Boutique’s owners say they see potential in new Gateway Building
On a Friday morning at 11, Jen Westover unlocks the front door to Paris Texas. On the door’s “open” sign is a message: “It’s not easy being the new kid on the block.” Coffee in hand, she flips on a light, switches on the cash register and is ready for business after working at her other job as a bartender until 3 a.m. the night before.
Within minutes, two customers enter, followed by a barista from nearby Bay Street Coffee House with her daily delivery of a toasted sesame bagel, which Westover eagerly scoops up.
Come spring, Westover and her partner, Ty McBride, will soon be the newest kids on a different block when they open a new clothing store, Frank James, in the Gateway Building on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Holly Street, the former Bellingham Inn.
Frank James will open in March, a move that underscores the redefinition of Railroad Avenue’s evolving reputation as an up-and-coming retail destination.
In early January, Westover signed the lease for the bottom-floor space in the Gateway Building, located in Unit 119, to the far right of what will become Bob’s Burgers & Brew. The store’s name, Frank James, recalls the historical outlaw Jesse James’s brother, who owned a hat and shoe store in the actual town of Paris, Texas. Frank James will sell mostly denim jeans from $100 to $200 and tops from $40 to $70, and will market to older women and affluent 20-and 30-somethings, in addition to its Paris Texas clientele.
“Our bread and butter will still be college students,” she said. “But we’re also looking to market to the younger professionals in town with all the new development happening.”
With the opening of Frank James and its neighboring retail stores, as well as with the general redevelopment of Railroad Avenue, local business owners anticipate an increase in the street’s appeal as a prime shopping destination.
“With the cleanup of Railroad, the closing of the old Bellingham Inn and the Station Pub, more people are living downtown,” Peggy Platter, owner of Sojourn on Railroad Avenue, said. “Students are over their fright of downtown and are here in force.”
Sojourn opened 11 years ago, and Platter said the store’s success has been slowcoming and gradual—but business is thriving now, thanks in part to an escalating student presence.
Western Washington University business lecturer John Sands agreed that business seems to be on the upswing in the downtown.
“Downtown has enormous opportunity for small, unique, locally owned businesses,” he said, “especially if they are well-managed and researched.”
Platter said that uniqueness is one of the main reasons Sojourn has survived so long. By selling only three to four items from small clothing lines marketed toward women in their late teens to their 50s, Platter said, she remains competitive with the stores at Bellis Fair mall.
When asked what advice Platter would give to a budding clothing store on Railroad, she said, “It’s a tough business because you’re up against the big boxes. You have to respond to your customer’s demands.”
Westover said Frank James will fill one of the niches that Bellingham is ready for by providing a type of store people would otherwise have to drive to Seattle for.
Hart Hodges, a WWU business professor, said business owners need to consider the demographic of downtown when deciding whether or not to open a new retail store.
“We’re actually still slightly younger than the rest of this part of the I-5 corridor,” he said. “We’re not completely a retirement community.”
Hodges mentioned lower wages in Bellingham and a large student population living in and around downtown as factors business owners should consider.
“The retail character of downtown could go in one of any number of directions. For example, it might become like the U District in Seattle; it might become more like U-Village, or something else. It’s hard to tell right now,” he said. “The answer depends partly on who moves into the apartments being built downtown and partly on how well downtown competes with other retail centers in town.”
So far, business has been patchy for Paris Texas, with sales heavily relying on student flow. Westover said she is busy in September when school starts and during the holidays, but then slows down in the summer when students leave town.
Westover said a private investor will help open Frank James and its 250 square feet of space, which rents for about $375 a month. Westover and McBride will hire one extra employee to help with the two stores, and Westover said she plans to continue at her bartending job after Frank James opens. She said she is hoping the store will help Railroad Avenue become more of a shopping district that will also help with downtown’s facelift.
“It’s what makes or breaks the character of the town,” Westover said of the importance of having a central retail district. “If local business is not supported, all you get is the mall and you look like every other town.”
Nickie DeFreitas, 28, a graduate student at Western, has lived in Bellingham for three years and admitted, while buying a pair of dangly silver earrings for $11 at Paris Texas, that she rarely shops downtown.
“I hate to say it, because I love unusual things and little shops, but I mainly shop at Bellis Fair,” she said. “If downtown were more central, with more little stores, I’d come here more.”
But even with an increasingly central retail district, other young women feel that downtown retail stores are just too expensive for their low wages. Julie Neevel, 20, who works at Bay Street Coffee House as a barista, said she mainly shops at the mall because of its convenience and lower prices.
“It’s expensive to shop downtown,” she said.
Gateway’s slots filling up
In addition to the incoming Frank James and Bob’s Burgers & Brew, there are three businesses already open in the Gateway Building.
Left Right Left, a shoes and accessories store, opened in the beginning of December. Owner Gretchen Bjork, 28, a Western Washington University alumnas, said that when she went to school in Bellingham she usually drove to Seattle and Vancouver to shop. Like Westover, Bjork wants to provide Bellingham residents with a closer shopping alternative. Bjork’s shoes sell from $40 to $160.
“So far the response has been good, but people still don’t know what’s going on in this building,” she said of the new stores in the Gateway Building.
Bjork said she considered the student market a lot in conceptualizing her store.
The other stores that are already open in the building are Le Rendez-Vous Gift Art and The Calypso Salon.
Lisa Woo, the owner of the Gateway Building , said Bob’s Burgers & Brew space, which is under construction, will likely to be completed by the end of May. She also said there is one more space available for rent next to The Calypso.
The City of Bellingham threatened to condemn the Bellingham Inn in 2002 in order to encourage redevelopment of the site. Lisa Woo initiated the $4 million redevelopment process in February 2003.
“I feel great about it. It’s been a very successful project and we’ve had a really good response from the community,” Woo said. “So many good people have been working on it.”
Heidi Schiller is a journalism student at Western Washington University.