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General store meets modern times at the half-century-old Country Store
Walking into The Country Store and Farm, a place that has been in business for 50 years on Vashon, is a feast for the senses.
It starts in the parking lot, as customers spy rows of colorful ceramic pots and flats of delicate perennial plants on the store’s wraparound wooden porch.
Just across the threshold, a bounty of goods awaits — racks of colorful clothing, a case filled with handcrafted jewelry, stacks of books, displays of thick wool socks, shelves stocked with Northwest specialty foods, hand-dipped candles, rubber muck boots and much, much more are all on display. Everywhere, it seems, there are textures to reach out and touch.
But there’s also an appealingly earthy smell in the air.It’s the unmistakable, old-timey scent of a general store — one that offers not only necessities for the inside of your house and closet, but niceties for your pets and garden as well. One large room of the spacious store is stocked with organic livestock and pet food, as well as organic and natural garden staples — everything from tools to seeds to pest control products and fertilizer. And outside the store, 10 acres stretch out in a lush you-pick orchard and nursery.
The store’s success and charm, according to manager Mike Biel, all boils down to the inventiveness and imagination of its longtime owner — his mother, Vy Biel.
“What we’re doing here is just carrying her original vision forward,” he said. “She had a really good vision.”
Vy has owned the store for 42 years, beginning in 1971, but last year, at the age of 91, she moved into an assisted-living facility on the island, and Mike took over, regularly commuting for weeks at a time to Vashon from his California home. Since then, he’s added staff and new inventory to the store, as well as spruced up the building’s interior and exteriors. All the while, he’s continued his long-time career in California, working in the boat industry.
“We decided that because the store has been a part of the community for so long that it was important to keep it going,” Mike told The Beachcomber last year, when he began managing the place. “We really just want to make it a more fun place for people to come and hang out and get whatever they need.”
For Mike, who is now a youthful-looking 52 years old, the business has been a central fact of his life since childhood.
“When I was in the fifth grade, my mother asked us if we’d be interested in her buying the store,” Mike said. “She actually was concerned about it — was it a good idea for our family?”
Mike remembers helping out at the store, sometimes joined by his older brother, Jim Biel, throughout his childhood, teenage and young adult years.
Vy Biel was actually the third owner of The Country Store and Farm, a place of business that opened up in 1964 in its first location, in the historic Center building that now houses Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie. The mural that graced the south side of the building then depicted old-timers sitting around a pot-bellied stove, with the legend “The Country Store,” painted above it. (That image is now available on T-shirts sold in the store.)
Vy had first had an antique business in the basement of the building, and then bought the Country Store business in 1971. But sometime in 1978 or 1979, her rent for the space went up, and she decided to buy land a little further south on Vashon Highway and move her store there.
Mike said Vy was the general contractor for what is the now familiar and picturesque store and nursery. She was assisted, he said, by local fine and finish carpenters, as well as by himself and his brother, in the build out of the space.
A mail-order catalog business, which Vy added after the move, helped the store thrive for many years, as did the fact that it offered UPS and FedEx shipping services.
“She had a great run here,” said Mike.
And now Mike, who was just out of high school when he helped build the current store and garden, has spent the last year rejuvenating the store, which he said had become a bit run-down as his mother’s health and vitality waned in her last years there.
It is work that seems to be in his blood.
“I enjoy this kind of stuff,” he said.
Mike’s improvements to the store include the addition of several brands of apparel, including Patagonia, Levi’s and Red Wing shoes, to the mix. The store also now features more children’s clothing than before, as well as other things that appeal to youngsters, including a big model train set that graced the store’s windows at Christmas time. The toy department has also expanded, featuring wooden, science and other educational toys.
Mike also has big plans for the gardens that surround the store.
“We’re trying to turn the outside into a more park-like setting, to make it a place where people can hang out and have a picnic,” he said.
He’s working hard, he added, to reorganize the perennial nursery, and hopes to add more fruits as you-pick options, along with the blueberries that have long been available there in season.
Another long-term goal for the business, he said, is to create a space for weddings to take place in the gardens. And already, he’s invited the public to use a meeting space he has constructed in the upper level of the store.
And in a modern-day twist to his mother’s idea of creating a mail-order business, he’s also now in the process of improving the store’s website to allow additional income to flow in through e-commerce.
Pamela Courtney, who works in the store as Mike’s assistant manager, seems to well understand his passion for the place. She too has fond memories of the store, having worked behind the counter there as a teenager. Now in her mid-40s, she recently returned to Vashon after living in Florida for many years, and said she was happy to come back to the same place where she began her working life so many years before.
“It’s actually really cool,” she said. “How many things are the same, and yet how many others are different.”