Shaw General Store’s new look is not about new ownership but about current owners Steve and Terri Mason taking a look around and deciding to make a change. “I wanted a friendlier and lighter and more attractive store. We wanted it clean, fresh, friendly and with full shelves,” Terri said. “I thought there was a more creative way to look at the space. It’s a neat old building that deserves to be honored as such. There are not too many stores like this around anymore.”
The Masons closed the store on Dec. 23, 2013 and opened the remodeled version on May 23. “I was initially worried about making a big change … Then I decided to go for it. People have been positive almost across the board.” Terri added that comments included “It felt like a welcoming beacon” and that “It had a feeling like an old-time country store.”
Anyone who has remodeled a house by themselves can appreciate the effort. The remodel took two months. A previous owner repaired vehicles in an old gas station building and put the used oil on the on the floor as a preservative. “It was fun to see the changes in the color as the red came out of the fir, and it added warmth. The floors add character. You can see where other people tried to sand with a drum sander and left marks.” Sanding meant wearing masks and filling seven vacuum cleaner bags full of dust, then using an air compressor to blow the rest into a large pile, which was shoveled out. Then it was time to add many layers of varnish. A seating area was added in the front. Antique furniture and display tables replaced most of the shelves.
Chain of Shaw Island storekeepers stretches back to the 19th century
The Masons are the latest in a relatively short list of Shaw Island storekeepers that dates back to 1898, when F. Eugene (Gene) and Sadie Hoffman Fowler sold food and supplies from their house. The Fowlers’ daughter, Mabel Crawford, ran the store from 1924 to the mid-1950s. Darrel Fowler was the next storekeeper. He was born in 1929 to Frank (born in 1900 on Shaw to Gene and Sadie) and Jessie Rice Fowler. Darrel’s brother, Wayne, still owns land on Shaw. A large part of Darrel’s trade was in chicken feed. He would bring in two longbed trucks full of feed twice a week. It was Darrel who created an apartment above the store, flattening the slanted roof to get more space.
The next owners were Gwen and Don Yansen, followed by Jim and Nancy Leidig, and Geb and John Nichols. The Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist served from 1976 to 2004 before passing the keys to the Masons, who trained with the nuns for four months. “The nuns wrote down every single item,” Terri said. Early storekeepers extended credit for purchases. The Yansens stopped the practice, the Franciscans reinstated it; for years the Masons continued it but decided to make running a tab part of history after they reopened.
Museum’s roll-top desk once a store fixture in the Fowler days
There’s a store connection to a Shaw Museum artifact. The old, oak, roll-top desk in the museum hails back to the F. Eugene (Gene) and Sadie Fowler days at the Shaw Store, and may be the only artifact the historical society has from the early days of the store, according to Shaw Island Historical Society’s former curator Cherie Christensen. Mary Lou Clark’s career with the USPS began when the office was located in the rear of the store. It’s doubtful that anyone predicted that the desk would cover a lot of miles before landing in the museum.
“The desk got away to Grandview, Wash., when the Leidigs sold out and moved in the early 1970s,” Cherie said. “Their son, Rex, donated it to the museum, if I’d come and get it. The Bryants drove me over in their truck in June 2003 and we picked up the pieces, which were in good condition from the low humidity in Eastern Washington. On July 1, the desk was glued back together with two missing pieces fabricated, and escorted to the museum. The desk has an inscription on the back which links it to Bellingham, which is from where most of the Shaw Cannery investors came, so there is a good chance that the desk was part of the cannery office but I can’t prove that. I think of that piece as quite a wonderful happening since it was a piece we could actually use to support displays and we had little to nothing from the early store.”
Higher costs come with the territory
Financially, very small stores, especially in the islands, are more expensive for most items than larger stores, such as the ones in Eastsound and Friday Harbor. In larger stores with more volume, a delivery person will bring the items and stock the shelves. No one makes deliveries to the Shaw Store. That requires two trips a week (four in the summer) to some combination of Bellingham, Mount Vernon, Anacortes, Seattle, Everett, San Juan, Orcas and Lopez. And even though the Masons run the ferry landing, there’s no free ride for the truck.
Store contents and visitors have changed since 1898. Contents have morphed from just the basics at Gene and Sadie’s to basics-plus, including gifts and espresso. Shoppers have changed, too, from islanders-only to a mix of residents, part-timers, their families and friends, bikers, walkers, drop-ins from moored boats, and campers. Some visitors arrive at the county park by kayak. Sooner or later, nearly everyone stops at the Shaw General Store.
Credits: Writer Sharon Wootton; photographer Gabriel Jacobs. Most of the history was found in a scrapbook of newspaper stories and photographs about the store, warehouse and ferry system created by Cherie Christensen for the Masons when they bought the store.