Closing Up Shop -- Letting Go Of The Richardson General Store - The Place Their Family Called Home

THE WIND BLOWS A LITTLE HARDER around the last bend in Richardson Road. That's because the pavement runs out on a thin, exposed peninsula that on the map looks like part of the small heel of boot-shaped Lopez Island. Around that curve, the forests and fields of Lopez are at your back and you come face-to-face with the water's edge. The Strait of Juan de Fuca stretches to the horizon and, until recently, whitewashed Richardson General Store sat perched on the rocky shoreline. On clear days, the snow-capped Olympic Mountains stand tall in the distance. It was a lot to take in at once - the store, the strait and, if you were lucky, the mountains. I have often joined visitors who would sit and give the view full attention.

I still half-expect to see the store when I make that last turn. It's a futile hope, but I can't hold it back. I search for the telephone booth that leaned like a swamped boat out front. I strain to see the pilings that held up the store's back end over the water. I imagine how good it would feel to walk the ramp that sidled up the side of the store, go through the front door and hear its bells jingle. The rest of the view isn't the same without the store, but the disappointment doesn't entirely spoil the memories.

Richardson Store straddled the Lopez shoreline for almost 80 years until a fire leveled the 2 1/2-story building and everything crammed inside: canned goods, crackers, coffee, buttons, bait, bananas, sugar, sledgehammers, sleds. I didn't fully appreciate the power of fire until I saw what little survived. When I'd been away from the store for a while, I used to spend the first 10 minutes back in a silent game, walking the aisles to discover what new items my parents and store owners, Ken and Sue Shaw, somehow found room to add. Every year I'd say they couldn't fit one more thing. Every year they'd prove me wrong. The store held so much that I sometimes couldn't see what I wanted even if I was looking right at it. A few minutes of flames destroyed it all.

It took only a few seconds for my father to run from his home to the store after a friend called to say it was on fire, but the building already was a loss. When I arrived the next day, nothing remained except charred hulks of the large freezers, the old post-office safe and the chimney, which fell a day later. With so little left, investigators had a hard time determining what caused the fire, but concluded some wiring probably shorted. For a week afterward, the store's pilings continued to smolder, and Lopez's volunteer firefighters came down again and again to douse flames that flared up. My parents finally had the last of the pilings chopped out, dragged to shore and sprayed with foam.

My parents, though devastated, counted their blessings. Because the fire broke out at night, no one except the store cat was inside, and Lucky, true to his name, showed up unharmed a few days later. The volunteer firefighters kept the blaze from jumping across the street and igniting thousands of gallons of gasoline in the store's fuel tanks. My parents had insurance, so they didn't lose the lifetime of savings they'd put into the store and the house that went with it.

Still, the fire shook my parents deeply, though it took a practiced eye to see that. They're sturdy people, two hardwood trees who prefer to stand through adversity. They believe in putting bad news behind them as fast as possible without looking back. This time, after dusting themselves off, they decided against rebuilding, mostly because it would cost so much under today's building codes. Instead, they sold the remaining fuel business to islander Rex Ritchie and retired.

I know they miss the store, but expressing such feelings isn't their style. Because I've inherited a good deal of their reserved natures, I haven't said much either. But I miss the store, too, and I can't lay it to rest without what they probably will consider unnecessary emotion.

I feel the loss anew lately because my parents recently left Lopez altogether, a little over a year after the store burned. It was time for a new adventure, they say, and, in many ways, I agree. Yet I don't know if I'll find another place where I'll feel so grounded, even though I never really lived there. After my suburban childhood in houses younger than the newly transplanted saplings out front, Lopez and the store were an anchor of stability to which I wouldn't have minded staying tied.

MY PARENTS DECIDED TO buy the store (we always called it "The Store" like San Franciscans call their town "The City") in November 1978 on one of those bright days that could make anyone discount the dreary Northwest winters. As my mom and dad tell it, they sat out on the dock beside the store where gillnet boats get fuel during salmon season, soaked up the sun, the view and the sweet sea breeze, and ate fresh crab sandwiches prepared by the former owners, Connie and Ted Chandler. If my parents had come from less conservative stock, they might have signed on the spot.

The way they heard about the store also had a storybook air. My dad, ready to leave his job as a bank executive to pursue a long-held dream of owning a small business, saw an ad in the Wall Street Journal listing the store for sale. My mom, a business manager for a private school, also wanted a change and remembered the beauty of the San Juan Islands from a childhood vacation. The scenery held up against her memories, and the store charmed both of them. My mother admitted she felt nervous about trading the financial security they had in Los Angeles for a place and a business they knew nothing about, but my father's enthusiasm pulled her along. My father, the more optimistic of the pair, sold all his drab banker suits except one for weddings and funerals. To me, it was the most romantic move they'd ever made.

