There are a variety of factors working against mom-and-pop gift shops in the current retail market. Dan Willis and his wife, Danette, have succumbed to the realities of the industry and will close Communique at the end of April after more than 27 years in Queen Anne.
The family-owned card, gift and toy store started on Boston Street in 1987 — the year their first son was born — before moving to its current location at 2215 Queen Anne Ave. N. six years later.
Dan said he’d hoped someone would carry the gift shop torch in some way but that the space has already been leased to a new tenant. (Ralph Swanson, with Lighthouse Properties, said there is an agreement waiting to be finalized with Swedish Medical Center. A Swedish Physicians office is located above Communique.)
“It has been fun,” Dan said. “It’s been a gas to watch kids come in and grow up and the families come through — it’s been enjoyable in that regard. Queen Anne has been a wonderful place to have a business. We cannot complain about the clientele.”
The pressures of retail
Dan said sales at Communique have been “somewhat flat” since the recession, while expenses have continued to grow. He said factors related to the store’s closing included increased rent in Queen Anne and the upcoming increase to the $15 minimum wage.
Dan added that owning a retail store has anchored him to one spot for long enough and that he would like to be “more versatile and nimble.” He said he has no current plans for his next gig.
“Whatever it will be won’t be as many hours a week as I’m doing here,” he said.
Communique, which has no true online presence, is a hyper-local business, with its scope almost entirely focused on serving the neighborhood. The store sells staple items, such as birthday cards and collectables, puzzles, LEGOs and learning kits, and is known for its free gift-wrapping, balloons and collection of German nutcrackers.
But retail continues to be an online industry, with mom-and-pop, brick-and-mortar stores becoming increasingly obsolete. ComScore, which looks at digital measurements and analytics, has released multiple studies related to the importance of businesses offering flexibility for online shopping, including one on March 3 that said online shoppers worldwide want the ability to search and shop on multiple channels and devices.
Dan said the challenge for retail continues to be competing against cell phones.
“Even though we do have a good clientele, it’s just, as the years go by, the cell phone’s going to win,” he said. “Between the pressures of that and continued expenses of owning a business on Queen Anne, it’s time to go.”
The pressures of the industry hit the Willis family more than five years ago, when Danette took a job at Trader Joe’s. Dan currently has four employees, not all of whom are full-time. He predicted the $15 minimum wage will “squeeze people out who would otherwise be here.”
“I really think, over time, there’s going to be more of a shakeout with retail, in Seattle in particular, just because of the high rents and the higher costs of labor, as well,” he said. “If there’s another recession in Seattle, say goodbye to retail in Seattle totally, because they will have no leeway to make it.”
A goodbye sale
Communique started its going-out-of-business sale, offering 30-percent-off sales last week, with additional discounts as it nears the end of April. Dan said he expected most all of his merchandise to be sold, except possibly some of the nutcrackers. He said he might consider opening a pop-up store of German Christmas collectables at a later date.
Patty Hardy, who describes herself as a “present-wrapping extraordinaire” after more than 11 years working at the store, said she was “sad and surprised” by the store closing but said she also “totally understand[s] it.
“Both of my girls have worked here over the years, so they were also sad,” she said.
Regular customers and those who recently found the store dropped by Thursday afternoon to purchase gifts and browse through the still-stocked shelves.
Zeynap Reuben, a Magnolia resident who visited the store for just the second time on March 12, asked Dan while checking out, “Do you really have to go?”
Dan responded, “Well, there’s never a good time to go. We’ve been on the fence for a couple of years.”
Queen Anne customer Ara Greer said she will miss the store, especially since it sells the kids’ bath soap her daughter affectionately calls “whipping soap.”
“I’ll have to stock up because I don’t know where else to get it,” she said.
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