Imagine a store where there are no limits to your imagination.
Imagine a coffee shop that always serves your favorite roasted brew.
Imagine a fabric store where you could make something there on the spot.
Or just a general store that carries generally anything the owners care to sell or make or find.
That’s what Judy and Britta Folden imagined and what has quietly blossomed in Hoquiam as Gray’s General Store next to McHugh’s Furniture on Simpson Avenue.
“It was both of our ideas, but she’s been talking about it for a long time,” said Judy Folden, Britta’s mother, about her daughter’s driving passion behind the new business that draws a lot of curious passersby on the Highway 101 route south past their shop. “I had been wrestling with the thought of doing it for a couple of years, and everything kind of fell into place.”
Britta, the youngest of five daughters Judy has raised in Aberdeen, had recently returned to the Harbor from Portland and merged her own vision with that of her mother.
“She wanted a fabric store and I wanted a coffee shop,” Britta explained. “This is kind of the combo, so it’s a general store.”
There are arts and crafts, sewing supplies, fabric, yarn, sewing accessories, vintage sewing machines, remnant fabrics, and locally made gifts, or what Britta calls “quirky gifts and accessories.”
One of the novel concepts is that the store hosts a number of crafts classes. The store’s motto is “Make Something.”
For Father’s Day, there was “Make a Pillow From Dad’s Shirt” night and, with the $20 cost of the class, participants produced a pillow from one of dad’s favorite shirts. On Sundays, there are classes on knitting, one on redecorating your old canvas sneakers, another to make yarn pom-poms, a class to make a handmade baby romper.
The store also is open for Hoquiam’s monthly First Thursday event, inviting visiting vendors and showcasing artwork while demonstrating how to make handmade photo props.
Their customers are not easy to characterize.
“We definitely get a lot of people looking for fabric and supplies, so that’s one set of people. And then there is another set who come in for the gifts,” Britta said.
So far, their biggest selling items are plastic drinking lids for glass jars and pillows made to look like fresh cut logs.
They produce a line of historic Hoquiam T-shirts, working with the Polson Museum for design ideas. There is a shirt for the old Northwestern Lumber business and for Sailor’s Rest, the former tavern on Eighth Street.
Asked if there were products she’d like to carry in the future, Britta already has another unique idea for downtown Hoquiam.
“We’re talking about doing bike rentals, like vintage bikes. We have the bikes we just have to get them all set up,” she said.
During the interview one of the bikes is delivered to the shop.
“Whatever cool new thing we find is what we want to sell,” Britta said. “And we can make our own stuff and sell it here, too.”
That’s how they came to offer Herkimer Coffee from Seattle as their line of rich select brew. Herkimer buys coffee from small bean-growers, who pay decent wages and refrain from using pesticides and fertilizers.
“I lived in Seattle for a while down the street from this coffee roaster, so I got to know the owner,” Britta said of the Phinney Ridge coffee business. “My dream always was to open a coffee shop.”
Once they had decided to leap into business, Britta was driving by and spotted the location.
“It was right next to McHugh’s and I called Greg to see if he knew anything about it and it turned out he was the landlord,” Judy said of owner Greg McHugh. “Just having him as a landlord made a lot of difference in knowing that things would work out.”
“We had the idea for years, and I feel like we have been talking about it for long time,” Britta said. “I just moved back here from Portland and saw this store for rent. So I thought it looked like a general store or a good store space. By the end of the week, we were renting it. So it happened really fast.”
That was in January, and the store had its grand opening in March.
“We didn’t really have a plan before that,” Britta said.
Judy notes that her grandmother ran a store similar to Gray’s General Store in Portland.
“I thought this was a premonition and that she was speaking to me,” Judy said of the similarities she finds in her store and that of her grandmother Anna McMahon’s store, which used to be called McMahon’s Cash Store.
Judy and Britta have a photo of the store in their new business.
Judy moved to the Harbor from Portland nearly 50 years ago and raised her girls to have her love of crafts. Most of them contribute to the collection of gifts and goods for sale.
Working together so far hasn’t created any conflicts.
“I think it’s pretty good,” Judy said of how the business has affected their relationship as mother and daughter. “I adjust and let her do whatever she wants. I just do what I’m told.”
