Clinton business picks up roots for new digs

Becky Bell, owner of Jim’s Hardware, poses in front of her store’s new location. - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Becky Bell, owner of Jim’s Hardware, poses in front of her store’s new location.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

The register’s bell is a bit busier these days at Jim’s Hardware.

That’s because a risky move by owner Becky Bell from its storied downtown Clinton location to Ken’s Korner is paying off.

“It was a really tough decision,” Bell said. “I had to do something.”

Bell bought the store from proprietor Jim Harwell’s widow Mary Harwell on April Fools’ Day, 2008. Sales were steady for years until about eight months ago when they dropped an unprecedented $23,000 between October and July, Bell said.

At the bustling Ken’s Korner Shopping Mall on the intersection of Highway 525 and Langley Road/Cultus Bay Road, “foot traffic” — the number of people visiting a store — and sales have picked up. Bell said business is better because of the distance from the ferry, which makes residents more likely to visit rather than contend with Clinton traffic. It’s also closer to higher-density populations in Langley and Freeland.

On a recent Friday, customers told Bell as she rung up fishing licenses, screws and paint that they appreciated the location change.

“It’s nice that we have the whole circle of people going in every direction,” Bell said. “At the old location, it was just that community.”


Not alone in move

Jim’s Hardware was one of several stores that have decided to pick up roots and move from downtown Clinton. The Rack and Good Cheer Too, the second thrift store for the South Whidbey food bank, moved to Ken’s Korner in October 2012 after eight years in Clinton.

“It was a smart thing,” said Good Cheer Executive Director Kathy McLaughlin McCabe, who added that the thrift stores’ sales increased 15 percent since moving. “Our sales surpassed even what we had estimated.”

Wild Birds Unlimited, recently purchased by Shirley Hendricson, also moved from Clinton to Freeland.

The loss of those businesses has Clinton reeling. Curt Gordon, a longtime resident and a member of the Clinton Community Council, said the departure of Jim’s Hardware hit especially hard.

“I think Jim’s Hardware was an important central retail, handy outlet that all the locals used, especially on the weekends,” he said.

“There’s no other store in Clinton that can fill that need.”

South Whidbey’s smallest population created the non-taxing council to advocate for the unincorporated area’s development and commerce last year. Getting people to visit Clinton, which sees major weekend traffic during the summer, is a major goal of the council.

Thousands of visitors line Highway 525 in the summer waiting to catch the ferry to Mukilteo, but because the cars are not held long, commerce from that traffic has not developed as much as Clinton leaders envision.

“We do know, as a group, as a council, that a lot of what occurs is people get in their cars and blast through town without ever getting out,” said Gordon, also a Port of South Whidbey commissioner.

“Because we can’t queue them in a parking lot, they can’t get out and visit the stores.”


Bell’s move blessed

Moving Jim’s Hardware, a stalwart supporter of the Clinton community, had Mary Harwell’s blessing, Bell said.

The hub of activity at Ken’s Korner means more customers for Bell. There’s a grocery store, a few restaurants, a pet shop, a printing and paper store and other venues at the shopping center that is technically listed as a Clinton address.

Square footage is similar between the two locations, with the Ken’s Korner space 35 square feet smaller than Clinton’s 4,215-square-foot space. The move began July 14, with the store closed only two days while inventory was moved north to Ken’s Korner.

Bell relied on volunteers like BikerBob, who also volunteers at the store by running the register, helping customers and installing a price-point system.

“I don’t know what I’d do without him,” Bell said.

The little-bit-of-everything store has much the same layout as its former location. Only now it has a prominent storefront with people regularly strolling by, peering through at the front-and-center shelf stocked with fishing gear.

“I just wanted to keep Jim’s the way it was,” Bell said.

In many ways, the new spot is the same as it was for years. Bell allowed a woman to post a lost cat flyer to the store’s bulletin board behind the register. People come in just to chat, to ask about nuts and bolts, camping gear and plumbing piping, though that’s hardly all the general store carries.

Bell also continues the Harwells’ legacy of financing community needs in some way. The store sponsored the South Whidbey High School cheer squad for the upcoming fall season.

“Jim did special things like that,” Bell said.

“I think I did the right thing.”

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