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River of Goods, Terrybears helping to renew neighborhood

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Calvin

Two businesses share site with urban farm and community garden

Reporting and Photos by TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN

River of Goods 1Photo left: Twenty-five years ago, Terry and Margie Commerford began selling teddy bears and brass items out of their truck in the Twin Cities. Today they’re established in the Midway area with two thriving businesses, and they’re helping renew the neighborhood.

When Terry and Margie Commerford considered where they wanted to locate their businesses, they knew one thing.

They wanted to be where people live.

Their companies, River of Goods and Terrybears Urns and Memorials, had been housed in a commercial area in a suburb at one time, but they didn’t like it.

“We made a choice to be in a neighborhood instead of an industrial park,” observed Terry.
In Jan. 2015, they marked three years at their 946 W. Pierce Butler Rte. facility.

Over the past 25 years, they had rented warehouse and office spaces throughout the Twin Cities, including the Midway area, and were ready to own, recalled Commerford, who lives in South Minneapolis. Their realtor connected them with the St. Paul Port Authority, which was working to revitalize the property.

According to Terry, it had been a swamp, then a dump. Then it was filled in. A bowling alley was built. The seven acres became crime-ridden, and the Port Authority stepped in. They cleaned it up and sold it to the Commerfords for $1.

Stipulations of the agreement are that they employ at least 60 and hire from the neighborhood.
“I really believe in urban renewal,” commented Terry.

River of Good 2In addition to housing their two businesses, the property is home to the Our Village Community Garden on the southeast and Stone’s Throw Urban Farm on the west.

Photo right: In addition to housing the two businesses (River of Goods and Terrybear Urns and Memorials) owned by Terry and Margie Commerford at 946 W. Pierce Butler Rte., there is a community garden and urban farm on site.

“It’s nice to have the community here,” Terry remarked. “I truly enjoy the neighborhood.”

Using land for more than lawns
“This plot is an example of taking advantage of land that would otherwise just be lawn,” stated Sarah Garton of Stone’s Throw. “It supports a local business. It would otherwise just be a chore for someone else.”

River of Goods 3Photo left: Sarah Garton of Stone’s Throw Urban Farm harvests red oak leaf lettuce from the 1-acre plot at 946 W. Pierce Butler Rte. “This plot is an example of taking advantage of land that would otherwise just be lawn,” stated Garton.

Stone’s Throw expanded this year, and now uses about one acre. In all, they farm two and a half acres at 14 different lots through South Minneapolis and Frogtown. A wide variety of fresh greens, heirloom tomatoes, and herbs are grown and sold through CSA shares and farmers markets. It’s a for-profit farm that also engages in community work, according to Garton, which makes it different from many other farms.

Terry pointed out that another benefit to having the building at 946 W. Pierce Butler Rte. is the increased efficiencies they get from combining two businesses in one building.

River of Goods supplies local gift and floral shops with unique decorating products and light fixtures. They serve catalog buyers, retail shops, corporate buyers, TV shopping networks and more.

Terrybear Urns and Memorials designs and provides handcrafted, affordable cremation urns. Customers include distributors, funeral homes, families and pet owners.

They were like cowboys
In some ways, Terry and Margie are a long way from where they began.

“We started selling stuffed animals out of trucks on street corners,” recalled Terry.

When they began importing brass items from Korea and India, they continued hawking items on the streets. “We had this weird combination of brass giftware and stuffed animals,” said Terry.

They decided to move into the Eden Prairie Mall, and then opened a brass store in Burnsville. What followed was 15 years where they opened and closed about 400 retail stores. During one holiday season, they set up and took down 22 stores. Malls liked them because they helped fill space and looked permanent, noted Terry.

They had two stores that were the exception: the Tiffany Collection Store at the Mall of America and the River of Goods store at Hwy. 280 and Como.

In time, they had to make a choice to continue in retail or become wholesalers.

They opted to focus on being wholesalers.

For Terry, managing a workforce that was constantly turning over wasn’t what he wanted to do. He prefers to build a team and nurture a stable workforce.

They also decided to hire someone else to serve as CEO and president 13 years ago.

“That was the best thing I’ve ever done because it brought a lot of discipline and professionalism to the business,” Terry said. “We were like cowboys running around opening businesses and working on street corners.”

Today, Lavina Lau is the CEO of both River of Goods and Terrybears (which split into separate businesses about 15 years ago). Margie is the on-air talent for Shop NBC. Terry is the sourcing specialist and frequently travels to India and China, where they have 15 full-time employees.
“I’ve got 2 million miles on Delta alone,” Terry observed.

“I love it because I love it”
He has fun doing his work, and greatly enjoys the various facets of his job. “I love it because I love it,” Terry explained.

He especially enjoys traveling to work with vendors in India, some of whom he has worked with for 25 years.

He also appreciates the design component of his work.

Recently, they moved the manufacturing of their lily lamps from a facility in China to one inIndia that can produce a higher quality product at a lower cost. “Now the customer will end up with items at a lesser price, and they will be delighted,” said Terry.

“I love delighting a customer with an item that is the best in its class.”

Downton Abbey Lane
In January 2015, River of Goods launched a new line at the Atlantic Gift Show, one based on lighting found in the PBS television series Downton Abbey.

The line includes 25 original designs, including decorative floor and table lamps, wall sconces, accent lamps, pendants, and chandeliers. There are one-of-a-kind and hand-crafted stained glass, crystal pendants and chandeliers, elaborate shades with tassels and fringe, and ornate bases.

“Everyone kept saying we have lamps that look like Downton Abbey,” explained Terry. So they reached out to the show and embarked on a one-year process to create lighting fixtures that closely resemble those on the show.

“They’ve been really good to work with,” observed Terry. “It opened a lot of doors for us.”
He pointed out that their number one concern when it comes to lights is always that they are safe. Next come good designs and pricing that fits.

“We don’t carry lamps you’ll find in the big box stores,” said Terry.

As wholesalers, they primarily sell direct to businesses, but individuals can purchase some of their items on their website: www.riverofgoods.com/.