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The grand reopening of Kentucky’s Isom IGA, nine months after the store was severely damaged by flooding, was about a lot more than one family and their business. It was a celebration of rural vitality, of compassionate entrepreneurship, and of a community’s love and perseverance.
Isom is an unincorporated town in Letcher County with a population of about 1,000. The IGA store is located at a key intersection in the area. The owner, Gwen Christon, began working there soon after the store opened in 1973, and purchased it from the previous owners 25 years ago. Her family is part of the enterprise: husband Arthur, son Simon, and daughter-in-law Cheyenne.
The Isom IGA provides crucial access to groceries for the area. But it is much more than a place of commerce. It is a community hub, where residents gather for coffee, share joys and sorrows, and catch up on news. The deli seating serves as a restaurant.
“I will walk by an aisle, and see people standing there talking,” said employee Michelle Gabbard. “I will walk by an hour later and they are still there. It is a real meeting place.”
The community’s love for the store was apparent in the days and weeks after the flood. “The response moved me,” said Arthur Christon. “People who lost everything asked what they could do to help us. One thing they kept saying was, ‘Please reopen the store.’” The Christons hope that their new beginning is an inspiration to all those still recovering from the disaster.
It means a lot to the community to have a full-service grocery store. They are the largest employer in town with 32 staff, and Gwen Christon’s entrepreneurship has had ripple effects. As John Ross, president and CEO of the Independent Grocers Association, said at the celebration, “The Christons are a case study for what small business owners should be: smart, hard-working, talented, and charitable. They are doing it for the right reason and investing in their community.”
Alan Atwood of MDI, the Isom IGA’s warehouse partner, saw entrepreneurial grit through the rebuilding process. Gwen Christon’s first call for help was to Atwood. He was there the next day, with literal boots (and shovels) on the ground. He was there to support them through the difficult decision of whether or not to reopen, helping solicit donations for the rebuilding process. “It has been a challenging eight months for Gwen, but once she decided to reopen, she stared adversity in the face and didn’t blink,” he said.
The new iteration of the store is bright, welcoming, and well-organized. Major community businesses like this can be contagious, attracting other entrepreneurs and spurring new start-ups. Simon Christon shared plans to spotlight other local businesses, like Seven North Apparel Company, located just a few miles from the grocery store, which produced matching Isom IGA polo shirts for the reopening.
Being a savvy entrepreneur is important, but the Christons bring another key element to the table. Their community ethos, forged by their Christian faith and their mountain home, permeates the store. When Gwen Christon says everyone that shops there is family, she means it. Her warm welcome and genuine desire to serve are a big part of what brings people back to Isom IGA to shop regularly.
And whether through careful training or contagion, she has transmitted that spirit to her staff. Maggard has worked there for 11 years. When she heard a comment on how good the store looked, she smiled. “That’s because there is love in it,” she said, then gave the credit to the Christons. “This family is amazing. Gwen is always there for us. She is the community.”
Through the renovation, the Christons incorporated the community into the store in a beautiful way. On the upper walls, between the banners announcing “Produce” and “Deli,” hang images of local people and places. Photographer Malcolm Wilson had a repository of shots of Eastern Kentucky, from which Simon Christon selected those that are featured.
Weekly specials are shelved on the “Wall of Values,” below a photo of the four Christons in their Isom IGA shirts. The play on words may or may not have been intentional. But it is apt.