woman at the cash register — who will likely call you by name — and then you are on your own. Quiet. Peaceful. Slow shopping.
“There used to be all these corner groceries in Des Moines. One over here in the Roosevelt Shopping Center. There was the Waveland Market. There was one in Sherman Hills. There was Greenwood Market, where we’d stop in every day coming home from Merrill. New City Market has been the location of a grocery since the 1920’s.”
Jim Raife explains with gestures as he identifies each corner grocery on some large imaginary map of Des Moines. A thin man. 61 years old. Small boned. Straight. His peppery-grey hair, narrow face, and rounded glasses are window-dressing to his smile. A slow, lazy affair. It starts at the eyes, eases on down to his upper cheeks, then finally brings the corners of his mouth upwards. It’s not in a rush. Nor is he.
“I started work in what was then the Iowa Farmer’s Market in 1979. It was like the first natural foods market in Des Moines. The Iowa Farmer’s Market was a private store. It was like crocks on the floor and an old cooler in the back. That was it.”
Jim straightens the long apron that loops around his neck and falls below his knees. The costume of his trade.
“It was a bunch of us hippies back in the beginning. I had a giant fro.” Jim laughs at his image as a young man.
“In 1989, I bought the Iowa Farmer’s Market and immediately moved it here to this corner. I knew politically this was right. I knew the natural food movement was a convergence of several movements. One a political movement and one a health movement. And so there was a compelling reason to think this would work.”
But really? Running a small business? Running a natural foods store?
“I learned by trial and error. We did have a consultant fairly early that helped us a lot. And I really worked to educate myself. This was a fledging industry back then. People were flying by the seat of their pants. You see small business people who say, ‘No one’s going to tell me how to run my business.’ And you look at them and think someone needs to tell them how to run their business. I was not that type. Whatever help you can give me, I’ll take it.”
Ah, and then there’s his wife Cindy. His indispensable partner in all of this. She works the back room and he works the front. Not too interested in any attention from me, she keeps to the periphery as she periodically glances our way.
“We had our first child in 1981,” Jim says. “All my kids grew up in the store. We were mom and popping it. Play area in the front. One of our kids would use the bathroom and yell across the store — ‘Mom, I need a wipe.’”
Jim laughs at how ridiculous it was.
“They all worked here. We ate and breathed and lived this.”
Cindy continues to bustle in the background. Grey hair pulled back tight. Softly curved eyes glancing our way. Gentle.
I intrude on her space. What did you think when you and Jim opened this store?
“Well, when we started, I had two kids and I was very pregnant with the third. When Jim said we should buy this place, I said he was crazy.” She pauses. “It was all good. When our youngest was big enough to play, he had his legos set up in the front window while the older kids mixed peanut butter. My adult kids all still eat natural foods and are healthy and well-rounded. You can’t ask for more than that.”
And that’s enough goofing off. Cindy heads to the back and Jim to the front.
The floor shines from polish. The large windows glitter in the late afternoon sun. The cans and boxes are marshaled in neat rows on the shelves. Vegetables and fruits are bright and lush in the refrigerated case against the wall. And the barrels of grains and beans are ready to be scooped into waiting bags. All is well at New City Market. And a soft dong is heard in the background. Mom and pop are back to work.