WOOD RIVER JUNCTION — When she’s not helping customers, Christine Oliver sits behind her cash register at Papa’s Place Country Store, carving. She uses a small but lethal-looking knife to create a detailed wooden fish — a pickerel — that will eventually become a key holder.
“I sit here and carve and I paint,” she said. “That’s what I use, my little knife.”
Oliver and her husband, Landon, known around town as “Butch,” live in Richmond, and opened their new business on Route 91 last November. The building, a former liquor store, had been vacant for several years. Their grandchildren dubbed the store “Papa’s Place.”
This is a new venture for Oliver, who admits she doesn’t have much retail experience. “I’ve never owned a store. I’ve never run a store per se,” she said.
Two customers come into the store and buy drinks and snacks. One of them has also bought a hot dog from Sgt. Thomas Reilly, an Air Force veteran who operates his hot dog cart in the store’s parking lot.
Edward Russell, one of the owners of the building and a big fan of Oliver’s work, pointed out some of her carvings of birds, several of which are displayed in photographs hanging on the wall.
“Chris is understating her own skills. She is a carver,” he said. “What you’re looking at on the wall there are carved birds. She makes these bird sets. People will come in and commission them. Chris is understated. This is a phenomenal skill set she has. People just come in and she carves them to order.”
Oliver, a former auditor for the Foxwoods casino, has a financial background, but she describes herself as an artist who wanted to run a craft store.
Her husband, who grew up in Alton and spent lots of time on the water as a boy, wanted a bait and tackle store. Now they have both, a huge walk-in refrigerator stocked with live bait and a gift shop where local crafts are offered for sale. There’s also a small selection of groceries, drinks and snacks.
Oliver said she wanted to offer local craftspeople a place to show and sell their work.
“A lot of them are very talented and they don’t know how to sell their products, where to sell their products, so this gives them an opportunity to do that,” she said.
Oliver also has a bulletin board where artists are invited to put up their business cards.
“People put their things for sale and their cards there,” she said. “We’re trying to work with the community.”
The items for sale in the gift shop range from figures made from clamshells to outdoor decorations like wind spinners. On one shelf, there’s a collection of decorated cake stands.
“This is Kathy Richards,” Oliver said, pointing at the hand-painted stands. “She makes a bunch of different things.”
Oliver said that when she invited local crafters to sell in her shop, they responded enthusiastically.
“They came to me,” she said. “I’m talking to people and asking them to bring things. I’m meeting a bunch of craftpeople in the area.”
Business was brisk last Christmas, but painfully slow through the winter.
Oliver said she was optimistic that things would pick up with the warmer weather, and she was adding some summer merchandise to her inventory.
“I have one man that is bringing in birdhouses. They should be in soon,” she said.
As Oliver builds business for the gift shop, the live bait has been a surprisingly strong seller, even through the winter, when she sold bait to ice fishermen. Eventually, she would like to offer canoe and kayak rentals.
These days, she says she is working 98 hours a week, but she’s glad to do it.
“Just the fact that I’m able to craft here and sell my products is really wonderful for me, so I’d like to be able to increase that,” she said. “As long as this ends up working out well, then I don’t mind putting in the hours.”
Russell said he thought Christine and Butch might be on the verge of something big.
“I think it’s perfectly possible that they’ll be doing something a year from now that they’re not even anticipating, because it’s been the way this store has grown through entrepreneurship and motivation,” he said. “I think it’s grown in ways that Chris and Butch probably couldn’t have anticipated, and it keeps going in that direction, so they’re innovative and they try new things. I think that Chris’s own work that she does has really added to the sense of place.”
Papa’s Place is open seven days a week from 8 am to 9:30 pm. Oliver also sells crafts on the store’s Facebook page.