Retail survivors: How four family-owned Washington shops have made it in the Amazon era

Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

That diversification helps Whitten better serve the locals and the tourists, and has helped eliminate seasonal business lulls.

"Someone comes in for a coffee and they leave with earrings and a new blouse," he said.

A community of shared interests

A few years after falling in love with the hammered dulcimer at a Northwest Folklife Festival and starting a home-based business to pursue their passion, Ray and Sue Mooers and Randy Hudson started making and selling the instruments from a downstairs shop in Fremont, Wash. It was 1982.

Today, Dusty Strings sells a wide range of stringed instruments from the same retail space, which also offers lessons and repairs.

The Mooers say they have always tried to imbue the retail store with a welcoming, supportive vibe, meeting anyone at any level of musical ability where they are. The store convenes a community of musicians who gather for classes, workshops and jam sessions. "They get connected with other people that are attracted to their particular instrument," Ray Mooers said.



That's helped keep it relevant in the e-commerce era, and distinguish it from competing national chain stores, he said.

In a separate building in Interbay, the company's craftspeople turn slabs of walnut, cherry and other woods into 80 to 90 hammered dulcimers and lever harps a month, sold to musicians and instrument dealers around the world. As they grew the manufacturing side of the business, the Mooers were slow to embrace the internet. But now it's become a primary way customers discover their instruments, which are in a subcategory that many music stores don't carry.

Don't look for a click-to-buy button on the detailed pages describing the complex, beautiful instruments, however. To complete an order, you have to call up and talk to a human being. Sometimes that can be an impediment to people used to more automated commercial interactions, and the occasional sale nowadays happens only through email exchanges, Sue Mooers said. (The Fremont retail store does sell online, though the majority of its business is with local, in-person buyers.)


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