Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Griggs Office Supplies: It was gorgeous downtown

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I had been looking around recently for a good place to buy quality paper and various supplies that I need to make books and cards. I stopped into the Rite-Aid on the corner of Magnolia and Cornwall and, after looking over their dismal and overpriced selection, asked several of the employees if they knew of a place nearby where I might buy some good paper, an office supply or stationery store. No one knew of anyplace in the area, but one lady suggested that I try Paper Dreams over in Fairhaven. I stopped into several other businesses with pretty much the same results. (First few looks I got almost made me wonder if most people wanted to inform me of one of two things: 1.) that they didn't sell drug paraphernalia or 2.) that all stores are stationary stores.)

The next day I had occasion to be over in  Fairhaven with my stepfather, Jerry, and found Paper Dreams conveniently located next to Village Books. After looking around a bit, I asked a very nice woman where they kept their paper. She told me that although they had started as a stationery store, they really didn't specialize in paper. She then pointed me to a small section of stationery. Not what I was looking for.

Of course, when I asked most people about buying paper, they would say, just go to Office Depot or Office Max. But the woman at Paper Dreams suggested that I go to Griggs Office Supplies in downtown Bellingham. I told her that was funny because I had just walked around downtown Bellingham yesterday asking in several shops where I could find a stationery store or place to buy paper. No one suggested Griggs. Finally, I told her, I was told to come over here to Paper Dreams. She said that was odd because Griggs has been around for over 100 years.

So yesterday, I biked down to Griggs. It was just around the corner from the little area of heart and soul that defines downtown Bellingham to me. I was amazed that I had asked people who worked two blocks away about stationery stores, etc. and not a soul told me about Griggs.

I walked in to the small but comfortable space and asked where I might find reams of paper and was directed to the back of the store. They had an admirable selection: standard printer paper, color copy paper, photo paper, parchment and cardstock. There was even a decent selection of stationery paper and envelopes in a case near the front. Their price on plain printer paper was the cheapest I had seen in town so far. I asked the lady behind the counter about ordering more paper and she said it would be no problem. While she had the catalog out, I also asked about paper cutters and saddle staplers. She was very helpful and engaging. Within a few minutes, I knew that I really liked Griggs Office Supplies. I bought about as much as I could fit in my backpack. As I was leaving, knowing that I would be back often to buy more, I introduced myself to the woman and was happy to realize that I had been helped by Donel Griggs.

When I got home I looked up Griggs Office Supplies online. I found a couple of articles about the history and various relocations of the store. I discovered that Griggs Stationery and Printing opened in Bellingham in 1906. It has been in the family ever since, persevering through the Depression, numerous relocations and downsizings.

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An article in The Bellingham Herald, In tree-rich area, Griggs’ Stationery took root by Bonnie Hart Southcott contained this charming passage:

According to his granddaughter, Donel Griggs, who now runs the store, he really cared about his customers.

"He would put a coin in his left pocket when he would go to work," she said. "If he helped a customer exceptionally well, or did something nice for them, he would take the coin out of his left pocket and put it in his right pocket. At night, if that coin were still in his left pocket, he'd have to do it twice the next day."

Donel says "Poppy," as Horace was known in the family, established a high level of customer service in the store, and customers came to expect it.

"We still have people come in and say they remember when he got old, he would sit on a stool in front of the store — because he couldn't work the cash register anymore — and he'd give candy to the kids that came in," she said.

Its current location on West Champion may be significantly smaller than previous incarnations, but the spirit of Horace Griggs, exemplified above, is still very present. As I come to know the city better, it is businesses like Griggs that define it in the best way for me. Historic businesses like Griggs, family based businesses, are vital aspects of the character and history of a city.

I was dismayed to read in The Bellingham Business Journal that when Bellis Fair Mall, which averages a staggering 35,000 customers a day, when this mall opened, many downtown businesses closed down.

From the BBJ article, Downtown has rebounded from mall’s initial opening by J. J. Jenson:

The Bon Marche. Nordstrom. J.C. Penney. Woolworth. Sears.

Once upon a time, these stores were all located in downtown Bellingham.

While some newcomers to the area and local youngsters may not be aware of this, many longtime downtown business owners say they won’t soon forget the glory days when these department stores were located in the heart of the city and, combined with numerous independent retailers of various sizes, made for a thriving downtown business district.

“The streets were busy and the sidewalks were bustling with people moving from store to store,” recalls Donel Griggs, whose family business, Griggs Office Supplies, has been located downtown since 1906. “It was gorgeous downtown. When I start thinking about it, I get emotional.”

And then, in 1988, came the arrival of Bellis Fair Mall.
[ ... ] “When the big stores left, the hustle and bustle was gone,” Griggs said. “Everybody else (downtown) either had to go to the mall or scale down, and as you scale down you have to let go of employees. A lot of stores went out of business, or their owners quit or retired.”

Gives me kind of grim smile to read the fairy tale opening, "Once upon a time, these stores..." and then come to that, "And then, in 1988, came the arrival of Bellis Fair Mall." A smile because it reminds me of that point in Bambi where he asking his mother why they have to run and she says it is becuase "man was in the forest."

Coming from Austin where I saw dozens of local businesses close over the last 30 years, effectively draining all the character out of neighborhood after neighborhood, hollowing out the city, infecting it with the virus of corporate sameness, I know all too well that the reality is no fairy tale.

Reading in the Bellingham Business Journal that certain initiatives such as Downtown Bellingham Partnership and Sustainable Connections are attempting to reverse the effects of the migration to the malls through clean-up projects and buy local campaigns gives me a dark foreboding about the future of downtown Bellingham. I think the city needs to do more: to identify and define those local historic businesses that make up the unique character of the city - of which Griggs Office Supplies is a prime example - and help to keep them financially healthy through property tax relief and basic utilities assistance. If Bellis Fair Mall is getting 35,000 customers a day, have the mall pay a percentage to support the local business that were affected by their presence.

Anyway, enough.

As the new guy, my voice doesn't count for much. However, if you are reading this "review" I encourage to support Griggs Office Supplies. Support not in defiance of the malls and "big box" corporate store, although that is always good. Support Griggs because they have an elegant selection, superior customer service and good prices.

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1 comment:

  1. Hi Scot,
    I found your blog via the Sue Boynton facebook page. You reviewed my husband Tyree's Poem, "A Reefnetter's Paean to the Sea".

    I love Griggs! They can get you ANYTHING! So nice to see someone really dig into the soul of the city. (By the way, Tyree works right behind Griggs there at the Mount Baker Theatre)

    We both look forward to enjoying more of your writing.