When you walk through the Waples Mercantile Building on Front Street in Lynden it’s not hard to see why the businesses work so closely together — they’re all connected.
The lobby of The Inn at Lynden opens directly onto Village Books. In the middle of the day, when all the shops are open, customers can walk from Avenue Bread through a door directly into Village Books, across the bookstore retail space, and directly into Drizzle.
An open hallway is all that separates the inn lobby from the door to Overflow Taps, and Village Books from Bellingham Baby Co.
“I feel like sometimes I work at a department store,” Shelly Allen, who owns Bellingham Baby Co. with her husband Jeremy, said. “My store is just one department.”
They originally opened Bellingham Baby Co. at Barkley Village in Bellingham.
Then they opened their second store in the Waples Building. She and her family has since moved to Lynden and closed their Bellingham store.
“We may not have opened a store in Lynden if it wasn’t for this building,” she said.
The rebirth of the Waples Building has drawn four successful Bellingham businesses to Lynden, and sparked the birth of two more. And the collaboration and energy going on inside the building is spreading to the rest of downtown.
Rising from the ashes
In the 70s, downtown Lynden was the go-to shopping area, Gary Vis, the executive director of the Lynden Chamber of Commerce, said.
“Lynden was the hub of north Whatcom County,” he said.
Then things started to change.
More chain stores started opening up all over the place, when Bellis Fair Mall opened in 80s, that took a major toll on Lynden’s downtown.
Long-time businesses either failed or the owners retired, and they weren’t replaced.
Then in 2008, the historic building at 444 Front St. partially burned.
“When that fire hit, that probably could not have come at at more challenging time,” Vis said. The building sat vacant as Whatcom County, and the rest of the country, fell into the recession.
It was a scar on downtown.
“That’s the thing everybody drives by,” Vis said. “That’s the thing everybody sees.”
Then in 2013 Teri and Matt Treat joined Jeff and Debra McClure in purchasing ownership shares of the property, and a plan to turn the building around went into place. After an estimated $6-million renovation, businesses began taking up residence in the newly renamed Waples Mercantile Building in the end 2015.
Now Bellingham Baby Co. calls the building home, as well as the new tap house Overflow Taps. Village Books, Avenue Bread and Drizzle Olive Oil and Vinegar Tasting Room have second (or third) locations in the building. The Inn at Lynden, a 35-room inn run by the Treats and McClures, takes up the second story.
A spirit of symbiosis
From the start, the owners had the vision that all the businesses in the building would work collaboratively.
“We all have more of a long-term vision for how we work together,” Teri Treat said.
At the inn, it starts as soon as guests get to their rooms.
“We started by making sure our guests at the inn consider our tenants as their first choice,” Treat said.
In every room, there’s an Overflow Taps growler to encourage guests to get a beverage from the taphouse. There’s also coupons and other offers from the other building’s tenants.
“We don’t just treat them as a guest [of the inn],” Treat said. “We treat them as a guest of the Waples Mercantile Building.”
The front desk staff is trained to know not just about the inn, but about the other businesses in the building, too.
“It really builds that symbiotic relationship where everybody’s supporting each other,” she said.
The other business owners have also made use of the inn’s front desk.
Allen sells clothes and goods for babies and toddlers. One of her services is custom printing on baby clothes.
Guests staying at the inn can order something to be customized, and she can deliver it right to the front desk when it’s ready.
She can also leave orders for her own customers who aren’t staying at the inn at the front desk to pick up when she’s closed.
She offers her services wholesale to Overflow Taps, and prints baby clothes with the Overflow logo.
The only tenant, besides the inn, that wasn’t already in business elsewhere is Overflow Taps.
It has definitely made the most of the building’s collaborative spirit.
When Jesse Nelson, Adam Stacey and Josh Libolt were talking about opening a tap house, they knew they didn’t want to have to build a kitchen, too.
“None of us really know how to cook,” Nelson said.
So they opened Overflow Taps in the Waples Building. And if customers want food, they can place an order at Avenue Bread or Drizzle, and get it delivered to the taproom.
Now other restaurants in Lynden — even ones that don’t normally deliver — are also getting in on the action.
“When someone asks if we have food, we try not to say no,” Nelson said. They’ve been so successful, they’re planning on opening a second Overflow in Bellingham at Barkley Village sometime this summer.
A changing downtown
While a taphouse may be common Bellingham, it’s new to Lynden.
“It’s been really fun to educate people on what craft beer is,” Nelson said.
There is, however, a strong charity element at Overflow that is right at home there.
For every pint of beer sold, Overflow donates 25 cents to a charity that goes to provide clean water to communities around the the world.
While the city isn’t known for its appreciation of a good microbrew, Nelson said they’re serving a customer demand that was alive and well.
After all, all three owners appreciate craft beer and live there.
“We all live here and we’d have to drive all the way to Bellingham to get good beer,” Nelson said.
The tap house has brought a new element to downtown, including food trucks outside and games of cornhole on the sidewalk.
They’re also open on Sundays. In fact, unlike much of downtown, most businesses in the Waples Building are open on Sundays.
That is very much intentional, Nelson said.
“The goal is to try and change the culture,” he said. However, more visitors won’t come downtown on Sundays unless more businesses decided to make a change.
“It’s going to have to be a community effort,” he said.
In spring, the Waples building throws a small party in celebration of Billy Waples Day, honoring the building’s namesake, H.W. “Billy” Waples, who first opened a general store in the building in 1897.
The day is celebrated on a Sunday each year.
Treat said she hopes that the building becomes a force for change that affects all the businesses downtown.
“My hope is that our visions and our collection of great retailers and restaurants will start to spill into Lynden,” Treat said. “I’m hoping that Lynden will become more of a destination, like it used to be.”
The process is well under way. Last year it beat out every other downtown in the country to win America’s Main Streets top prize, which came with $25,000 for the city to make improvements.
The award helped spread the word about Lynden’s recovery. Allen said she’s has spoken to customers from Canada who heard about Lynden’s winning the contest.
Vis agreed that downtown is on an upswing.
“Our downtown merchants association has become much, much stronger,” Vis said. He partly credits the new Waples building with that momentum.
“When they did their work and flipped that around, one, it’s a boost for the locals because it brings back that pride and sense of community,” he said, “and two, it makes visitors want to come.”
He said the particular businesses — many of them bringing experience, expertise, and a fanbase — that went inside was the “cherry on top.” The businesses also understand their place in the larger community, he said.
“A city is a geographic boundary. Just lines on a map. A community is people coming together,” he said. “You still need a spot for people to do that.”
He said the businesses in the Waples building have taken on the responsibility of that role.
“Each of those businesses that came in here, they get that,” he said. “That you’re more than just a business. you’re part of something. You’re part of the community.”