To Merch Bot owner Django Bohren, downtown Bellingham is a cluster of groups that make up a larger community, one he's been proud to have been a part of for 16 years and counting.
"Living, working and playing down here means that I get to see the daytime people working and walking around," he says. "And at night, a totally different group comes out and socializes at the bars and venues."
A colossal robot constructed of recycled parts welcomes customers to Bohren's zany store, an odyssey of oddities, from gag gifts and costumes to greeting cards and crazy candies.
In the market for fake poop for your nephew? You've found the place. Dr. Who paraphernalia for your geeky-in-the-best-way sister-in-law? Step right up.
The store carries a large inventory of ever-changing, intriguing items ranging from the delightfully juvenile to cutting-edge quirky. Bohren also runs Seatthole, an online custom T-shirt, bumper sticker and button venture he started 13 years ago, and has done website development, too.
"It all started with web development, which turned into Seatthole, which turned into Merch Bot," Bohren says.
As a youngster, he spent seven years on the road with his musician father. It was a lifestyle that serves him well as he juggles his various ventures.
"I attribute a lot of that time to how I run my businesses; the flexibility you have to have to be on the road everyday, trying to get to the next gig," he says. "Sometimes things don't go how you expect them to, but you have to decide the best way to do it now."
That off-center sensibility is apparent throughout Merch Bot.
"It's an edge toy store," Bohren explains. "We try to keep it mostly PG-13, and elevate any R-rated stuff. We've learned to make it so parents can feel pretty safe bringing their kids in, though they may have to explain a thing or two."
Once customers enter, they're not likely to forget the place. Whether it's the two-dollar bill handed over with their change, or the bacon mint sample offered them by the friendly cashiers, Merch Bot strives to make an impression.
Most days find Bohren walking downtown from his York neighborhood home. A well-known figure, it sometimes takes him half an hour to walk the few blocks because so many folks stop to chat.
Bohren admits that a move from downtown could mean bigger revenue, but that's not who he is or what his shop is about.
"I prefer a business model where things come to me," he says. "I'd rather be here grabbing people from the street than in a strip mall somewhere advertising to get people to come in."
"That's how we act in the store, too," he says. "You're here: Obviously you're interested in this ridiculous stuff. Our slogan, after all, is 'We sell stupid stuff.'"
Bohren would like to see more stores open downtown, and while he knows downtown has a loitering scene, he says most panhandlers are "freakishly polite and rarely pushy."
"I've watched the few scary people who come to town realize that this isn't the place for them and move on, or be moved on by the police, who are extremely available and on the ball," he says.
For the most part, Bohren considers downtown a safe place where he's comfortable sending his kids, 10 and 14, to walk around on their own.
"That's not something you can say about every city," he says. "If you're avoiding downtown because you're afraid someone will ask you for money, you're missing out on a beautiful, vibrant, friendly and exciting part of our city."
Address: 126 W. Holly St. Bellingham
Stacee Sledge is a freelance writer in Bellingham.