When a set of overhead lights blinked off, along with the power supply to the cash register, store owner Corinne Balser laughed. Typical, she said. And Snohomish County doesn't...
When a set of overhead lights blinked off, along with the power supply to the cash register, store owner Corinne Balser laughed.
Typical, she said. And Snohomish County doesn’t believe the store wants to move to a new location as soon as possible? Balser, 73, shook her head as she hurried to inspect the circuit-breaker box at the back of the tiny old house known as Arnold’s Hay & Grain.
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Customers didn’t mind waiting as the cashier switched to a manual sales method. It felt more fitting anyway in that old-fashioned setting, with its scuffed, tilted fir floors and shelves packed with goods for pets and livestock, ranging from sacks of emu chow to glow-in-the-dark Christmas collars.
A curled-up tortoiseshell cat one of five store kitties that roam and nap at will never budged from its counter spot next to the register.
“This place takes you back 50 years,” said Elissa Kamins, a floral designer who drove from Seattle to buy a 10-pound bag of feed corn. She makes heating pads with the large, nonpopping kernels, stuffing them into microwaveable flannel pillows.
“You come in here, and you feel like you’re in a small town again,” Kamins said.
Trouble is, the store’s once-rural neighborhood just north of Lynnwood is now suburbia. Hundreds of new apartment units lie just to the south off 164th Street Southwest. And several homeowners along the store’s northern property line dislike its towering stacks of straw bales, the piles of rabbit waste that customers take for garden mulch and the roosters that begin crowing at daybreak.
The county, responding to neighbors’ complaints, has been trying to close the 40-year-old business since 1999, when the store moved from its original location just around the corner on 164th. Its current residential location on 35th Avenue West has been illegal from the start, and last week a Snohomish County Superior Court judge refused to extend the operation’s Jan. 10 moving-day deadline.
The Balsers Corinne and her husband, Dick say they’ve been trying since 2000 to get county permits to build a store and animal-rescue facility about two miles away on Ash Way, just west of Interstate 5. Now time has run out; they still lack building permits for the new site, which includes wetlands that require wide buffers.
The store has collected more than 1,000 signatures on petitions in support of the Balsers, but that doesn’t help their legal dilemma.
County Councilman Gary Nelson, who represents that district, said county planners have done their best to help the Balsers get their construction permits. He agreed with Craig Ladiser, the county planning director, that the Balsers could have secured their paperwork on time.
“I think everybody feels sorry about the dilemma that they’re in. I don’t think anybody wants them to fold,” Nelson said. “It’s just unfortunate they let this thing slide and slide.”
Ladiser said the store has no chance of winning another extension unless the Balsers secure their development permits in the next few weeks.
They purchased the original store in 1990. Dick Balser, Brier’s first mayor, had quit his job as a Boeing engineer in 1980 to develop real estate full time. The store property was among nine connected lots where he planned to build a retirement-home community. Then bankruptcy hit the couple, and they lost nearly everything.
All they had left was a long, narrow strip of land off 35th Avenue West with a two-story house and detached garage. They’d planned on a new store anyway, they say, so as an interim measure they moved the business into the small house. They ripped out some walls, built a cavernous storage area connecting the house to the garage, and Arnold’s lived on.
But the business, from the start, was out of compliance with county codes. The property is zoned residential, and the Balsers admit they built the storage area without a permit.
Their feud with next-door neighbors Sandra and Joe Phillips also dates way back. The Phillipses bought their property from the Balsers in 1993, and they say the bankrupt couple owe them $9,000.
The Phillipses are No. 58 on a list of private creditors related to the bankruptcy.
“Yeah, they do seem like nice people, and they do have all those customers who love them,” Sandra Phillips said. “But their dealings with people are dishonest.”
Corrine Balser bristled when told of her neighbor’s complaints and pulled out photos of large wooden signs the Phillipses had used to erect along their fence line, telling people not to shop at Arnold’s.
But customers weren’t dissuaded. Many shopped at the original Arnold’s as children, and now they bring their kids to visit the low-key store. It serves as an unofficial petting zoo, with a menagerie of orphaned and unwanted animals dropped off for adoption.
“I don’t know where I’ll go if they shut you guys down,” said second-generation customer Mike Bowley, who dropped by last week to buy chicken feed.
Lynnwood psychologist Elise Sturgeon was dismayed, too. She uses small animals in her work with children, she said, and she counts on Arnold’s to feed her rabbits and guinea pigs.
A roomy cage outside the store’s front door houses three young peafowl two hens and a peacock available for $20 apiece. On the far side is an outdoor pen for Marley, a potbellied pig adopted by the store several years ago. A dozen rabbits, a batch of chicks, a few feeder mice and a collection of live feeder crickets are housed in the storage shed, and two litters of kittens, a pair of guinea pigs and a black puppy are ready for adoption inside the store.
If they don’t get an extension, the Balsers must find homes for their animals. Their two full-time and six part-time employees will need new jobs.
And customers such as David McLean will have to find another place to shop. The Brier man, a first-time customer looking for a rat trap, was referred to Arnold’s last week by a major pet-supply store. He said it reminded him of the old Ballard Hardware, with its wooden floors and an old-timer staff that could find anything customers needed on its shelves.
“The small family-style businesses are getting gobbled up,” he said. “This is so homey.”
Diane Brooks: 425-745-7802 or firstname.lastname@example.org