When is a sandwich more than a sandwich?
When it's in a country store on Highway 9 in rural Van Zandt, and the owners know everybody who swings through the screened door if not by first name, then by sight, and if not by sight, then by a quick scan that tells how hungry you are, whether to suggest a six-pack or an iced mocha; peaches in a paper bag or squeeze-bottle mayonnaise; tribal whale earrings or a kung fu video.
"Basically, we do a psychological profile on every customer, figuring out what they really need, and then we negotiate the sandwich," says owner Jeff Margolis, who learned how to size up situations as a longtime volunteer firefighter. "People don't really remember all the things they want or need, so you read that . . .You learn how vital that is when there's no walk-in traffic. We are a free-standing rural store in one of the least populated places in Western Washington. We have to give people a reason and a place to return."
This is an authentic mom-and-pop country store, not a chain retailer or a froufrou roadside candle shop. There are two gas pumps out front, a porch laden with crates of fresh produce, a bulletin board thumbtacked with community hodgepodge
Everybody's Store is where you sign out volleyballs and handballs (leave something for collateral) to use across the street in the recently built Josh Vander Yacht Memorial Park, a massive community volunteer project spearheaded by the Margolises and Josh's family. The park is behind Van Zandt Community Hall (pick up the keys at Everybody's Store) and a quick walk from the volunteer fire station (which Margolis helped build in '75). If this were a city neighborhood, Everybody's Store would be called a community center. But then you'd miss out on the sandwiches.
Deli items are hand-cut, slice by slice, on a 1910 cast-iron contraption that's part cleaver, part log. The slices are layered between ruffled organic lettuce and tomato rounds, and stacked between bookends of bread, bagel or bialy. The slab is weighed (to determine price), wrapped and slid into a thick brown paper bag. My whole-grain sandwich, of locally smoked turkey breast and cumin-y Norwegian Nokkelost cheese (from cows in a nearby pasture), was nearly a pound, enough for three meals, and cost $6.30. You can munch at picnic tables under the apple trees out back.
"It's so much more than a store. It's like the neighborhood hook-up center," says Diane Hill, a nurse at the nearby Nooksack tribal clinic who has lived in the area nine years. "I think they do therapy over the cheese counter. You go there to connect, touch base, get your cupful, get your fix that you matter in the community. When you walk in the door, you're known."
He was born in Brooklyn and journeyed West as a young man in search of an academic career in political science, but instead stumbled upon a sliver of paradise, a ramshackle general store, a chance to practice the principles of his master's thesis: "A Critique of the Concepts and Critics of the Theories of Mass Society" about the depersonalization of modern life.
In 2000, he won a distinguished alumni award from Western Michigan University for his life's work pursuing "social capital," an idea advanced by economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. Sen said even the most impoverished societies can improve the lives of the worst off, while societies that neglect the poor inadvertently allow millions to die needlessly, even during economic boom. The key is social networks, people caring about more than themselves.
Not that Margolis had a coherent plan for his own life, instead subscribing to the "Law of Indirection" which says when you chase things, you lose them. "You have to know what's good," he says, "and by living in the path of goodness, you can achieve your heart's desire. You don't have to make plans. What happens is: It unfolds. Going-with-the-flow-type thing. It's very Zen."
So does that mean Margolis, tending the deli counter in his green apron, is the modern-day Socrates of rural Whatcom County? Margolis smiles. "Don't push that."
He and Amy, a concert violinist, took over Everybody's Store in the summer of 1970 when they were self-described hippies "living on the edge of the knife of economic necessity." They'd driven cross country in an old milk truck from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where Jeff had completed everything but his dissertation on the way to a Ph.D.
By midsummer, Jeff, Amy, their baby daughter and two dogs were living out of a Chevy station wagon in Larrabee State Park off Chuckanut Drive near Bellingham. "So I had to do something," Margolis says.
"We expected every month was going to be the last one," Amy says. The store survived.
They lived simply, practicing economies not heralded in academic dissertations. They bought cheap pleated skirts from thrift stores, pulled threads to unpleat them, ironed the fabric and sold it by the yard. They swept the floor at grain mills and bagged the leftovers as animal feed.
In between, they helped build a community library and volunteer fire station, organized chamber music and art fests at the store and community hall, served on the Mount Baker Foothills steering committee, American Museum of Radio board, Whatcom Symphony, Whatcom Chorale, Mount Baker Watershed Protection Association and South Fork Valley Community Association. In the '70s, they were part of Skagitonians Concerned about Nuclear Power, which successfully protested plans to build a nuclear-power plant.
