COLERIDGE, Neb. -- The importance of a grocery store to a small town can't be understated.
As the number of Main Street businesses dwindles, the grocery store is often one of the few left standing to bring in shoppers from the town and beyond.
When a town loses its grocery store, elderly residents who have difficulty driving are forced to find another way to get to the next town down the highway to do their grocery shopping. Unless there's a convenience store in town, you no longer can run downtown to get a loaf of bread when you find yourself a couple slices short.
It's not just a convenience.
"Being able to get the things you need close by without having to go someplace else gives you a sense of security," said Christina Driver, one of the first shoppers to enter Ken's Corner Market after it reopened Thursday in Coleridge.
Since their grocery store closed in June, most residents here had to drive nine miles to Hartington or 13 miles to Laurel to buy their groceries. Some drove even farther to Sioux City or Yankton, South Dakota.
So when the former Ken's Market reopened under the new name of Ken's Corner Market at 8 a.m., it wasn't too surprising that there were customers waiting for manager Paula Dirks to unlock the door.
"I think they've realized they need a grocery store for the community to thrive," Dirks said. "The investors that have invested in the store, they see the need, see the convenience. This store belongs to the community."
Feeling that void in their community, residents stepped up to get their grocery store back.
Along with Brian Eddie and Kerry Hefner, local insurance agent Regg Pehrson helped form the initial Coleridge Grocery LLC board after the store closed last summer. It took a few months to secure suppliers willing to ship groceries to Coleridge before the board hosted a community meeting in December. The meeting drew about 100 people, and 45 investors committed that night, Pehrson said.
Now, 73 investors have kicked in $184,000 in amounts ranging from $500 to $10,000 to get the store open again. The board, which has since expanded to five members, bought the building Dec. 29, meaning Ken's Corner Market literally belongs to the community.
Prior to opening, volunteers helped clean the interior, move equipment and stock shelves to get the store ready.
"The community is behind this store, and that's what's going to make us or break us," Pehrson said.
Former residents are behind it, too. Ken Mitchell, the store's namesake, operated a grocery store just up the street from 1973 until his retirement in 2005. Mitchell now lives in Norfolk, but he was back Thursday, helping cut meat and offering advice to Dirks as she received another shipment of groceries.
The smell of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls at the bakery/deli counter filled the store as Mitchell filled the meat counter. It was good to see shoppers in the aisles, even if they weren't fully stocked yet.
"I don't think you could find another town of 500 that has a store this good," Mitchell said.
Driver, who lives east of Hartington, dropped in with her daughter Elsie to pick up a few items. She had split her grocery shopping between Coleridge and Hartington before Ken's closed in June and was happy to see it open again.
"We're all about shopping locally," said Driver, one of the volunteers who had helped stock shelves. "Having a grocery store here is really exciting. We're happy for Coleridge."
As are many others. Driver said she had gotten a text message that morning from a friend, an elderly woman, who lives in Coleridge. She wanted to know if the new store had any cold medicine. When Driver responded that it did, the woman was thrilled that she could just stop downtown rather than drive to Hartington to buy some.
Dirks hopes that type of excitement keeps local shoppers returning to the store, which has three full-time and five part-time workers.
"People want to see it thrive, and they want to see it open," Dirks said.
Pehrson said having a grocery store in town is a positive sign. Perhaps it will help attract new businesses.
But more importantly, food and other necessities are just a few blocks away again, and the money from the sale of those items will stay in town.
"A small town needs a grocery store," Pehrson said.
And Ken's Corner Market, like other similarly situated grocery stores, needs its small town.