That first year, my brother and I, still college students, left California together to work for my parents for the summer. I remember the trip clearly, especially when we drove Dan's van onto the stately white and green Washington state ferry in a brisk summer breeze. We watched the waves hit the ferry's curved bow until we got curious about the rest of the boat. When the ferry stopped at Lopez, we drove off over a wooden landing that looked like something out of a fairy tale and headed down the spine of the island toward Richardson, named for farmer George Richardson who, in the early 1870s, was the first Caucasian to settle there.

The rural Lopez landscape, with forests or fields only occasionally interrupted by houses, was as exotic as a foreign country to us two suburban kids, and we couldn't help bursting with enthusiasm as we drove. We looked and looked for the store as we turned down Richardson Road until finally, around that last bend, there it was - a building older than just about anything we'd seen outside a museum.

The spell of the store wore down when the reality of the work set in. My parents had no way to anticipate the number of tourists and fishermen that would crowd the island in the summer months, and the pace of keeping up wore down our nerves.

The four of us often worked until 10 p.m. restocking shelves drained by an island population that swelled to about 4,000 people, more than triple the 1,200 year-round residents. We discovered how many arm muscles could ache after scooping cone after ice cream cone for a busload of senior citizens. We hadn't spent so much time together for many years, and it wasn't easy. The arguments got heated, but none so bad that I remember any of the details. Yet none of us thought about leaving because we'd all fallen for the store, and that helped hold us together.

My father, in a rare confidence, once told me that he and my mother bought the store in part so they would have something to do together. In Los Angeles, he said, after my brother and I left for college, they found themselves spending more and more time apart. If their relationship got strained, he didn't say. If anything was the matter, though, the store took care of it. My parents worked side by side, day after day for 12 years. They had their share of gripes about work, but not about working together. The store - and the island - also made it easy for my brother and me to come back year after year because a trip to Lopez was no duty. And, after working that first summer in the store, we felt a part of it - an ownership that didn't fade in all the years my parents lived there.

YET PART OF THE ALLURE was that it wasn't really our store at all. When my parents bought it, the store was more than 70 years old and as steady, confident and set in its ways as any strong-willed person of the same age. It thrived in the days when steamers transported goods and people to the San Juan Islands, but it endured even after cars came to the island - and phones, planes and the small supermarket in what passes as Lopez's "town." Richardson held respect and affection as a holdout, a testament that Lopez still was a life apart.

Many islanders considered Richardson "their" store - an attitude that sometimes annoyed my parents when such "owners" offered strong-minded, unsolicited advice, but the good part was that such feelings made the store a community institution. A visit to the store never failed to be a social trip - a time to catch up with whoever was there and exchange news and gossip.

In 1985, the federal government listed the store on the National Register of Historic Places, but it never kept a museum's stale distance. It was a place to pick up a Rainier six-pack, fill up the gas tank and still soak up the aura of a time when post-office boxes didn't have locks and almost everything was made of wood - the green grocery shelves, the floors, even the walls of the walk-in cooler. The store had a past, but also a present - a purpose beyond evoking nostalgia. Although I didn't realize why at the time, I felt happy to be part of a history I could touch and smell after so many years of living in places where change works double shifts.

Lopez, too, has changed in the past 13 years. It's grown from about 1,200 year-round residents to about 1,500, and estimates of the summer population now reach 5,000. My mother says she used to be able to walk into any business on the island and know the person behind the counter. Now she sometimes buys from strangers. But the small-town feeling isn't lost yet. Drivers still wave at everyone they pass. It's still largely the Lopez I found that first summer.

During that summer, however, we didn't have time to dwell on what it meant to own the store. Friends and acquaintances, with faraway looks in their eyes, used to talk wistfully about their vision of a storekeeper's life - how my parents must sit and talk around the pickle barrel, maybe occasionally ringing a sale on the cash register. In truth, my parents worked most weekends even in the wintertime, taking time off during the week. They closed only two days a year - Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Luckily, slowing down wasn't what my parents hoped to do when they bought the store. Neither was philosophizing around the pickle barrel, which the store didn't have anyway. Running and building a small business was their passion. That isn't to say they didn't enjoy the store's past - they did. When someone brought in articles about the store's history, my mother tacked them up for customers to read. That's how we learned the store got built in the mid-1910s after a big fire burned down the dock and warehouse on the same site. (The original store, built in 1890s, sat a little inland.)

