These Riverbend Store signs were uncovered during revitalization of the building. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

These Riverbend Store signs were uncovered during revitalization of the building. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

Piece of Port Alberni history preserved with the Riverbend Store

Store on the Pacific Rim Highway has a long history in the Alberni Valley

A Port Alberni family has restored a piece of the Alberni Valley’s history with the Riverbend Cafe.

The Riverbend Cafe and General Store officially opened at the beginning of December, but the little building on the Pacific Rim Highway has a long and storied history in the Alberni Valley.

New owners Wish Puusepp and Chris Pouget were very aware of that history throughout the renovation process.

Puusepp said the Riverbend Cafe and General Store was born in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, when she was seven months pregnant. The old Riverbend Store had just gone up for sale.

“We’d been in lockdown for so long,” she said. “Chris made a joke about buying the Riverbend Store, and that afternoon we visited the site. We kind of reflected on our time in the Riverbend and realized we had the same vision. There wasn’t anything in town like what we saw in our minds—a vintage-style cafe that played into the history of the area.”

Neither of them had ever intended to be small business owners. Puusepp works for the City of Port Alberni, while Pouget is a photographer.

“But we couldn’t pass it up—the chance to be part of this story,” said Puusepp.

They took possession of the building in August 2020 and began renovations in earnest. The plan was to work with the footprint of the building, but construction turned out to be more complicated than expected.

“There was lots of rot in the building,” said Puusepp. “It needed a lot of work, and it was a lot more than we anticipated.”

The store was originally built in 1936 and opened as the family-owned Bigmore’s Store. It started out just offering gas and groceries, but over the years it has evolved into a mom and pop shop as more lean-tos and additions appeared.

“We’re a modern version of that,” Puusepp explained.

The store offers products made by Vancouver Island artisans—everything from teas to body care and clothing—as well as fresh and frozen food made by Wildflower Bakeshop and Cafe. The shop also serves up coffee and has a large indoor seating area.

Puusepp and Pouget originally planned to call the business “Alberni Crate and Coffee,” but this changed as they began to unveil more of the building’s history.

“We know how much the history of Port Alberni means to the locals,” said Puusepp. “We heard so many childhood stories of people coming down here for penny candy.”

The store officially opened on Dec. 7. The late opening worked out in their favour, said Puusepp, because it gave the business an opportunity to “gain its footing” before peak tourist season.

“This way we get to understand our business and clientele,” she said.

The couple drew on their extenstive collection of vintage décor to fill up the cafe, but they also reclaimed as much of the old building as they could. They wanted to avoid sending most of the old wood to the landfill, said Puusepp. The old Riverbend Store sign sits inside of the cafe as a piece of artwork.

“Everything we built in here was re-purposed from pieces of the old building,” she said. “We joke that the Riverbend was built with the Riverbend.”

The new owners are always eager to learn more about the building’s history. They have been reaching out to former owners, said Puusepp, to try and build a timeline.

“We’re always interested in any sort of historical memorabilia,” she said.

Two of the previous owners actually live next door to the building, said Puusepp, and have been offering help, support and encouragement throughout the building process.

She and Pouget have plenty of plans for the building, with a vision for a patio in the summertime and live music events. They are always looking for new Vancouver Island vendors.

“It’s ever-changing, always evolving,” Puusepp said. “We want it to be a hub for people to gather.”

The community support, she said, has been “incredible” so far.

“Every day we have new faces come through our door, and they talk about how the Riverbend was part of their life,” said Puusepp. “They’re happy to see it restored.”



elena.rardon@albernivalleynews.com

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Port Alberni

 

The original Riverbend Store, which was called Bigmore’s Store. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

The original Riverbend Store, which was called Bigmore’s Store. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

The original Riverbend Store, which was called Bigmore’s Store. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

The original Riverbend Store, which was called Bigmore’s Store. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

The Riverbend Store in 1975. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

The Riverbend Store in 1975. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

The Riverbend Cafe and General Store as it stands today. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

The Riverbend Cafe and General Store as it stands today. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

Chris Pouget and Wish Puusepp with their children, Dylan and Willow, at the Riverbend Cafe. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

Chris Pouget and Wish Puusepp with their children, Dylan and Willow, at the Riverbend Cafe. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

The Riverbend Cafe and General Store as it stands today. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

The Riverbend Cafe and General Store as it stands today. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)