February 13, 2003
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Emporium owner Wanita Murphy will hold an anniversary open house Friday (tomorrow) to thank her customers for 20 years of support.

Emporium owner marks 20th anniversary

Emporium, or market center, from the Greek word emporos, meaning merchant traveler.

For more than 20 years customers have come to Yellow Springs’ Emporium at the center of downtown to buy coffee, wine, newspapers and other essential sundries.

This Friday, Feb. 14, store owner Wanita Murphy is having an all-day open house to acknowledge the loyal patronage her business has received since she bought it on Valentine’s Day two decades ago.

Things were a little different in 1983, for Murphy and the store. Then the business was a fourth of its current size. Then Murphy was a single mother of five children instead of six. Then she was 51 instead of 71. But she was then, as always, interested in food.

“When I started I knew I wanted to do something with food,” she said. “I liked to cook.”

Before Murphy bought the store, it had been open for four years and sold coffee and gourmet cookware and had a small selection of wine, she said. Murphy was living in Cincinnati working in elementary education and going through a divorce. She and her son Michael, then a junior in high school, were ready for a life change.

“I said to Michael, “Where do you want to go, we can go anywhere you want,” and I thought he’d say Hawaii or something,” Murphy said. “He said, ‘Let’s go to Yellow Springs.’ ”

Murphy purchased the business from then Yellow Springs resident David Scott, with a recently acquired inheritance, and one of the first things she did was place an order for French bread to go with the wine.

“Paul and Kathy Monaghan had the Yellow Springs Baking Company, and they had the best sourdough bread,” Murphy said.

It wasn’t long before she realized the cookware wasn’t selling, and one change became many.

“I realized you can only sell so many pieces of good quality cookware in a small town before all your customers are supplied with what they need for a long time,” she said. “When the economy takes a dip, consumable products will still sell.”

So Murphy began taking wine classes and going to all the tastings she could find. She expanded the store by taking out the apartment in the back to make room for a bigger selection of wine, and then more beer.

She doesn’t have to deliberate too long about what new changes are coming down the pike. She only has to listen, and her customers will tell her.

“It’s always about what do our customers keep asking for,” Murphy said.

And she doesn’t mind when the customers ask for more food, she said. When they asked for more international beers, she got beer. When they wanted soup, she developed a few soups, and then many more soups. When they asked for Nutella, she searched far and wide until she found it.

Murphy learned to appreciate good food as a 6-year-old, when she started working in her grandmother’s kitchen on a Michigan dairy farm. They always used the freshest ingredients, fresh milk and garden vegetables. Murphy remembers the care and attention her grandmother gave to slicing a red tomato and wrapping a thin strip of green pepper around it for color.

“She was always proud of homemade good quality food, and presentation mattered to her,” Murphy said. “I wish I had written down her molasses cookie recipe and her sugar cookies too. Oh man, they were good!”

Her refined taste buds have helped to develop the wine selection, which makes up the largest part of The Emporium’s business. Wine reps come in on Wednesdays, she said, to offer samples of wines from as far away as Australia and as close to home as Lake Erie.

“You can tell if it’s got a good fruit and a good tannin it will go down well,” she said. “You’re looking for a balance.”

And Murphy is looking for what her customers need. There are a lot of good cooks in Yellow Springs who do a lot of ethnic cooking, she said, and they’re always looking for wines that match.

“I think to myself, o.k., she’s going to come in and have something with cumin in it and I’ll make a note that this wine goes well with that flavor,” she said.

Murphy’s discerning taste has also helped create some of the store’s soups, sandwiches, muffins and cookies. She also gets to cook for friends and for the Yellow Springs Chamber Music dinners, where she chooses the ethnic food of the performers’ home country.

Murphy does not like to credit herself too much for having the energy to do it all.

“It’s just something you do,” she said. “I haven’t had a chance to sit on my laurels yet.”

And Murphy is by no means doing it alone.

Local resident Tucker Malishenko makes most of the soups. Vick Mickunis, the music director at WYSO, manages the beer selections. Jan Goodwin does a lot of the baking and manages the liquor business. Former manager Kathy Monaghan still takes care of the books. All told Murphy has 12 employees managing different parts of the business, and she says she couldn’t have done it without them.

“The most important thing I want to say is that I’ve got a really great staff, and that’s so important with a small business in a small town,” she said.

Murphy plans to make more small changes and improvements here and there. With one ear always turned toward the customers, she is hearing a need for a larger selection of prepared foods, more wine tastings and more wholesale coffee.

Essentially Murphy will continue what she has been doing all along. And the customers will keep coming.

—Lauren Heaton