"I got the store because I needed a place to live and also a way to make a living, and, coincidentally, I could do my bit," Margolis says. "I'm not a professional advocate or reformer. I don't believe in beliefs. That's why we call it Everybody's Store. No axes to grind. We're accepting of what other people would find to be the foibles of life. Like junk food. People say, 'Oh, you should only have organic food or shouldn't sell cigarettes or things with sugar or fat or MSG or magazines with girlie pictures.' There'd be nothing to sell!! I let the market speak for itself. Rich and poor. Intellects and non-intellects. Here I'm living in the middle of a logging community. I'm not going to blame loggers for logging. We're just open to the whole gamut."
The store, Jeff and Amy say, has always been a "temporary expedience." What motivates them is life: "My children are wonderful, and Amy and I are still together after more than 40 years, so I know I did something right, and we have a civic life and a musical life and a wonderful garden and I fall asleep real easy at night and my hair is only a little gray."
IN SOME WAYS, the general store hasn't changed much since opening 100 years ago to sell axes, lanterns, canned goods and fuses to loggers. Same rough-hewn shelves. Same counters. Unlike many modern stores that reek of plastic, you can smell natural smells: musty old wood, the sweet ripeness of spotted bananas. Local flavor.
These days, organic produce and grains are still popular, even though customers aren't looking to grind their own apple sauce or sprout their own sprouts. Instead, regulars are drawn by unusual items such as Huskus (a root used in sweat lodges to clear the respiratory system) along with staples you can get everywhere but only if you drove an extra half hour.
There is organic ginseng root; tiny, hand-crafted Shaker boxes; raw-milk Gouda; a couple hundred varieties of affordable table wines; organic, fair-trade, shade-grown, bird-friendly coffee; Folgers; African baskets; Native American carvings; dried kelp you can crumble to use as salt; microwave barbecue popcorn; propane; pickled eggs; matchbox cars; South Pacific rain sticks and didgeridoos; award-winning linguisa and andouille sausage from Bellingham; camping tarps; smoked salmon; kites and "Dream Tea," a blend to calm restless sleep, which includes hops grown in Jeff and Amy's garden.
"I'm always looking for another exotic product because I have to stay ahead of the Wal-Marts," Margolis says. So he hits the road twice a week in a white van filled with Styrofoam coolers a 50-mile loop of lurching traffic, heavy lifting, tedious invoices. Not glamorous, but there are moments. Which become years. Then decades. You can't measure relationships by cash-register receipts.
When Margolis pulls up to a storybook dairy, a woman in overalls, kerchief and rubber boots emerges from the farmhouse with waxy rounds of cheese. At Margolis' urging, Joyce Snook's family developed a recipe for Nokkelost cheese (cumin, caraway, hand-ground cloves, perfect with dark bread and beer) after Norway stopped exporting the variety to the U.S. It's mixed by hand (literally, fingers in the whey) from the milk of cows grazing pink-tipped grasses and hay spread with molasses. Margolis has been buying cheese from Snook and her father for 25 years.
Another fragrant stop at Chocolate Necessities, where chocolatier Kevin Buck leans over a case of redolent truffles and says he sought the secrets of deep, dark European chocolate because he felt betrayed by America's overly sweet confections.
Two bakeries (Margolis is known for belting out showtunes while picking up bread) and the Bagelry in Bellingham; Hempler's B.B. Meat and Sausage overlooking the harbor for smoked turkey and a thanks to the owner for supporting the Chorale.
Margolis even stops by the chains, Cost Cutter and United Grocers, where he loads up on staples and specials, paying the same as everybody else. Somehow, he says, despite violating the golden rule of retail "buy low, sell high," Everybody's Store survives.
Seven days a week, 364 days a year (closed Christmas). Once, early on, Jeff and Amy took a Monday off to go hiking and forgot to lock the door. When they returned, they found customers had made purchases, left piles of change on the counter, and a note, "This surely IS 'Everybody's' Store'!"
In reflective moments, Jeff and Amy say the store has leant meaning to place, created stability, become a community touchstone. At the end of a long day, it's simply "making a living. You can talk about specialty cheese and social capital, but what counts is slicing the salmon."
Customers return, if not for feel-good community relationships, then perhaps for the Landjaeger hunter's sausage, a slightly smoked beef-and-pork pack food that travels well on the trail, not too spicy, not too dry.
"It has a tropistic effect," Margolis says, "an autonomic biological response, like crack cocaine, a highly addictive substance. You eat a Landjaeger and you never forget how to come back."
To find out more about Everybody's Store, check out its Web site at www.everybodys.com.
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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