Britta added: “She does all the math and accounting.”
To which Judy retorts playfully: “I pay the bills and she spends some money.”
As the mother of five girls, Judy taught them each to sew and sewed for them when they were children. She’s now seen a revival in the crafts that have always been a part of her family life.
“Knitting is big and crocheting, too,” Judy said. “And sewing for clothing is starting to catch on again.”
In the family, the daughters include Jody, Julie, Joell, Jennifer and then Britta, whose middle name is Jacquline, to keep with all the J’s.
Just about all the sisters have something for sale in the store, too, Britta said.
“We’ve gotten a lot of our things from people we know rather than just buying from random people,” Britta said.
One of those is Norm Sprague, who used to repair sewing machines as a business at the Aberdeen Sewing Center that closed in 1986, and who now offers the Foldens the machines he continues to find and repair as the only licensed and still-practicing sewing machine repairman on the Harbor. He’s now in the real estate business as a designated broker for Twin County Realty, and letting Judy and Britta showcase his handiwork is something he takes great satisfaction from.
“There still are a lot of people who sew,” Sprague said. “There are fewer people who sew clothes like in the past, but there are a lot of quilters out there.”
He was the one who suggested to Judy that she showcase some of his repaired and refurbished machines.
“She came and told me she was opening this store and wanted to have a small selection of fabric, and I said, ‘Well if you have fabric, then you better have a sewing machine,’” Sprague said.
“When Judy opened up, I had several machines, so I decided to put them on the market and charge what it cost to repair them,” he added. “They are all guaranteed, and if someone wanted lessons on them when buying the machine, I’d be happy to give them lessons.”
Although Judy and Britta both say there is not much of a marketing strategy, the business does make good use of social media and has a website.
“You can buy on our graysgeneralstore.com, and we’re going to set it up so it’s easier to use,” Britta said of their initial foray into Internet commerce. “It’s been good because we have sold some shirts and some fabric to people outside the communities.”
But most of their customer base is built by word of mouth or from sheer luck when someone stumbles upon the place.
Just rummaging through the remnant fabric can be like a treasure hunt. Much of what is for sale is simply what they have collected and others have offered up.
“A lot of people collect it and they are like fabric hounds, and so they have so much that they will never live long enough to do anything with it,” Judy said.
Britta has a growing business in turning T-shirts into quilts, called Queen B Quilts.
“People all over the country send me their shirts and then I make quilts out of them,” she said, noting she does a lot of sports shirts, like for runners. She started by making one for herself out of all the shirts she had accumulated at Aberdeen High School, and continued doing it while she majored in business at Western Washington University.
She says the toughest part of opening a new business is “getting people to come here.” They are toying with the idea of putting a sign out on the sidewalk, especially to let people driving by know that they have coffee and listing their other goods.
“It is a little bit hard to get people’s attention when they are heading toward the light and trying to see if it’s red or green,” Judy said.
While the general store is her latest passion, Judy often can be found assisting in one of the key programs that feeds the hungry on Grays Harbor: Catholic Community Services. For the past 10 years, she has coordinated the program.
She noted that the Faith House in Aberdeen recently stopped serving lunches, so the Feed the Hungry program has seen a big increase, up to 90 people on a recen t Tuesday. She is usually there four days a week.
Eventually, Judy would like to carry home-spun yarns, and she’s reaching out to a local producer.
Britta is a member of the Hoquiam Business Association and helped launch the First Thursday program to open up galleries and shops on the first Thursday of every month.
“I feel like the city of Hoquiam is trying really hard, and that’s why we picked it over here,” she said. “There seems like there is something happening.”
Judy said she also feels the city has been very supportive of their business.
“It’s been a good fit,” she said.
Another of their new ideas is to offer a place where birthday parties for kids can be celebrated along with the crafts in the studio space in back of the store.
While the store might seem unique to some, Britta said she encountered a number of places like it when she lived in Portland.
“Portland is like crafts-central, so it’s really hard to stand out,” she said. “Here, I feel like we’re doing something meaningful and that we’re actually making a difference by having a store here.”
Angelo Bruscas, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3916, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.