Local

Longtime Bellingham retailers ready to retire

Greenhouse owners Chris Foss and Foster Rose, shown Thursday, April 21, 2016, at their downtown Bellingham store, are putting their store up for sale after 44 years in business.
Greenhouse owners Chris Foss and Foster Rose, shown Thursday, April 21, 2016, at their downtown Bellingham store, are putting their store up for sale after 44 years in business. pdwyer@bellinghamherald.com

Two people who have had a huge impact on downtown retail have decided to retire and are selling their 44-year-old store.

Chris Foss and Foster Rose have started looking for a new owner to take over Greenhouse, their home furnishings store at 1235 Cornwall Ave. They hope to find a buyer who will bring new skill sets to the business but also maintain the basic philosophy of having products that customers ask for.

“Customers always lead you to what you want to be,” Foss said. “To me, the biggest thing is not being the same thing for more than two weeks in our 44 years. They (customers) define your inventory.”

The sale of the business is being handled by Pacific Continental Realty’s Heather Baker and Jim Bjerke. An asking price is not being publicly disclosed. The sale does not include the building, which is owned by Flax Properties LLC.

1972 Year Greenhouse opened as a plant store on North State Street.

Foss and Rose transformed their business from a household plant and card store into a destination shopping place in the mid-1980s, a crucial time for the downtown district. That was when Bellis Fair mall was being built in the north part of town and several large retailers, including JC Penney and the Bon Marche, left downtown.

“They said we are not going to keel over and let downtown die,” said Bjerke, who was a downtown resident in the early ’80s and has been active in the downtown district through his real estate company as well as in organizations like the Downtown Partnership. “They clearly paid attention to what the customers wanted.”

Greenhouse was a source of inspiration for Baker, who operated a nearby store called LuLu before becoming a real estate agent earlier this year.

“Greenhouse sets the bar high for excellence and we all try to follow their lead,” she said.

Foss and Ross don’t know how long it will take to sell their business, but in the meantime they will continue to run the business and are open to the idea of helping a new owner through a transition period. Foss expects the new owner will appreciate the history of the business and the specific products customers come back for each year, but will probably make changes, just like she and Rose do. People are always looking for the next great household product or gift, she said.

STARTED AS A PLANT SHOP

In 1972, Foss and Rose were students at Western Washington University but were looking for a new direction career-wise. They visited a plant store in San Francisco and took the risk of opening their own plant store in a 300-square-foot space on North State Street, near where Old World Deli is located today.

Rose said the day they opened their checking account was overdrawn, but they believed houseplants were a trend that was catching on. As sales increased, they moved into bigger downtown spaces, including the Washington Grocery Building at Railroad Avenue and East Chestnut Street, and then in a building on Holly Street that is now home to The Teriyaki Bar.

In the mid-1980s. the big community debate was whether to allow Bellis Fair to be built, and what would the mall do to downtown if it went forward. The debate launched Rose’s political career; he became a two-term City Council member, from 1986 to 1994, and was heavily involved in the downtown area as it adjusted to the opening of Bellis Fair.

From a business standpoint, Foss and Rose believed their store was in jeopardy as walk-around traffic quickly decreased downtown. But instead of closing or moving, they decided to double-down and expand, trying to create a destination store to attract people back to downtown.

That led to their decision to go into home furniture, which meant taking on debt and going into a new industry. The goal was to be something like a local Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel. Greenhouse moved into its current Cornwall Avenue space in 1986.

(Downtown) turned into the best value in Bellingham. You have a ready population who want to shop and eat.

Foster Rose, co-owner of Greenhouse

Business was up and down the first few years as they learned the furniture business. Rose said that when they were selling plants, farms and wholesalers were happy to help buyers. In the 1980s and 1990s, he said, buying furniture felt more like getting a loan in terms of the paperwork and acquiring product.

Foss added that at the time it was more a suit-and-tie kind of industry, and they didn’t look the part. There were also not many female buyers, she said.

As they learned the business, the store continued to grow, and they now have 12,000 square feet of showroom space. The downtown area also rebounded as retail businesses, particularly restaurants, filled empty storefronts, technology companies like Faithlife filled office spaces, and new residential buildings boosted pedestrian traffic.

Looking back, Rose said he didn’t anticipate how downtown would turn out.

“It’s turned into the best value in Bellingham (for businesses),” he said, noting that lease rates are low and the density is high. “You have a ready population who want to shop and eat.”

Foss said the tipping point, for her, for downtown’s rebound was the development of Depot Market Square and the growth of Bellingham Farmers Market.

“That was really, really positive,” she said, “and very Bellingham.”

While the success of Greenhouse had a positive impact on downtown, other businesses, such as Pickford Cinema, also proved important, Foss said. Having such unique businesses and organizations are reasons people want to be in a community, something that has been confirmed to Foss by conversations she’s had with customers over the years, especially people taking their first tour of Bellingham.

Locals joke about the unofficial slogan that calls Bellingham “the city of subdued excitement,” but that’s not how Foss views the city.

“Bellingham is a fantastic place and it should have the best of everything,” she said. “We just wanted to do a good job trying to do that.”

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz

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