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Island business pioneer remembered for warmth and wit
By Nancy Gould-Hilliard
Mercer Island Reporter
Employees of Riley’s Gifts — a 1980s-era shop known as “the little department store with class” in the long-gone Island Market Square — home-delivered their final gift to the Island on Thursday, Dec. 27.
Jan Eichler, Mary Lou Lake, Dee Travis, Cleo Nelson and Maggie Robertson, along with 40-some other friends and relatives, gathered in the cold rain at Mercerdale Field to dedicate a tree and bench in honor of the late Gloria Riley and her transforming chutzpah.
Riley’s husband, Bill, four of her children, Maureen, Jim, Nancy and Trish, and eight of her 14 grandkids were on hand, along with Rotarians, Chamber members, Gloria’s April Birthday Club, St. Monica friends, and others.
The bench sits in the closest public park to where Riley’s Gifts was an anchor business from 1980-93. The store actually began as a bay in Art’s Food Center in 1978, and became its own shop after James Crosby’s gift store closed.
Riley’s Gifts’ overstuffed aisles were chock full of bling, holiday specialty items, linens and dishes for weddings, chocolates, lingerie, toys, etched glass by local artist Regis Newitt, specialty greeting cards, a little jewelry and lots of classy d/cor. It was also notorious for its service and goodwill, said Jan Eichler, former employee.
“We often delivered gifts on our way home,” said Eichler, who helped wrap gifts for free and witnessed Riley’s many kindnesses. As Christmas neared one year, a woman experiencing hard times asked when certain children’s items would go on sale.
“Gloria walked her through the store to select the items she thought her kids would like, gift-wrapped each one and threw a couple of other items in the shopping bag. When the woman asked how much she owed her, Gloria said, ‘Merry Christmas. I threw the tags away!’”
A ‘chocoholic’ herself, Riley occasionally cracked open a delectable box of chocolates to treat the staff. “We loved working with the one-of-a-kind merchandise and the family feeling Gloria created in the shop,” said Eichler.
Riley was one of the first women to join Mercer Island Rotary in the late-1980s — along with Wilma Smith, schools superintendent, and Linda Quigley Senff. Riley led the Merchants’ Association, which later melded with the Chamber of Commerce. She carried the flag for “Project Renaissance” downtown and the “Merchant’s Munch,” a popular festivity in December where Islanders wandered shop to shop receiving snacks and warm welcome.
One of her favorite projects was the Gingerbread House competition. She and her husband, Bill, were Seafair Commodores and members of St. Monica Catholic parish. They raised six children on the Island.
Bill Riley urges all of today’s Islanders to “come by, sit a spell.” Most agreed there could be a little magic for those who sit on the bench marked by Riley’s shamrock insignia under the shade of her tree.