J. B. Wahl opened his first women’s and children’s clothing store in 1903
Photo by Jack Carver #X.4245, Whatcom Museum of History & Art.
Many in Bellingham still remember the pleasure of shopping downtown at Wahl’s, a “traditional” locally owned women’s and children’s clothing store for 70 years.
Founder Joseph Benedict “J. B.” Wahl entered the working world at age 13, and later put himself through high school. Born in Cumberland, Md., Nov. 3, 1868, Wahl arrived in northwest Washington in 1903 by way of Minnesota and Montana, where he had managed the dry goods department of a large store in Bozeman.
With the entrepreneurial spirit, Wahl decided to launch out on his own in retail, forming a partnership with Malcolm McLeod. Looking west for a location with potential, Wahl & McLeod opened their first store in Blaine in September 1903.
Relocating to Bellingham, they opened in the new Windsor Building at 1220 Elk (State) St., between Holly and Chestnut streets, in January 1904. The partnership was dissolved a short time later with McLeod returning to Montana.
At first, J.B. and his wife, Anna, operated the business by themselves with no additional employees. The couple lived in a tiny apartment at the back of the store. Wahl’s advertised as “The Infant’s Wear Store,” though also offered “Henderson Corsets, Furs and Everything That Ladies Wear.”
Through hard work and an emphasis on personalized service, Wahl’s store outgrew its small Elk Street location and, in 1909, expanded with a move to 212 E. Holly in the new Alaska Building.
Photo by J.W. Sandison #1997.17.20, Whatcom Museum of History & Art.
By 1913, success forced yet another move, this time to a new business block built by J. J. Donovan on W. Holly street near Commercial street. Wahl’s new location allowed for expanded lines of women’s clothing and furnishings, as well as new shoe and millinery departments. All through these expansions, J.B. adhered to his personal philosophy of incurring no debt on his business.
Photo by J.W. Sandison #1997.17.21, Whatcom Museum of History & Art.
J. B. Wahl was a firm believer in the importance to the Bellingham economy of locally owned businesses. In the early years of the 20th century, the first of the national “chain” stores began to encroach into the retail field. J. B. felt these corporate competitors sapped the community’s wealth by sending their profits out of town. Wahl travelled to Olympia and lobbied the State Legislature to prevent the spread of chain stores into Washington. His efforts were, of course, ultimately futile.
Wahl’s ambition was not to have the biggest store in Bellingham, but the best. His key to keeping customers happy was in providing superb service, which began with his staff being content in their jobs. Mr. Wahl was renowned for being an excellent employer. Many city residents found employment, often their first jobs, at the family store.
During the Great Depression, J. B. did his best to maintain pay scales, absorbing significant losses in order to do so. Wahl’s had 35 employees in 1926, while a decade later the store had 60 people on the payroll.
In 1924, Wahl purchased, from J.J. Donovan, the building that housed his store. The deal came with the adjacent Grand Theatre, which Wahl incorporated in 1927. The Grand would remain an independent theater, even as other Bellingham movie houses became part of the expanding Fox Studios’ empire.
In addition to personalized customer service, Wahl’s was known for aggressive advertising, keeping its wares in the public eye and holding frequent sales. Wahl hired an advertising consultant long before it became a commonplace business practice.
Following J. B. Wahl’s death in 1937, ownership of the store was passed to his seven children, with sons Harold, Loren and Ralph taking the lead in management.
World War II brought changes to this structure, with brothers Harold and Loren entering the military, and Ralph remaining in Bellingham to operate Wahl’s.
After the war, Harold and Loren did not return to take an active role in the store, leaving Ralph as primary manager. He eventually became president of the firm in 1959. J. B.’s daughter, Bernice, managed the store’s cosmetic department.
Wahl’s flourished during the years following World War II, becoming a downtown institution that specialized in women’s and children’s clothing. Although never a full-fledged “department store,” Wahl’s sold fabric, house wares, sewing and knitting supplies.
Through lease arrangements with other operators, special departments were added, including books, appliances, beauty supplies and a hair salon. Constant improvements were being made to the store, highlighted by a complete redesign in time for the holiday shopping season of 1956.
The rich tradition of customer service at Wahl’s continued, marked by individual attention and personal assistance. As parking became more of an issue for downtown shoppers, Wahl’s established its own parking lot complete with valet parking.
As the 1960s came to a close, retailing was on the brink of tremendous changes that threatened the existence of independent stores such as Wahl’s.
Chain stores, discount pricing, self-service shopping and the development of suburban shopping centers challenged the traditional ways of doing business downtown. Ralph Wahl retired and his son Terry became president and head manager in 1970.
The Wahl family realized that they had crucial decisions to make regarding the future of their store. To compete would likely require a move out of downtown, incurring a large debt on a business that had none. No doubt it would also demand an end to the store’s independence and tradition of customer service. These potential changes simply weren’t compatible with the reputation Wahl’s had established.
Wahl’s Inc. sold its assets to the National Bank of Commerce and closed its doors for good in 1972. Both the store and the Grand Theatre buildings were demolished in 1974 to make way for a new drive-through bank.