Stores question Quimper: Sport Townsend closes; owner says Quimper is ‘Walmart’ across the street

Allison Arthur
 aarthur@ptleader.com Patrick Sullivan psullivan@ptleader.com
Posted 3/7/17

Susan Jacob glanced over at Quimper Mercantile, looked down Water Street and said she hopes that what happened to her business doesn’t happen to others in downtown Port Townsend.

After 27 years …

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Stores question Quimper: Sport Townsend closes; owner says Quimper is ‘Walmart’ across the street

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Susan Jacob glanced over at Quimper Mercantile, looked down Water Street and said she hopes that what happened to her business doesn’t happen to others in downtown Port Townsend.

After 27 years in business, Sport Townsend closed on Feb. 11, and Jacob says “as sure as I’m standing here” that the community-owned “Walmart,” as she calls Quimper Mercantile, had a hand in the closure.

“They were the Walmart of tents and sleeping bags and backpacks,” said Jacob. “They carried inexpensive tents and sleeping boots and hiking poles. Why does a general store carry hiking poles?”

Jacob insists that as Quimper Mercantile has expanded in the past few years, after opening on Oct. 12, 2012, “my sales steadily declined.”

Peter Quinn, CEO of Quimper Mercantile, said Quimper was sorry to see Sport Townsend go, but he doesn't believe the store can be held responsible.

“They offered a very different series of merchandise to the town, and we're sorry to see them go. They had different vendors and price points,” Quinn said.

“We worked with Susan before we opened to identify areas we wouldn't buy into and we worked with her after that,” Quinn said. He said Quimper stayed away from brands that Jacob carried, although it did have one line that Sport Townsend carried, but not quite the same products.

Quinn was surprised that Jacob felt Quimper was responsible because, he said, Swain's Outdoor and More, which operated in the space from 1996 until closing Feb. 21, 2011, carried much the same kinds of things as Quimper does today.

“She had a strong niche, and we attempted to leave that alone to the best of our ability,” Quinn said.

“If we hadn't stepped in five years ago, something would either not be there now, which would be disastrous, or something would be in there and they wouldn't care one wit,” he said

Quinn acknowledged that he had not had conversations with other retailers downtown, but he said he felt Quimper has been a good anchor tenant and an addition to downtown, and that it had brought business back to downtown since it opened on Oct. 12, 2012, a date he remembers vividly.

OTHER STORES

Jacob isn't the only business owner to voice concerns about the difference between what Quimper promoters promised back in 2011-2012 and what has happened.

Steve Goldenbogen, who opened Whistle Stop Toys in Flagship Landing at 1005 Water St. in 2010, said he recalls hearing a number of times that when it opened, Quimper Mercantile would not compete with local businesses.

Quimper opened and brought in several lines that he carries, including lines such as Melissa & Doug, which was one of his core lines of toys, as well as Bruder Trucks and Green Toys, Goldenbogen said.

“There are all things they didn't have to carry. They could have totally different lines,” he said. Goldenbogen said he met with Quinn before Quimper opened, and Quinn made it clear Quimper was going to carry toys.

“My sales haven't dropped, but I have a lot of competition. People will go to Quimper first because it's one-stop shopping, like going to Walmart,” he said. Asked if he had talked to Jacob and was using the word “Walmart” because of her, he said he had not.

Because of Quimper, Goldenbogen said, he has downgraded some of his lines and buys fewer of some toys.

“It's irksome because everyone thought that they would revitalize downtown and their thought was that it was going to bring in more cars. But I think it has made it difficult for businesses,” he said.

What he and some other business owners, like Abracadabra owner Marion Lodwick, say is that they support one another and know what the other carries, so that if a customer is looking for something specific, they can suggest another shop down the street.

“I send people to other shops. Marion comes over and takes a look at what I have, and she might send people over to me,” Goldenbogen said. “I know the owners of Summer House and Getables. It's only four blocks. If people come to town and the same stuff is in every store, it's a bummer. Diversity is good for everybody.”

On the plus side, Goldenbogen said, he is glad that what was 15,000 square feet of vacant space in the Port Townsend Plaza is filled.

“That's the only plus, that we don't have an empty storefront," he said of Quimper.

“People who have bought shares of Quimper spend a lot of time talking about how great it is,” Goldenbogen said. “But I really feel like Quimper is a miniature Walmart in Port Townsend; that people shop there and don't go to the other shops.”

ABRACADABRA

At Abracadabra, a few doors down from Whistle Stop, at 936 Water St., owner Lodwick agrees with Goldenbogen that store owners work hard to develop unique lines and also work hard not to duplicate another stores’ merchandise.

“This gives the town choices, scarves that are locally made, made in the USA, fun and inexpensive, or luxurious cashmere from Ireland. There is no need to duplicate the line another store already carries,” she said.

“There is some overlap, of course, but we try. Unfortunately, even though Quimper [promoters] assured us they would be bringing in hard-to-find items like sheets, towels, boys’ clothes, sewing supplies and fabrics, they instead have purchased line after line that I carry and lines that other stores carry,” Lodwick said.

“I definitely want Quimper to be successful, but I feel they could be better about respecting their fellow downtown businesses,” said Lodwick, who has been in the same location downtown for the 28 years she's owned the popular gift shop.

Lodwick remembers Swain's Outdoor and she remembers shopping there all the time for things for her store – tools to hang up decorations, fabric for window displays, light bulbs – as well as items for herself and family, such as school supplies, kids’ clothes, more light bulbs among other products.

“Swain's was not trying to be a gift store. They were much more practical,” said Lodwick.

