Mike Stiegler serving one of his friends.

Mike Stiegler serving one of his friends.

In the age of big box stores, franchises, and on-line shopping, Portage’s north-end hangs on to a throw-back retail experience, the corner store.

The north end is home to the last two corner stores in town and for 35 years Mike Stiegler has been working the counter of Mike’s 5th Avenue Grocery.

“Back in the day, there were as many as six stores in this end of town,” recalls Stiegler.

Corner stores are all about community, and Stiegler sees his customers as friends.  “You almost get into a relationship with them.  You get to know what they want when they come in.  I know what kind of cigarette they want, they don’t ask me, I just get it for them.  It’s a little more special than something a big store would do.”  In the name of customer service, Stiegler has gone as far as making quick home deliveries to nearby customers during quiet moments in the store.

“It’s almost like being a bartender here, you listen to people’s stories.  A lot of them are touching, a lot of people are confused, they don’t know what to do.”  So Stiegler offers advice when he can and a word of encouragement when it’s needed.  “Personally, I like to visit with everyone and they like to socialize.”

For three and half decades Stiegler has got to watch the people and unfolding stories of the north end.   “I’ve seen people come in and the mother is pregnant, she has that child, the child grows up, becomes pregnant, and has another child.  I’ve been through all those generations right from the beginning and that’s amazing.”

Not all the memories he has of a lifetime behind the counter are happy ones.  “A house on Alison (one block away) had a gas leak and exploded killing two people.  When it exploded, it knocked all the stuff off the shelves in here.  My dad was working here at the time and ran over and helped retrieve a child from the rubble.  That was really traumatic for me,” shared Stiegler.

A happier recollection is a recent lucky customer, “We just had a lottery winner in February win four hundred and ninety-five thousand dollars.  It does happen,” says Stiegler pointing to a picture of the happy customer hanging on the wall.

Mike’s 5th Avenue Grocery carries a wide variety of products beyond the typical junk food, ice cream treats and slushies.  It’s shelves are stocked with a good assortment of grocery items from pasta, canned goods, and frozen dinners, to deli-meats and condiments.  The hard work required to run the business can be taxing but for Stiegler it has become a labour of love.

New owner Yukie Luo.

New owner Yukie Luo.

“It’s a seven day a week commitment, a sacrifice but in the end it pays off.  It’s all what you put into it,” offers Stiegler.  “A lot of people are not aware what is involved in this business.  They think it is a gold mine.  It can be a gold mine, but you have to work it.  You have to be a miner.”

About three and half years ago, Stiegler decided he was tired of the fourteen hour days, seven day work week and sold the business.   A month into retirement, Stiegler realized it wasn’t really for him and returned to the store as an employee.  He eagerly points out that he now works six hours a day and enjoys weekends and evenings off.

But Stiegler’s deep bond with the people and place remains strong.  “You get close to them,  when some of them pass on you go to their funeral.  They are just that close to you.”

New owner Yukie Luo, has found the long cold winters a little harsh since immigrating from southern China but likes Portage.  “So far so good,” said Luo on how business is going. Being a stranger in a strange land has it’s challenges for her and her husband.  “We have no family here so it can be lonely.”  No doubt the family of customers who call Mike’s 5th Avenue Grocery home will help the Luo’s overcome feeling homesick.

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