Orcas Island, where we live for the spring, summer and fall, is only about 85 miles north of Seattle, and yet an estimated 90 percent of the people in Seattle haven’t taken the ferryboat ride from Anacortes to Orcas Island. This is just fine with my wife and me because we like the quietness of it. Orcas Island is the same size as New York City’s Manhattan Island, where they have 14 1/2 million people and we have 4,500.
On the last Saturday in June every year, about 1,000 of those people all visit the oldest and best hardware store on the island. It is the only place in America where you can buy biodiesel or Passing Gas at a hardware store.
The last Saturday in June, Paul Garwood, the owner, has his annual discount hardware and lumber sale. Everybody is entitled to discounts of 20 percent on everything in the store. The Kiwanis Club cooks pancakes, eggs and sausages starting at 7:30 for only $6 and of course Paul donates all of the food so that the gross income goes to the Kiwanis Club. Then from 11:30 until 2:30 everybody can have a free hamburger, a hot dog or both and all of the Pepsi-Cola they can drink. This year, Paul gave away almost 800 hamburgers and 1,200 Pepsi-Cola’s. That’s a lot of generosity and thank yous to his loyal customers.
Paul hires an extra 15 or 20 part-time employees to make sure everyone is well taken care of and they help them to their cars, pickup trucks or $50,000 SUVs with all of the 20 percent discount merchandise they bought.
I enjoy spending two or three hours there during the sale because I have the dubious distinction of being his board of director (I’m the only one on it). I also enjoy having a split-the-bill lunch with Paul, once a week or so to keep up-to-date on the latest innovations in grinding wheels and the newest model electric can opener. This year, Paul had a special deal on a promotion when he got hold of 800 bags of potting soil and everybody who came to the sale and wanted a bag could get it free and haul it to their car. Unfortunately, for many people hauling it to their car could be as far as 150 yards because that is the size crowd that Paul has for his annual take-care-of-the-customers sale.
The Duct Tape band played aggressively from 11 in the morning until the crowd thinned down to almost 100 in the middle of the afternoon. They played from the flatbed trailer the company uses to haul merchandise from Seattle to Orcas Island several times a week.
I’m more interested in people watching than I am listening to music that is made up by the bandleader. He usually hires eight or 10 musicians and hopes that five or six of them will show up on Saturday morning after a late gig on Friday night.
A young lady stopped by our table to say hello to Paul and she was carrying what I thought was one of the 20-pound bags of potting soil. She was very attractive with three very well mannered children between 5 and 8 years old. When I offered to hold her bag of potting soil it turned out to be a 40-pound bag of chicken feed. Paul and I chatted with her for a few minutes and I almost offered to help her carry the bag back to her car until I tried to lift it. She picked it up and expertly threw it up in her arms with her knee, walked off to the car while Paul and I looked after her three children.
One man who had bought $240 worth of stuff for his shop, his yard and his wife’s kitchen was complaining about how much money he had spent when I reminded him that most everything he had in his bag of goodies got the 20 percent discount so he saved almost $50 ... not too bad a deal on a clear warm Saturday morning.
I loaned Paul my official Tacoma Fire Department helmet and he was only able to wear it for five minutes at a time because it was so heavy. He did look kind of silly in that official fireman’s helmet, bright red T-shirt and short pants.
There was about a one-hour period between when the pancake serving and Paul’s crew started flipping the free hamburgers. I think some of the people who showed up for the free hamburgers brought every kid within a half a mile of where they lived, and for some of them it looked like the biggest and best lunch they had since last year on the same last Saturday in June.
The main source of income on Orcas Island is either the construction business or the tourist business. There is literally no manufacturing on the island and very little farming other than the organic farms that mainly supply the island restaurants. In years past, timber, fishing and fruit farming were the main sources of revenue but no more.
That hundred-pound lady with the 40-pound bag of chicken feed came back for her three children after the long walk to her car. While she was gone, Paul and I each got a plate full of brownies for the children. They had a bit of trouble shoveling the brownies in their mouths because they had helium-filled balloons tied to each wrist, but they managed quite well to clean their plates.
I’ve been asked many times to describe what living on Orcas Island is like, and I think I’ve finally come up with a word that describes it fairly well. It is a very “gentle” place to live.
Where else can you have a small power boat at your own dock and go salmon or ling cod fishing, put your crab pots out, catch a limit in an hour, or if you want to just rock ‘n’ roll in the sun, put your shrimp pots down 300 or more feet and have a seafood dinner party with your neighbors. If you don’t like to fish, we have a nice nine-hole golf course at $25 for 18 holes and a 2,400-foot mountain that you can drive a car to the summit or you can hike to the summit and ride a mountain bike or a road bike back down. Much smarter.
Probably the best thing about this small island is the people, as they all seem to have a small town attitude that you see on television occasionally. If we could grow corn on the island, it would be like Iowa but not nearly as flat.
One hundred years ago, Orcas Island was the source of most of the fresh fruit that was consumed as far south as Seattle. Then when the government dammed up the Columbia River and provided irrigation to eastern Washington, Orcas Island fell on hard times.
If you would like to have a wonderful, small town Midwestern weekend, then set aside the last Saturday in June next year and visit the Island Hardware spring sale complete with free hamburgers and 20 percent discount on merchandise that you can take home in your $50,000 SUV and put into your house somewhere else. Paul’s been doing this for 15 years and he will be doing it until 50 years from now when he sells the hardware store to his employees. He already gives 100 percent of the net profit for the year as a bonus divided among them according to their efforts.
Take my word for it — it’s a bit of typical Americana that is getting harder and harder to find in this great nation of ours.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto WarrenMiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.
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