October 12, 2015 by Rebecca McKinsey
Those who walk into Bell Street Market looking for a few groceries will likely also leave with a free book, some almost-expired salad dressing, a brownie and a smile.
It’s that kind of place.
Bell Street Market, located at 300 Main St. in Yale, has been open since August of 2012. The combination grocery store and deli is open from 8 a.m.–6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Saturday.
It’s run by Sarah Smith, a West Des Moines native who lived in or visited more than 50 countries while teaching English as a second language and taught for several years in Perry before she settled in Yale.
Smith will tell you that the series of events that led her to open the store were completely unexpected.
Bell Street Market stands where Smith’s house used to be — but it wasn’t just a house. Built in the 1890s, “The Windsor” served as an old railroad hotel before becoming a grocery store when the railroad slowed down.
Smith bought the building in 2006 and began to transition the building to a bed and breakfast, even as she lived there.
One day, her kitten raced from the Windsor building to the tire shop across the street.
Smith followed the fleeing feline and met the shop’s owner, Tom. Several years later, they were married.
They decided to relocate the bed-and-breakfast, still dubbed “The Windsor,” moving it about a mile away in 2009 and opening up the space where it had stood. They needed extra space to house tires, so they built that, but the idea for a grocery store stuck as well.
The store was a labor of love — and Smith’s family put a lot of work into it, quickly. They broke ground in April of 2012 and opened in August of the same year.
The new store still carries signs of the old Windsor building that used to stand in its place — an old sack holder, a paper roll with its original stamp from the 1920s and a spool of string that dates back decades.
Near the door, a table and shelf offer items a little closer to their expiration date — some at reduced rates, and others free to customers who spend a certain amount on other items.
“I can’t throw stuff away,” Smith said with a laugh.
The bookshelf by the door also serves as a lending library, with Westerns, romances, mysteries and more crammed together. Some customers drop books off, and others carry them away. Some of them never return the books — and that’s OK. The volumes are free.
Individually wrapped baked goods — cookies, muffins, cinnamon rolls and more — are for sale near the register. Smith freezes the dough and bakes just a few items at a time so they’re always fresh.
The deli sells soups, sandwiches and salads, as well as chips, drinks and desserts. Soups are added when the weather cools. Smith typically serves between five and 20 lunches each day.
Customers come from surrounding communities, some traveling from as far as Perry or Des Moines for the deli’s signature chicken salad — Smith’s own recipe.
A coffee stand in the corner is an important aspect of the business, serving farmers who come in to fill their thermos before a long day and groups of older men who meet regularly to sip and chat.
Local customers in particular are more likely to grocery shop there when the weather is nasty and they don’t want to travel elsewhere, Smith said. The market also serves as a convenience store for others who duck in regularly for a candy bar and bottle of pop.
Smith doesn’t have suppliers; rather, she makes weekly trips to various grocery and supply stores to stock the store.
And if someone requests a new item, she’ll typically try it — whether it’s gluten-free foods or Cracker Jacks.
“If you keep the same products over and over again, people get bored,” she said.
She regularly orders items customers specifically have requested, such as a full case of yogurt or 60 buns for an event.
The store is different things to different people — and Smith enjoys it all.
“I like the variety it gives me,” Smith said. “At times I can relax and socialize, and at times it keeps me busy. There’s the freedom to do whatever I need to do.”
And if she hadn’t met and married her husband, Smith said, she’d still be living at the Windsor, running it as a bed-and-breakfast across the street from the tire shop — and there’d be no grocery store.
Above a door inside the market hangs a sign that sums it up: “All because two people fell in love.”
Courtesy of Rebecca McKinsey, The Guthrie Center Times 10/14/15, Guthrie County Vedette, Jefferson Herald 11/12/15.