A Belle Fourche business that started in an 8 foot wide building selling business supplies celebrates its 50th anniversary Friday, Feb. 22.
What started as a small business to fill a need in the community blossomed into an artistic enterprise.
Ferne Wenckus started the business with basic office needs, and as people requested more items, she supplied them.
Mary Riley continues to service the community in the same way, but the business has expanded to include what might be called “anything art.”
Wenckus opened the business at 715 5th Ave. in 1962. Riley and her husband Tom purchased the Office Emporium from her Jan. 1, 1997 and moved it to 612 State St.
The business expanded at the new location. Office supplies and services include greeting cards, film processing, framing for photos and artwork.
Riley said the best part of owning the business is “being able to service people on a daily basis and meeting their needs … finding the product they need that they can’t find somewhere else.
“With technology I’m doing more email sales.”
Customers can shop online at officeemporium.com “My niche is the service of the product,” said Riley.
“I had one lady who came in who wanted a calendar that she couldn’t find anywhere else. If you know the manufacturer and name of the product I can probably find it.”
The store’s inventory now includes fabric, quilting and sewing supplies, as well as some knitting and crocheting supplies.
“I’m getting into more craft items. It all ties in together from one area to another,” Riley said. “I find there is a need for services reading patterns and picking out fabric. I also do one-on-one (quilting) services on Saturdays. They call for appointments.
“I’m talking about more than quilting. I help people who want to learn how to quilt.”
The store’s “Quilt Shop Library” includes books, magazines and patterns.
“It’s so people can check them out for a couple of weeks," she said. "People will come look at them on their lunch break and find a pattern they want to use."
Those people include families of pipeline workers who are temporarily in the area.
“They move around and their wives and children move with them.”
She said many of the mothers are home schooling, and it provides a resource for them.
“I also help kids with their 4H projects. I was in 4H for nine years. I won a trip to Washington, D.C., in Dress Revue.”
Riley was a home economics aide when she was in high school, “not a student. I knew everything they were teaching everyone else. “
“I’m able to use my skills. I started sewing when I was 7 years old."
Riley still has the apron she made at age 7. It was her 4H dress revue project that year.
Riley said customers benefit from the art projects she did in school and 4H, and her drawing abilities, competitions, and art shows.
“I’m using my experience and skills,” she said.
She has a college degree in computer science, “and 20 or 30 years of experience. My degree is in software and programming.”
Riley said the business and art “all ties together.”
She said the same thing applies to the photography part of the business. Office Emporium has been printing photos from film since about 1998.
“In 2002 or 2003 we started digital.”
Riley said she wasn’t exactly sure of the year some of the services started. They have just continued to grow as technology changes.
“We’re still dealing with home movies and slides. What are people going to do with them? We put them on DVD.
“We do print to print. We will be doing more of that with digital photos.
“People don’t have the negatives; they have the prints.”
She also transfers videos and VHS to DVD. “That’s non-copyrighted only.”
She said the business continues to keep up with technology and people’s needs. Passport photos are just another part of the service.
She still serves and even makes house calls for a few customers from when she was more active in computer sales.
Framing photos, prints and various artwork is another part of Riley’s education and skills.
“It ties in with my ‘anything art.’”
“We do engraving and trophies. I deal with businesses… doing plaques and awards. It’s not just individuals.”
This also applies to graduation supplies. Customers may choose by shopping an in-store display and catalogs as well as online shopping.
“We sell diplomas to schools, and also supply caps, gowns and school rings.”
“I supply greeting cards and gifts for every occasions, party supplies and souvenirs.
How does she keep up with everything?
“I work in the evenings and weekends.”
She makes deliveries in the morning.
Riley has done a lot of work, “but if you do it like you’re supposed to, live right and take care of yourself, you can do it.” And, she said, “I’m a runner.”
She is also church treasurer, and “keeps her family running.”
In the store, “Everything is labeled. I know my areas and departments. I know what I have. It’s all memorized, and it’s all inventoried.”
Her business, she said, is coming out of the recession.
“Through my years, the first few years were great, as was the experience.”
“We survived the revitalization of downtown Belle Fourche, Highway 85 construction, and the recession. What else is there?
“I’ll probably be here my lifetime.”
The Riley’s son Tanner was 5, and their daughter Candace was 9 when the Rileys bought the business.
“It's 17 years," she said. "The years have just gone by now we're enjoying our grandchildren, a 4 year old and a 1 year old.”
Riley said some of the current business growth is because the community is growing from the North Dakota oil and Wyoming coal.
The store’s fax, email, UPS, and shipping services includes assisting a number of people associated with the migration of workers who are “running their businesses out of their pickups.”
“The whole thing about is a service," she said. "The customer is able to come in here and trust you and have the services they need.”
Riley said she has access to companies to get great bargains.
She was named 2008 National Recognitions Products “Rookie of the Year.”
“They even paid for my trip (to Minnesota) to receive the award.”
Her awards include 2005 Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce Volunteer of the year. She was 1999 chamber president, and a member of the board of directors off and on from 1998 to 2007.
“All my awards and achievements – that’s what keeps me going. It energizes me,” she said.
Riley said her enthusiasm comes from her customers. “I helped them today. Yay.”
She also enjoys giving directions to people who are new to town, and assisting tourists with materials such as South Dakota Made Products, unique gifts, work of local artisans and crafters.
Business customers come from a wide territory…including Montana towns from Broadus to Ekalaka, to North Dakota, to Faith, Lemmon and Eagle Butte, south to Rapid City, Hermosa, and Hot Springs, and Upton, Wyo.
A lot of that is online business. “My territory is as big as I can make it…as much as I have time for.”
Her husband, Tom, also enjoys working with the public.
“He works for Black Hills Special Services with their bussing services. It’s helping people get to their doctor appointments, classes, and day to day living.
“It’s a special need. Not everyone can do that work. He really enjoys working with people.”
Tom also is a Shriner and a Shrine Hospital dad who organizes bus trips from Rapid City to the hospital in the Twin Cities.
She bids on things such as office furniture, and makes delivery on everything.
“I match prices too," she said. “The whole point is to provide what customers need and keeping the customers shopping locally."
She said her hope is that Office Emporium’s 50 years of growth will bring in other businesses and help the community.
“If you work at it you can make it,” said Riley.
“Customers need to come first,”
“This building was the best investment. Better than paying rent,” Riley said. ”I was the first person who ever painted the whole inside of this building all one color. I had to get off the ladder to wait on customers.”
It brought out a lot of architectural details that customers didn’t notice before, such as the archway between the two sections of the building.
The building may have been built in two sections at two different dates. The main entrance is believed to be part of a brick commercial building constructed between 1915 and 1923.
An alley once separated it from the former Hampton Hotel. The other section of the building is believed to have been built after 1942, perhaps in 1950.
The metal front part of the building’s renovation may hide more of its history.
She said business people need to build a relationship with the customer to be successful.
“The whole key is service," Riley said. “It’s all age groups. If they describe it, I can figure something out.”
Office Emporium’s “Celebrating 50 Years” will include storewide sales from 20 to 50 percent off, door prizes and refreshments from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday, Feb. 22.