La Tienda closes after 43 years on Ave

Many import stores operate similarly. The goods are bought from a manufacturer. Then they are piled, stacked or placed in uniformed rows beside their counterparts on a shelf.

There is no depth to these products - no history, no culture.

This is what separates these stores from La Tienda, which recently closed its doors after 43 years.

"My most memorable trip was visiting with the Kuna natives on the [islands] off Panama," said Leslie Grace, the founder and owner of La Tienda until 1995. "They showed me a mola, a Kuna cloth that is very colorful and whimsical."

The unique aspect of La Tienda, Grace explained, is that each artifact that is brought into the store is personally handpicked from the country they were made in. The artifacts are then individually labeled with information about the hands that made them and the culture they were found in.

"The purpose of La Tienda is to provide a bridge from [outside] cultures to Seattle," Grace said.

Finding inspiration

The inspiration for the store came in 1962, when Grace attended Seattle's World Fair and noticed the Mexican exhibit that was filled with folk art and handcrafts that reminded her of trips to Mexico she had taken with her family.

"Guatamala and Mexico also have beautiful textiles," Grace said, noting that people enjoy making them so they are not always produced for tourism purposes.

So with the help of her father Calmar McCune (see sidebar on Page 5), Grace spent three months fixing up an old building in the University District that housed a barbershop and restaurant, transforming it into La Tienda.

"We designed and built everything ourselves," Grace said.

What began as a focus on Latin American artifacts later expanded to include items from West Africa, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and eventually the United States.

A matter of time

In 1995, after Grace had run the shop for 33 years, her staff stepped up and Fred Hart became the new owner.

Now, at the age of 70, Hart said it is time to retire. However, he is keeping his Ballard location open, and he he will continue to travel and buy for the store.

"The primary reason I decided to close Seattle's location," Hart explained, "is to make operations easier to handle." He said that the Ballard store, at 2050 N.W. Market St., is one large room that is easier to staff than the U-District store, which had seven rooms.

Hart explained that the other key factor that played a role in his decision to close the Ave store was the building's age.

"The building was built in 1904, and it is the oldest wood structure left on the Ave," Hart observed. "The roof would leak, and I would have to repair it. But it has not been replaced in 30 years."

Grace also said that she had similar problems: "At one time I tore down the steps on one side of the building and rebuilt them on the other side.... We've worked our hearts out trying to upkeep the buildings."

Thanks for the memories

When Hart put out a guest book for his regulars to sign during La Tienda's moving sale earlier this month, he said 25 pages were filled up with thanks and memories.

"After 43 years in the same spot, we've gotten a lot of third-generation folks who wrote that their mothers brought them to the store when they were little," Hart said.

He said that people have expressed disappointment and will miss the shop.

But regulars are still urged to visit Ballard's location.

"I have always enjoyed the ambiance of the Ave and being on a street in a vibrant part of the city," Hart said. "But Ballard is doing well, so we'll keep it there."

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