A longtime shopkeeper in the Village by the Sea is hanging up her hat after three decades of selling clothing.
Dressed all in black in a stylish fashion, Cynthia Tilkin contemplated the imminent closure of In the Country — the cozy store on First Street in Langley that she’s owned since 1991 – while surrounded by the remaining merchandise.
“I wasn’t thinking about retiring, but all of a sudden it hit me last weekend … that I was going to be 85 soon,” Tilkin said.
This milestone birthday next month will likely coincide with In the Country’s last days as a Langley institution. A sign on the door proclaims that everything is 50% off, and about two-thirds of the store’s lingering inventory has sold.
A South Whidbey resident, Tilkin has a long and storied history with the island, which she moved to in the 1970s with her high school sweetheart and two young children. She first got a job running the advertising department for the South Whidbey Record, then known as the Whidbey Record.
“I was on the front page of the Whidbey Record several times as a little kid — once asleep at my mom’s desk, once up in a tree,” her son, Dan, recalled.
The family home, which Tilkin still occupies, was barged over from Seattle and built with hippie power, thanks to an advertisement in the newspaper for a barn-raising party with the promise of free food and beer.
“We worked hard on that place,” Tilkin said. “That was really a labor of love. Our kids even had to help.”
She later did interior design work and owned a few other businesses in Langley before purchasing In the Country from a friend in the 1990s.
Unlike other businesses in the Village by the Sea, In the Country occupies a unique location in a pale yellow bungalow behind a white picket fence. Every room of the charming little house, including the kitchen, is packed with women’s clothing and accessories.
According to an account from Bill Niles, the compact, three-bedroom home was constructed in two stages in 1929 and 1930 for his parents Frank and Frances Niles, who founded the Whidbey Record in 1923.
“I’ve met several people who either had friends who lived in this house, or they actually lived in the house,” Tilkin said. “The stories are very sweet.”
Though In the Country initially focused on her passion for interior design, it soon incorporated more clothing. Tilkin studied clothing design at the Pratt Institute in New York, and some of her sketches from the 1960s can still be found around the store.
When picking inventory at markets in Seattle, Tilken intentionally focused on a lower price point that retired people who may be living on a fixed income can afford. Locals and tourists alike have adored her selection.
“They’re everyday, moderate clothes that I think are flattering,” she said. “It’s something you can go anywhere in.”
She often comes into the store after closing time and has been known to stick around until midnight, working long hours to rearrange the clothing.
“My mom is perhaps the most energetic person I have ever known,” Dan Tilkin said. “My entire life, I’ve known her to stay up all night.”
Her artist flair and eye for design have been enduring, lifelong qualities.
“I used to be sick quite a bit when I was a kid, in bed with bad, bad colds,” she said, “and I would do all sorts of art projects in bed and my mother would have to come and chastise me and say, ‘Cynthia, take a nap, go to sleep, stop working.’”
In her retirement, she plans to focus on interior design. Her son described her as a “vigilante designer” who is fond of rearranging furniture in restaurants and hotels whenever she goes on vacation.
“I think in another life my mother would have been a great HGTV host in helping people decorate their homes on a budget,” he said.
Throughout the years, In the Country has had several brushes with fame, including Bebe Neuwirth, Tilkin’s niece who is best known for her roles in TV shows “Cheers” and “Frasier.”
Tilkin predicted that the store will close by the end of March. She credits help from employees Fiorella Coleman and Suzanne LaChasse for keeping In the Country running smoothly.
And as for what she’ll do next?