Customers were top priority at Wahl’s

Terry Wahl, left, and Ed Wahl spent their youth working for Wahl's store, founded by their grandfather, Joseph B. Wahl.
Terry Wahl, left, and Ed Wahl spent their youth working for Wahl's store, founded by their grandfather, Joseph B. Wahl. HERALD PHOTO

Younger shoppers today might have a difficult time imagining the caliber of customer service that Wahl's store once provided to Whatcom County residents.

Terry Wahl, 73, and brother Ed, 63, know that service was real - they were the ones who grew up providing it.

The store was demolished 30 years ago, but the elegant establishment was for many years the last word in providing goods and services for area women and children.

"I remember one time (in the late 1950s), when I was a teen-ager driving the store truck," Ed said. "I delivered one tube of lipstick to a customer in the county, out well beyond the Everson-Goshen Road.

"In size, selection and level of quality of merchandise, and in service, Wahl's was the highest-caliber store in Bellingham for a long time."

The presumption was that by providing top-level service, customers would stay loyal, said Terry, who served as assistant manager for nearly two decades and managed the store for a couple of years after the retirement of his father, Ralph.

"Wahl's had home delivery right up to the time we closed," Terry said. "And we were one of the first stores to provide free customer parking."

After first occupying two other downtown locations beginning in 1904, the classic Wahl's building, complete with mezzanine and basement, fronted Holly Street for 61 years where US Bank now sits at Holly Street and Commercial Avenue. The Wahl family also owned and operated the Grand Theater next door.


Joseph B. Wahl, grandfather of Terry and Ed, founded the store 99 years ago in a partnership with Malcolm McLeod in Blaine. They moved the store to Bellingham six months later.

Wahl, a self-made entrepreneur who left school at age 13 to work, had seven children. The store remained a family business operated for many years by Ralph, the fifth child.

All three sons of Ralph and the former Jean Kennedy — Terry, Richard and Ed — literally grew up working for Wahl's, though Terry was the only one who made a career there. Ed was a licensed mortician in Seattle for 30 years before he returned to Bellingham five years ago. Richard, who died in 2000, enjoyed a long career in radio and television newscasting.

"The store was a departmentalized store but not truly a department store," Terry said. "We also sold books and we even had a lending library. But we didn't sell men's clothing and furniture."

Longtime Bellingham resident Ruth Marie Loop has fond memories of Wahl's, and knows many other women who also loved the store during a more gracious era of hats, gloves and dressy dresses.

"Wahl's was just a lovely, lovely store," Loop said. "Just about anything women could want to shop for could be found in Wahl's."

Terry Wahl noted that during the 1930s, '40s and even into the '50s, "people did not rush to Seattle" to shop for high-caliber goods.

"World War II and the development of the freeways began to change everything," he said. "Wahl's type of customers were among the first to leave Bellingham (for some of their shopping).

"Then other stores, like the Bon Marché, came to Bellingham. Eventually the chain stores moved to the malls and the independent stores closed. We were caught in a squeeze."


Terry, a 1952 University of Washington graduate, attended graduate school at New York University's school of retailing. But he didn't look back when the store closed.

"I was glad to get it over with," he said. "I did not try to talk anybody out of closing the store because we could see the situation would only get worse over time."

At 43, Terry was still young when his career path abruptly changed 30 years ago. Yet he and his wife, Robin, who raised six children in Bellingham, quickly learned they could enjoy a new way of life.

As Terry joked, "I came up with 14 part-time jobs for one-third of a decent wage" as he pursued his longtime fascination with the study of birds. "But Robin says I have become a nicer person."

He chartered hundreds of Pacific Ocean birding trips out of Westport, near Aberdeen. He taught ornithology courses at Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College, wrote or co-wrote two books, "A Guide to Bird Finding in Washington" and "Birds of Whatcom County," and contributed to a multitude of other publications. His library is loaded with hundreds of volumes on ornithology.

"I had to turn to birds because I was such a lousy fly-fisherman," he quipped in fond memory of father, Ralph, a famed fly-fisherman and outdoor photographer who had work published in several national magazines.

Ralph's book of artfully presented black-and-white fly-fishing photography, "Come Wade the River," is widely considered one of the finest on the subject.

"Ralph set the record for a steelhead caught on the fly, 20 pounds, 8 ounces," Ed said.

Terry and Ed acknowledge that Bellingham has seen its share of improvements in the past 30 years, especially since the town is neither as smelly nor as noisy at it once was.

"The question now, though, is 'expansion or redevelopment?'" Terry said. "I'm also sorry to see how Bellingham has turned into a 'fun place,' instead of a more complete town with plenty of family-wage businesses and industry."

Ed said Bellingham's growth and development could have been done better in some ways.

"But the real question," he said, "is what are we doing to do from this point on?"