A journey home

Former educator finds joy in a new career

Handmade gifts are on display at Shenandoah Stuff. Photo by Kodi Wright

When Shenandoah Valley native Liz Riffey graduated from Central High School in 1979, she vowed to leave and never come back.

“I loved it here. But it was time to spread my wings,” she said.

Pondering her childhood dreams, Riffey had big plans to make her mark anyplace but Woodstock.

“When I was in the fourth grade,” Riffey said, “I wanted to be D.J. Wolfman Jack. I used to go into the woods and practice my radio voice with the trees. I didn’t have much in Mt. Olive, but I had my imagination.” Riffey hesitated and flashed a wide grin. “I still like to talk to myself.”

In 1983, just four years after promising to never return, the Longwood University graduate was in love and in need of a paycheck. A wild and once unimaginable summer unfolded and within two months she had a husband, a new place and a new job.

“I couldn’t believe it!” Riffey squealed at the recollection. “I was back! And with a man!”

Over the next three decades, Riffey spread her wings at CHS in the classroom and, for the last 17 years of her career, across the library.

Riffey retired in 2013, but still felt an itch to work. What began as a favor turned into two years as a substitute teacher right back at CHS. But when the school year ended in 2015, she knew it was time to fly away and not look back.

“I needed a change,” Riffey said.

She didn’t know it the day she retired for the second time and took the short walk to her car in the parking lot, but her childhood imagination was coming back to life. Her sense of creativity and longtime love of crafting would soon launch a second career.

For months, Riffey had driven twice a day past Cook’s Exxon in Woodstock and kept one eye on the road and the other on the vacant retail space next door and connected through Cook’s dining room.

“Of course I knew the wonderful Kim (George) and I knew she’d had a store there for a while, but she was so busy with other things that she closed it and the space was just sitting there.”

Before long, Riffey and George entered into a partnership and Shenandoah Stuff was born.

“This is a dream come true,” Riffey said as she gave a tour of the new shop, located at 46 Reservoir Road in Woodstock. “I’ve been going to craft shows for years and handmaking whatever my imagination could conjure up.”

The shop features many of Riffey’s own creations, but also offers unique handmade gifts on consignment from other talented crafters. “I want to give artists a new place to showcase their work. There is so much talent in the county, and this is such a tourist area now that we need to promote the folks in our own backyard.”

Riffey reports that since opening in October, approximately half of her customers are locals and the other half are passing through. She loves meeting new people and sharing a piece of Shenandoah County.

“Many of the people whizzing up and down 81 have no idea what we have to offer. Our history. Our art. Our food.” Riffey laughed at the suggestion she’s still in education. “I guess I still get to teach, just not in a hot classroom with moody teenagers.”

Looking around her new space at creations of all kinds, many from her own hands, Riffey paused and smiled. “I haven’t felt this way in a long time. I feel at home.”

Riffey is quick to concede that it’s a tough environment for a small business and many don’t survive the first year. “Yeah, I get it,” she said. “But not everyone is lucky enough to try something else and I’m going to work hard and enjoy every single day. If I’m here in a year or five or 10, great. If not, no regrets.”

As her voice rose, she gestured with a hot gun glue. “I mean come on. I get to do this all day!”

Riffey smiled again as she reflected on the day she rolled out of Woodstock in 1979 with a few bucks and a desire to see the world. No, she didn’t spread her wings outside the valley, but because of her service at CHS, Riffey has inspired thousands of students to fly in their own way and in their own place.

Those who visit Shenandoah Stuff are likely to hear Liz Riffey tell a story. While it might not be from behind a microphone, it’s likely to be just as entertaining.

 

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books. Reach him at feedback@jasonfwright.com.

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