This is a short story about three different businesses in the neighborhood with a combined residence time here of over 70 years. The ownerships span the range from Mom & Pop, regional chain, to global dominion. It repeats the altogether too common, and depressing refrain to this pandemic: businesses faltering, and some succumbing to the loss of traffic from the necessary restrictions that were put into place. Wallingford is certainly no exception.
The Shoe Store
Wallyhood received a note from reader Denis, who lamented the imminent closing of another business on the margin between Wallingford and Fremont, Sole Perfection. This is a small specialty (“comfort”) shoe store in Stoneway Court, the little strip mall at the base of Stone Way. It has been there for 15 years.
I spoke to the owner, Doug Carmean on a sunny morning with the store actually full of customers—ironically, attracted by the “closing” signs and apparently hunting for bargains. In fact, business has been booming lately. But Doug told me that—like so many other establishments—business “tanked” during the preceding year. He owns two of the five stores in the region (his other is located in Everett), but it’s been a tough time all around. There were other factors in his decision to close the Fremont/Wallingford location: changing vendor relations, his lease was up, the changing demographics of the area. But of course: covid looms largest.
Sole perfection will remain open until around mid-May, or when the inventory of around 1200 pairs of shoes runs out. The three employees (plus Doug) could not be accommodated at his other store, because business has been so poor there as well. His parting words to the neighborhood: Thanks for the 15 years.
The Global Giant
The Starbucks store across from the Guild 45th ghost theaters shut down over a month ago. That one hit close to home for me. Whatever you think of Corporate Starbucks, that store had been around for a long time. I used to wheel my baby son in his jogging stroller after weekend runs (he’s 25 now), and a couple of years ago I took flowers to my favorite barista when she got a job in the headquarters office. It’s part of the community fabric we call Wallyhood.
I was surprised when the store closed, although admittedly my visits there had dropped dramatically in the last year. But that had to have been true for all patrons of all Starbucks locations everywhere. I wrote to Starbucks to inquire why our store had been closed after such a long run. I was surprised to hear back quickly, but the messaging from a customer care rep was generic and not very enlightening: “Your concerns about the closure of our store located at Wallingord (sic), Seattle are much appreciated. It’s never an easy decision to close one of our stores, as we know every Starbucks is a gathering place for the local community. In making this decision, we have considered many factors, including financial performance, proximity of other Starbucks locations, as well as other considerations.”
Others have noted that the Starbucks in the QFC is still open, and many coffee purists took the opportunity to identify all the better coffee shops in the city. But: I didn’t park my kid and buy mini-baguettes for him at those other better coffee places back in the day. The Starbucks customer care person didn’t answer my question about whether we would see another standalone store in our area, but the answer seems pretty obvious.
On the more hopeful side of the local pandemic business front, I also dropped in on a personal favorite eatery, the Varsity Inn. Located at the base of Wallingford Avenue, this is another institution that will celebrate its 26th year in business at the end of the year. It is a classic, and features generally no-frills diner fare. I find it to be an excellent antidote to Seattle restaurants that are sometimes just a wee bit too precious. The Varsity Inn is also a place I have taken my son most of his life, and the folks there know us and greet us like family.
Owner Rogelio Garlicia shook his head when I asked him how he has been faring, relating that their business dropped 70% during the height of the pandemic. They subsisted on takeout orders during much of that time, and survived by cutting back to two employees and one cook for a year. Rogelio is seeing a slow recovery as restrictions ease, though he is uneasy about the potential for re-imposition of customer limits. Regardless, he thanks his loyal customer base for hanging with them through this time.
Each business in Wallingford has its own story about hardship and survival…or not…in the face of the last terrible year. We need to continue to do what we can to support our neighborhood merchants, even as vaccinations take hold and some of the burden is lifted. None of us is out of the woods quite yet.