We knew Richardson had been a town - complete with barbershop, bakery and hotel - that grew up around two fish canneries, but dwindled down to only the store after authorities outlawed fish traps that one year caught 1 million salmon off Lopez's shoreline. The store also held clues about its past - with its waist-high, metal milk buckets and a thick-walled safe left over from the days when the store doubled as a post office. My favorite was the graffiti from the early 1900s by merchant seamen who scribbled the date and the names of their vessels - their equivalent of "I was here."

Without the store, my parents could have spent years on the outskirts of the Lopez community. The store gave them an entree into its center, a place to get to know the island's farmers, fishermen, small-business owners as well as its famous cellist, its Near East diplomat and its two retired judges. Greg Doss, while he was one of Lopez's two sheriff's deputies, knew the grocery business and worked in the store on his days off. Jim Scripps, the late newspaper publisher who owned nearby Charles Island, felt so comfortable in the store he used to scoop his own ice-cream cones.

In no time at all, my parents adopted small-town ways. They didn't think twice about telling most islanders to pay next time if they forgot their wallets. They learned anew to disregard appearance when sizing up a person - one of the best was a fisherman whose aroma didn't lift for a while after he'd left. They got to know their customers' needs and ordered canning supplies, salt licks, wine-making supplies - even red dye for the islanders who followed the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and therefore wore red clothing. The store's "closed" sign never meant "closed," if someone really needed something.

Slowly my parents got accepted, too, as two of the island's own. The night after the fire, Pat Roe, an island realtor, organized an all-night watch over the smoldering pilings so my parents could get some sleep.

I sometimes wondered how my mother, who keeps house so clean you could eat off the floors, could stand the store's wooden floors that raised dust no matter how often you swept them. But she didn't complain - maybe because the floors were as central to the store as anything. They creaked to the rhythm of customers' steps, telling us whether they were browsing through the gift section or headed to the shelves behind the vegetable cooler. The floors carried everyone and everything that ever passed through the store's front doors, and couldn't be changed without violating the store's integrity. Neither could much else. My parents didn't alter much. The biggest change - and reason for lament among some customers - was an electronic cash register, a purchase my parents made only after they could no longer get parts to fix the manual one.

Writer Wallace Stegner says the restlessness of many Westerners makes our towns resemble "overnight camps," and that robs us "of the gods who make places holy." Those gods didn't miss the store, which through the simple acts of daily commerce became a tradition full of memories for islanders who grew up crawling up the ramp that connected the store's two levels and, later, eyeing the candy counter.

IN ALL, THE STORE MADE A much bigger mark on my family than we could ever make on the store. We tinkered at its surface, but it soaked into us bone-deep. The store gave us a common purpose, a place and a community where we knew who had gone before us. A trip to Lopez wasn't a trip to the newest place my parents lived - it was a journey home.

Lopez still feels like the hometown I never had. It's the only place outside my latest neighborhood where anyone would recognize me on the street, if only as "the Shaws' daughter." It's also the only place where people would go out of their way to help me because if they don't know me, they probably know of my parents. That wouldn't happen in my real birthplace, where the site of my first home sits under a lane of Los Angeles' Foothill Freeway.

On Lopez, we had an identity that, although not enough to make us true islanders in old-timers' eyes, was a lot more than we'd had anywhere else. It says a lot for the island that it held my parents for 13 years, longer than anywhere in their adult lives.

A friend of mine says it takes eight generations to change a family's character. It has been only four since my great-grandmother made her way West with her parents in a covered wagon. Maybe that explains why no place holds us for long. And, as my mother kept saying, you couldn't rebuild the store. You could rebuild a store, maybe one that looked exactly like Richardson, but it wouldn't be The Store. The floors would creak new, the coolers would hum more quietly. It would be self-consciously historic - a reproduction, not the original.

I had looked forward to watching my sons grow up with the store. With the overwrought enthusiasm parents often use to show their children something special, I walked my firstborn inside the wooden cooler, pointed out the graffiti and let him unlatch the thick bars on the post office safe. I couldn't help feeling touched as I watched him learn to walk on the store's ramp. I wanted Ken to feel the love I held for the store. I wanted him to share the security and warmth of belonging the store had given me - the feeling that we, as a family, had staked at least this claim on history. But the store didn't stick in his memory. Even the day after the fire, his 2-year-old eyes didn't register it was gone. He looked without fear or questions over the charred ground where the store once stood.

In part, I'm writing this for Ken and his younger brother, Sean, born after the fire. I want them to have some way to know the store, understand why I've plastered its image throughout my photo albums, why I miss it. I'm also writing for myself, of course, in a way that feels like my last look back before pulling up anchor. Maybe this is my way of saying: "We were here."

Linda Shaw is a reporter and copy editor for The Seattle Times.