Lodwick, who employs seven people part-time, said she has a loyal clientele and she works hard to bring in fresh merchandise.

“I feel frustrated,” she said of the pressure Quimper has put on her, “but not like we’re going to go out of business.”

That said, Lodwick also worries about other businesses and the possibility of more empty storefronts.

SPECIALTY STORES

Gail Boulter has been a business owner in Port Townsend for almost 31 years. She has six stores on Water Street: The Clothes Horse, The Shoe Store, Northwest Man, Fancy Feathers, The Green Eyeshade and What's Cookin'.

Cooperation has been an essential element in the survival of small retail businesses here, she said. In particular, most store owners and operators have been sensitive not to copy the exact merchandise.

"We all work pretty well together and don't pick up each others' lines," Boulter said. The informal system has worked, she noted.

"We hear from people who shop elsewhere that our prices up and down the street are competitive," Boulter said.

Her goal is to offer a mix of items to serve locals and visitors, because it's difficult for any retail store to survive on only one or the other. "If we didn't have the visitors, we wouldn't be able to carry the inventory levels that we have for the locals to choose from," Boulter said.

Boulter recalls that Quimper Mercantile's stated message as a start-up business – asking for community money – was to fill the gap caused by the loss of Swain's Outdoor and More, which offered work clothes, basic socks and underwear, needles and thread, and sports and outdoor equipment.

She echoes concerns from some other shop owners about Quimper subscribing to that theory.

"We thought they would fill the need of what's not here," Boulter said. "Not everybody can afford to shop at speciality stores, and speciality stores can't compete with Target and Walmart.

"That's all we are, up and down the street, are speciality stores," she continued. "We are speciality stores and we try to fill that niche."

When specialty stores must compete with a larger entity – meaning one with more buying power and the ability to offer a wider selection at lower prices – it makes the specialty retail world that much more difficult.

From clothing lines to kitchen supplies, Boulter sees Quimper carrying some of the same exact product lines.

"Nobody is getting rich on those businesses, but you make a living," Boulter said. "Our prices are good, our selection is good. And we pay tax dollars, and create jobs."

COMPETITION

Jacob, Goldenbogen and Lodwick acknowledge that the Internet has hurt small businesses that don't have the buyer power to match price and selection. Even traditional "brick-and-mortar" giants such as Sears, Kmart, Macy's, JCPenney and others are closing stores nationwide.

Jacob recalled that it has happened more than once that someone would ask to try on a pair of shoes, then take a photograph of the box with their cell phone, say they'll be back to buy the item and never return. She's certain they went online.

Because it belongs to a buying cooperative, Quimper also can get better prices than what some of the small stores can, shop owners say.

And then there's the 10 percent discount for being a local that Quimper offers.

That brings up an issue for Lodwick, which is that hundreds of people invested in Quimper Mercantile to get the business started. Almost $1 million was invested up front before the store opened.

“We all use our own money. We don't have the resources that they have,” said Lodwick. “It's not an even playing field.”

QUIMPER

Quimper's Peter Quinn, who also is co-owner of The Writers' Workshoppe and Imprint Bookstore at 820 Water St., recalls that when Quimper first opened, the buyers accidentally bought stuffed animals that Lodwick had been selling.

So Quimper sold them to Lodwick. It's a story Lodwick acknowledges as well.

“When you buy $300,000 worth of merchandise, you are going to miss something,” Quinn said.

What Quinn thinks is happening now, in the winter of 2017 – which has been hard on some businesses – is that old stories are getting dredged up and made new.

“It feels like a lingering thing.… Stuff happened and it's getting told over and over again,” Quinn said.

"We had to fill the store and there were some overlaps we weren't aware of,” he said. “I feel those stories keep getting told.”

“Our intent is to make downtown better by being there, and we believe we have,” Quinn said.

The community-owned general store showed a net profit of $2,171 in 2014, according to the annual report presented to stockholders, up from an $87,817 loss in 2013. The profits for 2015, the most recent year available, were $119,188.

The continuing challenge, store manager Sheldon Spencer told The Leader in November 2016, is to offer items that cater both to locals and tourists.

“We want to carry basic things so people won't have to drive out of town to get them, while the tourists are looking for things that are snazzy, unique and boutiquey,” Spencer said.

Quinn said Quimper Mercantile is a good business neighbor.

“We believe, that if the mercantile wasn't there, there would be hundreds of people a month that wouldn't come downtown to shop in stores,” Quinn said. “We're not carrying anything that Swain's didn't.”

And he noted that while The Writers' Workshoppe carries reading glasses, there are other shops on Water Street that do the same thing, and “I don't think they are out to get me.”

“I don't think we're anything less than we said we would be. One of our biggest vendors was a sports-good line, and we still have that,” Quinn said, adding that Quimper employees referred customers to Sport Townsend “all the time.”

NOT THE SAME

Jacob, still in the process of dismantling the store where she has worked since 1995 and has owned since 2011, disagrees.

“Swain's was the perfect complement to Sport Townsend. We sent people to them all day long. People were in the store constantly saying, 'Why can't I find kids’ underwear?' 'Why can't I find a throw rug?'” Jacob said.

“They went around and found out what was working and duplicated it,” Jacob said, adding that it was ironic that in 2016, readers of The Leader voted Quimper Mercantile “Best Outdoor Store.”

“Swain's was a general store. They had fishing gear that I never had and fishing licenses. They were not an outdoor store where you could buy a throw rug or a shower curtain or sweatpants,” she said as she continued to work on closing her downtown shop.

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