Clair’s Super Market first ‘modern’ grocery

Paved parking a new feature for a town changed by the automobile

 

Clair’s Super Market, seen here in May 1947, offered “Free Parking” in the store’s own lot, which customers found to be an exciting new convenience. Photo by Russ Clift, #2006.64.69, Whatcom Museum of History & Art.

 

In 1941, Claire Wherry started Bellingham’s first “modern” grocery store.

The uniquely avant-garde feature of Clair’s Super Market, located at 1400 W. Holly, was the store’s shiny new parking lot!

For decades the city’s grocery-shopping district was centered on Magnolia Street and Cornwall Avenue, a development that had started in 1916 with the opening of the Bellingham Public Market. Within a few blocks of the Public Market (where Rite-Aid is now), there arose the Home Market, the White House Market, Howard’s Stop-n-Shop, The Fair, as well as a Safeway and Piggly Wiggly.

Though these stores were in competition, they all benefited from being concentrated within short walking distance of one another. As a group they created a destination for consumers, especially “the Saturday throng,” who could easily comparison shop between them.

By 1940, however, the proliferation of automobiles, combined with elimination of the streetcar system in 1938, created a “parking situation” downtown. While the grocery district on Magnolia remained popular, it was becoming less convenient for motorists.

Downtown’s parking woes eventually led to installation of parking meters in April 1948. Those coin-operated meters will have their diamond anniversary next month, which will no doubt pass with little fanfare.

But when Clair’s opened in 1941, at the northwest corner of J and West Holly Streets, the store had its own paved lot with 25 spaces for customer parking. It was a small preview of a box-store future that would measure parking lots in acres.

It wasn’t all about accommodating cars at Clair’s though. The market’s ads often included a map showing the bus routes one could take to get there from anywhere in Bellingham.

 

In March 1952, Clair’s staff poses with a bus freshly painted to advertise the market. Claire Wherry waves from the front door, while Ernie Gallup stands at center (in sweater and bow tie). Photo by Jack Carver #1979.3.21, Whatcom Museum of History & Art.

 

Clair’s Super Market embraced other modern features, too, including frozen foods and ‘self-service’ aisles of canned and pre-packaged products that customers took off the shelves themselves. This was in contrast to the traditional grocery store, where items were retrieved from behind the counter by a grocer, often sold in bulk and required weighing, tallying, wrapping and bagging.

Wherry knew all about old-fashioned, labor-intensive store methods. He’d started in the grocery business as a 14-year old errand boy in 1915, working for the firm of Wilson, Nobles & Barr on East Holly.

For Wherry, the fact that his first job was with the city’s pioneer grocery store was always a source of pride. It gave his business deep roots.

Indeed, Wilson, Nobles & Barr traced its corporate founding all the way back to 1888, as the Blue Front grocery in the town of Sehome. By 1901, after buying out Mason & Co., their chief rival, Wilson, Nobles & Barr briefly held the coveted distinction of being the state’s largest grocery firm north of Seattle.

Wherry later worked for Washington Grocery Co., the big wholesaler on Railroad Avenue, before becoming a meat cutter in the 1920s for Harold Andrus’ Elm Meat Market at 2328 Elm St. By 1926, Wherry was co-owner of the butcher shop and, by the late 1930s, bought Bert Belford’s Market at 1209 W. Holly.

In 1940, by selling his interest in both small stores, Wherry financed construction of his new 8,000-square-foot supermarket. He used a variant spelling of his own name for the store’s moniker.

Floyd Whipps managed Clair’s Super Market in the late 1940s, followed by Ernie Gallup starting in 1950. Gallup, in his signature cardigan sweater and bow tie, held themed sales, contests, and in-store promotions that focused on brand names.

In addition to Clair’s staff of 10 employees, there were regular visits by Carol Baker, a home economist who gave in-store cooking demonstrations that highlighted use of a particular product. Baker’s salmon-loaf recipe was especially renowned.

Manager Ernie Gallup presents Dorothy Carr with a puppy, first prize in a dog-food promotion at Clair’s Super Market in 1951. Photo by Jack Carver #1995.1.4088, Whatcom Museum of History & Art.

Some promotions were tied to community causes, like Clair’s arrangement in 1951 with the Bellingham Kiwanis Club to donate a nickel “each time a customer buys any of many basic qualifying items.” The money raised went to the Kiwanis Club’s Boys and Girls’ Fund that bought “playfield equipment for Bellingham children.”

Wherry and Gallup were recognized for their innovative salesmanship by the Brand Name Foundation, of New York, on March 18, 1953, when they received the foundation’s Certificate of Merit during a Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Leopold Hotel. Clair’s Super Market was only the third store in Washington state, and the first in Bellingham, to win the honor.

Gallup went to work for Doug Clark in 1955, serving as manager of Clark’s new supermarket on Cornwall Avenue when it opened that January. Ernie’s wife, Bernice, was a checker at the store.

It’s notable that Clark’s supermarket in 1955 (currently the location of DeWaard & Bode and Woodsmiths) boasted a parking lot that could “hold more than 200 cars” or four times as many as Clair’s lot.

In 1956, the Gallups started their own Pleez-U Food Store at 600 Lakeway Drive, a mom-and-pop that Ernie and Bernice operated for the next sixteen years.

Wherry retired in August 1958, selling his market to Sylvester Edquist and spending most his remaining years in Arizona. Edquist ran the Save-Rite Food Market at 803 North St. and made the former Clair’s into his Edquist Food Center No. 2 with Alton Anderson as manager.

Today, the supermarket started by Claire Wherry in 1941 houses the Kwik Stop Market and All About Flowers.

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