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Empty storefronts a sign of the times

One of the vacant storefronts is on a corner in the heart of town. It’s been for rent since the beginning of the year. - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
One of the vacant storefronts is on a corner in the heart of town. It’s been for rent since the beginning of the year.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

Walk down Vashon’s main street, and one sees signs of a struggling retail landscape.

Four storefronts — Heather’s Homegrown, the former site of Island Quilter, Movie Magic and Zoomie’s — are currently vacant. Just outside of the retail core, Dr. Sjardo Steneker’s former clinic has a for sale sign on it. Further south, in Burton, Island restarauteurs Troy Kindred and Marie Browne are about to end their stint as owners of the Quartermaster Inn.

And last week, Beng-Imm Low, owner of the Vashon Tea Shop, said she plans to shutter her shop at the end of March, though she continues to hope she’ll find a buyer by then. Her tiny outlet — a sweetly appointed cafe adjacent to the Vashon Bookshop — has been on the market since last August.

Vashon’s retail center is hardly a sea of boarded-up storefronts. But to those who have lived and worked on Vashon for several years, the number of empty storefronts seems high right now. And while the story behind each vacancy differs in the details, they’re a stark reminder, some say, of a lingering recession that has hit Vashon hard.

“We’d love to have a thriving downtown business district. But people just aren’t spending money like they used to,” said Patti McClements, who chairs Vashon’s Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s a real concern to the members of our board — to see another business with butcher paper in the window. It’s very disconcerting,” she added.

Linda Bianchi, a real estate agent with deep roots on the Island, concurred, adding that she would be particularly sad to see the Tea Shop join the list of vacancies. “It’s just such a cheerful storefront,” she said.

“I think it’s a sign of the economy, a sign of tough times,” Bianchi added. “It’s difficult on Vashon, especially in the winter.”

Those who work in retail on Vashon agreed that the economy is largely the culprit. But some also said that the online world has taken a toll and suggested the current spate of closures is a reminder that those who want a vibrant commercial district should strive to shop locally.

Tom Langland, co-owner of the Vashon Pharmacy, says his business is flat because of the rise in mail-order pharmacies — a movement that’s being pushed by large insurance companies that enjoy an economy of scale that enables them to offer medications at discounts. He believes many other retailers are suffering from different versions of the same phenomenon — online shopping that ultimately undermines Vashon’s local economy and that many people undertake without considering the consequences, he said.

“I think there’s less recognition by people making purchasing decisions that every dollar they spend at Amazon … is a vote against the rural way of life,” he said.

“Our dollars are votes,” he added. “You can vote for your Island or against it.”

The importance of shopping locally is a tune the chamber has been singing for years, and McClements said the organization — flush with the energy of several new board members — has some new ideas about how to advocate for local businesses. The organization, for instance, plans to create what she called a “shop-local-first directory,” a listing of local businesses organized by categories. The directory, which the chamber hopes to distribute to every Island mailbox later this year, will be similar to a phone book except that it won’t simply list phone numbers; websites, email addresses and other pertinent information will be included, McClements said.

The chamber is also continuing to push tourism, noting that small specialty shops and restaurants have a much better chance of surviving when there’s a good dose of off-Island visitors. The chamber recently joined the Washington Tourism Alliance, an industry-sponsored organization that has replaced the state tourism office, which fell victim to budget cuts last year.

“As a community, we need to have tourism. We need to have visitors,” said Debi Richards, the chamber’s executive director.

Low, owner of the Tea Shop, said the influx of tourists in the summer has helped her to keep her doors open; her business peaks from June to September and then takes a big dip in the fall.

“It’s difficult to sustain enough clientele to make your business really profitable,” she said. “One has to be really innovative and have a lot of events.”

But like Langland, she said Islanders need to vote with their feet — supporting small businesses because they care about Vashon’s financial health and vibrancy. Sounding disappointed, she noted that she has given donations to several fundraisers, assuming those seeking donations would, in turn, support her business.

“But that doesn’t happen. I don’t see the people I give to come in here and spend money,” she said. “It’s a dilemma. How much are we really supporting our own businesses?”

Jackie Merrill, owner of Movie Magic, said she had a loyal customer base when she decided to close her video rental shop last year after 22 years in business. But it wasn’t enough to sustain her small store.

“We didn’t have frequency. I believe that’s why businesses struggle on the Island,” she said.

Merrill continues to operate a drive-through espresso shop out of a corner of the building that once housed Movie Magic, while the owners of the building continue to attempt to sell the property. Since last May, however, when Movie Magic closed, the owners have had only two serious inquiries, Merrill said.

The building is a bit tricky as real estate. Because the property is a former gas station, a buyer would face several hurdles if he or she wanted to expand the structure or alter its parking lot, Merrill said. But it’s perfect as a turn-key operation, she noted, and she’s discouraged by the lack of interest.

Still, Merrill, like several others, also sees plenty of signs of resilience on Vashon. Her espresso shop is thriving, she said, as are several other small Vashon shops. What’s more, Vashon’s town core continues to see new developments — a domino effect that seems to provide a new opportunity with each closing.

Island Quilter, for instance, recently took over the building occupied by Robinson’s Furniture, transforming the much bigger space into something of a quilt-oriented art gallery and workshop.  Robinson’s Furniture, meanwhile, has narrowed its niche, focusing on floor coverings, and now occupies the space held by Essentials 4 — a shop that also found a new home when a communications business moved.

Others point to the rebirth of the space occupied by Books by the Way, now home to a small but thriving textile collective, a different kind of model for making retail space affordable.

Eugenie Mirfin, co-owner of Kronos, stood behind the counter of her colorful shop last week and said she’s impressed by the various new efforts she’s seeing.

“Compared to other towns, our town is doing very well,” she said, as she sold a glass fruit bowl to an Island shopper.

“I think there are a lot of shifts happening in town,” she added. “I feel bad about some of those shifts, but I’m also grateful that new shops keep opening.”

 

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