Warshal's: A shiver runs through it

FOR SO LONG, Warshal's has been not so much a place but a state of mind: the great Northwest outdoors and how to be equipped for it. Now it appears the old store may go the way of the much younger Kingdome: to die so that something ritzier may rise on top of it.

First Eddie Bauer was sold to a cereal company and started selling loafers instead of boots.

Now Warshal's Sporting Goods, downtown Seattle's last full-line outdoor-supply store, may give way to a hotel and condominiums.

A tower at First Avenue and Madison Street is one of three hotels proposed under city rules that let developers build taller if they add condos.

Store owner Jerry Warshal hasn't decided whether to move or close the store his family started 79 years ago if the city approves the 26-story building he and several partners are developing.

It's ushering in a cosmopolitan era where Seattleites, like New Yorkers, may live above hotels anchored by first-class restaurants at street level.

But the demise of Warshal's would end a Hemingwayesque chapter of Seattle history.

In the woolly city born on a saltwater beach below an evergreen forest, sport used to be catching fish and hunting deer. And Dad could buy cut herring and talk fish at Warshal's during lunch breaks from the office.

"You hate to see history leave," said Warshal's customer Van Van Gytenbeek, a former director of Trout Unlimited who lives at the Pike Place Market and publishes a fly-fishing magazine.

Gytenbeek, who is a state game commissioner, notes that hunting and fishing are declining across the country, in part because people entertain themselves in other ways.

When he was growing up, he said, "It was more important to be outdoors and there was less to do indoors - we didn't have computers."

Warshal says fishing-license sales remain strong, but there aren't as many new people. It's mostly those getting their annual renewals, those who love fishing enough to keep going out, even if they have to throw fish back because of salmon restrictions.

"If you look at the limit, and the seasons are cut way down, you might look and do something else - golf, walking, tennis," he said. "There's been so many things on TV about saving the resources, I think a lot of the younger people are kind of following that."

Campfires and saltwater

You can almost smell the pine needles and campfires, the saltwater and outboard-motor fumes, when you step into Warshal's. To enter the store you must walk through a gallery of posters and maps of the Cascades and Olympics, rivers and streams around Puget Sound, and species of salmon and where to catch them.

Inside you can still buy herring and nightcrawlers ($1.99 for a dozen large ones), along with jigs, weights, rods, reels, guns, ammo and a Little Chief Smoker to preserve your catch.

That's just on the woodsy side of the store. Another half of the store sells cameras, tennis rackets, shoes and clothes.

Outside, the old-fashioned storefront is as much an anomaly as the lonely porn shop next door. The once-seedy block approaching Skid Road was redeveloped in the early 1980s by a company then headed by Paul Schell, now Seattle's mayor. It lost money, Schell quit, and the company was liquidated in the late 1980s. But the block finally has undergone the renaissance that Schell envisioned.

It now boasts the Alexis Hotel, frequented by movie stars, a salon offering herbal spas and an antique-lighting store with $380 bathroom lamps.

For those who prefer others to catch and preserve their fish, there is a wine bar with an appetizer of smoked albacore, with melon and wasabi creme fraiche for $8.50.

Neither guns nor wool

Also on the block is The North Face, a Warshal's for GenerationXers. There are no guns, almost nothing made of wool and definitely no flannel-lined sleeping bags. The San Francisco-based chain sells mountain-climbing gear, $50 polo shirts and $300 parkas tested in the Himalayas.

Through it all, Warshal's has stood in a simple, two-story brick building that was built just after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889.

William Warshal, a Polish immigrant, started the business as a pawnshop in 1921 and moved it to First and Madison in 1936. The avid sportsman, noted marksman and pilot, had Parkinson's disease and died in November.

Among his friends was Eddie Bauer, whose business was sold to General Mills in 1971. Later, in 1988, the chain was acquired by Spiegel, the catalog company.

Meanwhile, Warshal passed the store on to his son, Dennis. He ran it from 1970 to 1992, then sold out to his cousin, Jerry.

In 1997, Jerry Warshal sold the building to a partnership consisting of himself, real-estate investor Jack Alhadeff and hotel developer Gordon Sondland, a co-owner of the Alexis who built the Paramount Hotel and renovated the Roosevelt and Vance hotels downtown.

Their architect recently met with city officials to discuss a 26-story building with eight floors for the hotel, 12 for condos, four for parking, a lobby and a restaurant.

Alhadeff said a hotelier hasn't committed to the project yet. An expansion of the Alexis is one possibility.

Even without a hotel, the building probably would be built just for condos, and Warshal's would have to go, Alhadeff said.

"I seriously question whether they would relocate," he said. "They're part of the project."

Under Seattle zoning codes, the city does not count condominiums, apartments and their parking spaces when calculating the maximum size of buildings allowed in most of downtown. The goal was to encourage developers to increase the city's housing supply.

"We could only put a seven- or eight-story building for hotel or office or any other use outside residential," Alhadeff said. "Residential gives us the potential to go from seven or eight stories up to 240 feet."

Hotel and condo towers also are proposed on two parking lots near the downtown retail area. One is at Fourth Avenue and Virginia Street, and the other is at Second Avenue and Pine Street, west of the Bon Marche parking garage.

Although Warshal's is in one of the city's oldest buildings, it was never nominated for landmark preservation, said Beth Chave of the city's Urban Conservation Office. The office gets involved if an especially old building is to be demolished, but Chave said it must have "interesting features," as well as old age, to be preserved.