Small Langley retailers find times tougher even in tourist season
Laddie Taylor, whose wife is closing her doll shop in Langley, says the economy of this South Whidbey town is changing as wine tourism becomes more popular.
Seattle Times business reporter
LANGLEY, Island County — It's the height of tourism season on Langley's First Street on Whidbey Island. The front door to Once Upon a Time, an antique and high-end doll shop, is wide open, inviting customers to browse the porcelain figurines around the store.
The striking detail of these handcrafted dolls draws the attention of passers-by, and, with the expertly hand-painted eyes, these dolls return the gaze.
Langley's town center, with its buildings standing shoulder to shoulder, offers many similarly quirky storefronts. A glassblowing shop, a handmade-soap retailer, and wine-tasting rooms all add to the offbeat vibe of this small island community.
But at the end of this month, this cluster of businesses will have one fewer occupant. Kathy Taylor, owner of Once Upon a Time, is closing its doors.
Declining sales the past two years and a recent rent increase have caused Taylor's 3-year-old experiment — as she calls it — to end.
"It's sad to see that this magical time is disappearing," said Taylor.
In this seasonal tourist economy, it's nearly impossible to survive during the offseason, Taylor said. "From January to June, you could roll a bowling ball down the street and not hit anyone," she said.
Whether the closing of Once Upon a Time is an ominous sign for similar shops, however, is up for debate in this town inundated with eccentric wares.
Laddie Taylor, Kathy's husband, says the economy of this South Whidbey town is changing as wine tourism becomes more popular.
"Langley is kind of morphing. The restaurants are doing well and the wineries are doing well," he said. But he sees tough times ahead for niche shops like Once Upon a Time.
"I don't think these small shops are going to be here in the future," he said.
Kathy and Laddie Taylor originally opened Once Upon a Time with a vision of selling mostly antique dolls, many of them for hundreds of dollars.
But they soon realized the customer base was limited and that without a significant Web presence, they couldn't reach potential buyers who didn't venture onto Whidbey Island. Instead, its biggest moneymaker became less expensive prepackaged dolls from Corolle.
"They're made in the USA," Kathy Taylor said.
Kim Tiller, owner of Whidbey Island Soaps, also on First Street, agrees that times are tough. She said her sales outside Langley have done well but her storefront has never rebounded from the Great Recession.
She added that some people in the town are anti-business. A renovated marina would help attract more customers to the city, but some locals are blocking that effort, she said.
"Our town doesn't value tourism," she said.
That's why Tiller expanded off Whidbey Island into Seattle's Pike Place Market. She's also wholesaling her soaps. With these strategies, her business is succeeding.
"We just got into Bartell Drugs," Tiller said.
Marc Esterly, executive director of the Langley Chamber of Commerce, says that while some individual businesses might be struggling, the tourism economy as a whole is growing.
"It depends on the business you're looking at," he said. "Revenues from lodging went up very nice last year. About 50 percent."
The reason shoppers come here, he added, is because of Langley's distinct character.
"They take a short 15-minute ferry ride and they're in another world," he said.
Langley City Councilmember Jim Sundberg echoes Esterly's remarks. He says there's always a natural churn of businesses.
"Businesses come and go on a regular basis," he said.
Tiller counters that a number of shops have shut their doors over the past three years. "The Edgecliff Restaurant shut down; so did Linds Drugstore. Also the Doghouse (Tavern) and Mike's Place," she said.
Retail sales for the city of Langley as a whole rose slightly in 2011, according to the Island County Economic Development Council.
Back at Once Upon a Time, although a few of the shelves have emptied, Kathy Taylor's passion for doll-making and restoration hasn't waned. When asked about her restoration projects, she excitedly shows off a scrapbook showing past porcelain surgeries.
An antique doll is missing most of its feet. Taylor flips the page and shows how she added new porcelain to that damaged area.
"You fire it, then fire it again, then paint it, and paint it again," she said.
Taylor plans to continue this restoration work after the storefront closes.
As for the retail side, Taylor, ever the entrepreneur, is looking into the possibility of opening a new shop farther south on Whidbey in Clinton. It has cheaper rent, she says, is on the island's main north-south highway, and is where the Mukilteo ferry lands.
Laddie Taylor adds that they'll also move some operations online.
"We're going to try the Internet and we may do shows," he said.
Karl Baker: 206-464-2046 or email@example.com