A little store with a big heart

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article had misspelled Anne Frances Wysocki’s name and Mabel Fowler Crawford’s name was reversed in one instance.

By Heather Spaulding

Journal contributor

The Shaw Store has stood sentinel next to the Washington State ferry dock watching boats come and go for nearly a century. It is the only grocery store on the island and has served as a central gathering place for Shaw Islanders.

“It’s a place to see your neighbors and to be seen,” Learner Limbach, general manager of the Orcas Food Co-op said. “The Shaw Store represents an alternative to the ever-increasing consolidation of our food system and big box stores, and I think that’s something worth protecting and nurturing.”

The building is now for sale, as current owners Terri Mason and her husband Steve look toward retirement.

“My husband and I have been on call 24/7 for the last 17 years. We have run this place as a service to the community,” Mason said.

The Masons have employed 90 people during that time, according to Mason, and have enjoyed meeting people from all over the world, making life long friends and helping islanders.

“We have helped people with so many problems,” Mason explained, continuing to list off examples: helping find lost dogs; lost people; flat tire; sinking or drifting boats; broken vehicles; keys locked in cars; flooded houses; bee stings; car accidents; and even had a bomb scare.

One day, Mason said she was working at the store and a man brought in a ball that was covered in craft paper that had wires and fuses sticking out if all over.

“He set it on the counter and said ‘I found this on the beach and I didn’t know what to do so I brought it to you because I thought you would know what to do with it,’” Mason said. “It definitely looked like a bomb.”

It turned out to be an unexploded firework from the Fourth of July that had washed up.

The store went on the market in June 2020 and they have received many offers, Mason said.

“Most of them have been interested in transforming the property into condos or other capital ventures,” she explained. “Personally, the history of the islands is very important to me.”

Mason grew up on Orcas Island, and during the 60-plus years her family has lived in the islands, she said many of the islands’ historical buildings have disappeared.

“When I was growing up, there were many little stores in the islands,” Mason reflected. “They have all disappeared, been turned into bed and breakfasts, restaurants or torn down.”

In fact, according to her, the Roche Harbor store and the Shaw store are the only two left in operation.

“I do not want to be a part of another historic property being torn down,” Mason said.

The history of the store begins in about 1924 when it was built as a single-story, according to Shaw Island librarian Anne Frances Wysocki. Later, the roof was raised to create an apartment, then storage space was added, as well as the post office.

Prior to that, there was a small store and post office located in a log cabin known as the Griswold House on Blind Bay. Before the Griswold House, Wysocki continued, people rowed to other islands like Orcas or San Juan for supplies.

Over its nearly 100-year lifespan, the Shaw Store has had several owners and managers, including Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist which they named “The Little Portion” after the church where St. Francis of Assisi lived, according to Wysocki.

The Fowlers were the first owners of the store in its current site. Mabel Fowler Crawford ran the shop for many years, Wysocki said. Fowler Crawford was born on Shaw in 1899, where she lived until her death in 1966. After a brief stint in Alaska, she quickly returned to help her father in the store. She learned quickly, and began handling all the tasks, including acting as postmistress from 1943 to 1963. Fowler Crawford also provided space in the store for people to share their books, which lead to the development of the Shaw’s Island library.

“Mabel was an island treasure, nicknamed the ‘Mayor of Shaw Island’ by her children,” Wysocki said.

Wysocki added that throughout the pandemic the Masons have done an extraordinary service to the island by deliveries, curbside pickups, and managed to keep the store well-stocked.

“My partner and I started having little contests to see if we could find the weirdest stuff there, and only once did they not have the odd little item we dreamed up,” Wysocki said. “They did all that while continuing to be warm and friendly and funny and comforting and keeping folks employed.”

Limbach said he learned the property was going to be sold after reaching out to the Masons to exchange shop ideas. A nonprofit named “Save the Shaw Store” was formed and the group is currently in negotiations with the Masons.

A letter of intent has been signed between the Masons, STSS and the Orcas Food Co-op, according to Limbach, meaning the Masons have taken the store off the market to give the nonprofit a chance. As of Jan. 31, they have raised more than $100,000 in donations and pledges, Limbach said.

The first fundraising hurdle was to raise $10,000 for what Limbach called the Due Diligence Fund. That was not only met but exceeded, totaling $13,165 as of Jan. 31. The down payment fund has raised $86,835 as of Jan. 31 as well.

The nonprofit needs to gather approximately $1 million in donations to be able to purchase the store. If STSS fails to raise the funds by April 30, Limbach added, the Masons were free to sell the property to someone else. Should STSS be successful, however, the store will remain open as a co-op.

Finances are not the only challenge. Jennifer Swanson, president of the STSS, noted how sensitive trying to achieve a business transaction with friends and neighbors is.

“Shaw Island is a close-knit community, but of course we don’t all always agree. It is my goal to avoid a situation that creates divisiveness in our community,” she said.

Should the Shaw Store be sold to the STSS, the group plans on operating a store that supports the way of life of the Shaw community, Limbach said, including keeping the store open year-round, seven days a week. Limbach explained that the group hopes to maintain the overall feel and ambiance of the store, sell a mix of foods and general store items, as well as Shaw-made items and Shaw produce.

Swanson noted how positively Shaw islanders have reacted to the attempts to save the store.

“Islanders look at the Shaw landing as our little downtown where we run into neighbors, catch up with one another,” she said. “We want to keep this access open not only as the gateway to our island with the ferry landing, but also as a place of connection with one another.”

For more information on the Save the Shaw Store. Visit savetheshawstore.org.