ELMA –- While the Variety Store has a special place in the heart of locals for being the “go to” place for everything from kids’ birthday presents to craft supplies, from holiday décor to home essentials, it’s now official that this longtime establishment at the intersection of 4th and West Main Street is truly something special.
State Department of Transportation officials recently deemed this shop in the heart of Elma worthy of being considered a “Tourist Activity” and therefore allowed to purchase signs on Highway 12 designating it as such. The process is quite rigorous including lots of paperwork and an official visit.
“Two gentlemen came in here and looked around and said, ‘Yep, this is unique,’ ” said owner Boyd Morrow. Boyd, who owns the business with his wife, Carol, added that while they have many loyal local customers, 60 percent of their business comes from people outside of the Elma zip code.
“We’re hoping that the sign might bring people through town that might otherwise go by,” Carol said. “Once they’re here in Elma, they can spread some money around.” The Morrows have owned the store for 41 years and are not only natural business people but also natural city boosters.
“Boyd and Carol were willing to make the financial investment for signage to attract visitors to Elma,” Elma Chamber Director Debbie Adolphsen said in an email.
Once a staple of American towns and cities, the true variety store is now an endangered species. Boyd said that not too long ago they were involved in a buying cooperative that included 40 variety stores in the state. Now, besides Elma Variety Store, he’s aware of just three other variety stores left in the state – in Port Angeles, Chelan and Coulee City.
A MECCA FOR CRAFTERS
For years, crafters of all kinds – especially quilters – have known about this outlet to feed their passions. Busloads of quilters often come to shop the nearly 7,000 bolts of fabric, with new bolts arriving every week. The store is also known for its hundreds of skeins of yarn – offering everything from basics to the fancies and exotics – which also makes the shop a destination for those who knit and crochet.
“We mail fabric to customers all over the United States,” said Carol.
But it’s not just the bountiful fabric and yarns that brings in the customers, the store is beloved by crafters of every stripe. It also boasts supplies for scrapbooking, painting, candle making, stenciling, papier-mâché, doll making, clay sculpting, beading, cake decorating and creating home décor. All of which make it a popular spot for adults and children alike to gather what they need – plus ideas and encouragement – for any project including an entry for the Grays Harbor County Fair in August.
The store is also known for having the supplies to build car and airplane models. And, there are enough classic toys – just about every board game you can think of plus jacks, Dominoes, Old Maid, Etch-a-Sketch, Legos, K’Nex and Tinker toys – along with kid craft kits, balls, puzzles, action figures, baby dolls, stuffed animals, hula hoops, kites and yard games, to keep a child busy rain or shine.
“The kids are important. They are our future customers,” Boyd said.
“They need to have a way of having their imaginations grow. I like to have things for them that make them think and experiment and build. That’s where our future entrepreneurs come from,” Carol added.
The store also offers just basic things that a customer might need whether they’re just passing through or a local. Perhaps it’s a new pair of socks, light bulb, lamp, towels, window shade, cleaning supplies, cookie cutter, muffin tin, pet toy, garden shovel, helium balloon or a congratulations card. Not to mention a nice selection of candy and ice cream bars.
For the second quarter of the year, Elma Variety was honored as the business of the quarter for the Elma Chamber of Commerce.
“Many improvements have been made to the store including a complete outside paint job late last summer and new planter boxes,” Adolphsen said. “Elma Variety Store supports the community in numerous ways. They are called on throughout the year for donations to youth clubs, school and sports activities. Elma Variety Store participates in and sponsors chamber events and activities including the Wine & Seafood Festival Silent Auction, Citywide Garage Sale, Heat on the Street Car Show, Buckaroo Days and Downtown Trick or Treat. Boyd Morrow has served on the Elma Chamber Board of Directors for many years and serves as president this year.”
SURVIVING THE YEARS
Back when the Morrows bought Elma Variety from Lowell Eaton in 1972, the store was on 3rd Street at the other corner of the block. It moved to its present spot in 1993 when the Morrows decided that instead of operating in a cut up building, it would be easier to do business in a nice big square.
They purchased the former grocery store building and went from 2,800 to 10,000 square feet in which to offer 20 different departments and an amazing variety of items. (The actual space they have to work with is more than triple that – with storage room above and below the store.)
Boyd says that their niche seems to be a strong one. In fact, business in May this year was up 15 percent from the same month last year.
It takes the perfect location, a supportive customer base and especially gifted business acumen to survive – and even to thrive – in a genre of stores that is dying out. The Morrows seem to have it nailed with their mix of knowing their customers and supplying classic items that have served the test of time as well as staying current with trends and new ways of doing business.
Carol notes that she has plenty of fancy yarns that crafters can use to create the popular scarves. There’s patterns and fabric for the old-fashioned aprons that are all the rage again. On the flip side, the space allotted to artificial flowers has diminished because not as many people are using them as frequently in home décor.
But it’s not just craft trends that the couple keeps current with. For instance, they have recently installed new computer software to help them keep track of how long an item is on the shelf and operate an active Facebook account that lets their customers know about upcoming craft contests as well as sewing, quilting and other craft classes. They even show pictures of the latest fabrics that have arrived to their Facebook friends and offer to special order just about anything a customer might want.
“You have to change and if you’re not changing, you could end up getting stuck,” Boyd said.
To keep up with what customers want to buy, they attend one craft show, two candy shows and three fabric shows a year. But it’s not all about discovering “what’s in,” it’s also knowing your customers, Carol said.
She recalls that at a Christmas décor show a few years back, the trend was for turquoise and pink decorations. She instinctively knew that sales would stay a lot higher – and customers a lot happier – if they stocked the more traditional red-and-green holiday fare.
“Many stores sell you what they want you to buy. We sell you what you want,” Boyd added.
It was traveling after one of these shows that Boyd was attracted to a tourist attraction sign. It was so compelling, that it made him go off the highway to see the attraction. And it got him thinking about looking into it for the store. “We often would hear from people – ‘I just didn’t know you were here!’ ” he said. “We want to remedy that!”