Swain's Outdoor store closed last January in Port Townsend, and now townspeople have to drive an hour or more to buy the basics: sheets, fabric — even cotton underwear. The need has launched an effort to open a new, community-owned general store.

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Swain’s Outdoor store closed last January in Port Townsend, and now townspeople have to drive an hour or more to buy the basics: sheets, fabric — even cotton underwear.

The need has launched an effort to open a new, community-owned general store to be named Quimper Mercantile.

“We have a wonderful downtown shopping area, but it tends to be specialties,” said project head Peter Quinn, a local merchant whose shop teaches the craft of writing.

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“You can’t find everyday household needs [in Port Townsend]. We want to make sure you don’t have to drive to get a pillow or bed linens.”

The new store, which may go into the shuttered Swain’s location near the ferry terminal, would be owned by the community through sale of stock.

Its business plan is similar to those of stores in Saranac Lake, N.Y., and Powell, Wyo. The stores are the retail version of the Green Bay Packers, the pro-football team owned by Green Bay, Wis.

The Merc in Powell has made money most years it has operated. It opened in 2002 after the town’s general store, The Stage, closed in 1999. Powell got the idea for a community-owned store from Plentywood, Mont., a tiny town near the Canadian border.

“We lost our Stage store and talked to all kinds of people trying to get stores to come in here,” said Ken Witzeling, on the board of directors of the Merc. “Everybody wanted drawing areas of 50,000 people, and we’re not on the main highway, so stores weren’t interested.

“You couldn’t buy a white shirt in Powell, Wyoming, so there was a definite need there.”

Port Townsend officials looked to Powell for guidance.

“We talked to them several times,” said Sharon Earhart, president of the Powell Merc board. “People are interested in how to get started, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

In Powell, shares in the new store were sold for $500, and now there are more than 500 stockholders in a town of 6,300 people.

“It’s phenomenal,” Earhart said. “The concept is so nice; 99 percent of the time Joe Q. Public can’t participate in economic development — that’s what people said to us. People are thrilled, and we needed the store.”

Quinn said the experience in Powell was key to Port Townsend moving forward with Quimper.

“Powell resonates with us,” he said. “This was a symbiotic coming together of individuals.”

In Port Townsend, a town of 9,100 people, the nearest general-merchandise stores are in Sequim and Silverdale, an hour or more away by car.

Application to state

Port Townsend has applied for a SCOR (Small Company Offering Registration) with the state Department of Financial Institutions. Anyone who wants to sell stock must be vetted by the state agency. Only a Washington resident can buy the stock.

The state doesn’t evaluate the ability of the applicant to raise the money it needs, but it could establish the minimum price per share of stock to protect investors.

SCOR applications are rare, said Faith Anderson, who is with the state’s Department of Financial Institutions. In 2010, the state received three; two were approved, and one is pending.

Because the Quimper SCOR is pending, Quinn can’t say how much the stock might sell for, or even where the store might be located. However, he did acknowledge the old Swain’s location on Water Street is being considered.

Stock-offering hopes

Tim Whyte, chief operating officer of the new Quimper store, said officials hope to raise $1 million in the stock offering and have a new store open in the spring.

“Needles, thread, notions, plain cotton socks and underwear, that is part of the motivation,” Whyte said. “We envision a wide variety of stuff.” He said backers are looking for a 15,000-square-foot store.

Quinn said his group chose Quimper Mercantile for the name because Port Townsend is on the Quimper Peninsula, and he hopes the store will be supported by the entire peninsula.

“We really feel the need to keep that mix of retail options and clothing that left with Swain’s to keep downtown vibrant,” Quinn said.

The Quimper board, which has formed a nonprofit community corporation, has hired someone to open the store as its project manager, Jim Wheat.

Quimper will operate as a for-profit store. The Quimper Board has raised $50,000 in seed money to prepare for the public offering. Their motto: “We live here, work here, invest here. We just want to buy some socks here.”

In a message to the local business community, the Quimper board wrote, “We believe the Quimper Mercantile Exchange will not only keep local dollars at home by providing needed goods, but it will also create a well-rounded retail magnet to bring more traffic to all area businesses.”

Quinn said the store is being created for a fictitious Port Townsend resident named Heather who is 39, married, has two children younger than 12, works part time, has a family income of $50,000 and drives a Subaru Outback.

“We’re trying to build a store for Heather,” Quinn said. “She’s the person we think embodies the person we need to carry things for.”

No hometown rivals

What’s good about the store, said Teresa Verraes, executive director of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, is that Quimper wouldn’t compete with existing stores in Port Townsend. “People are cautiously excited,” she said. “They miss Swain’s. They feel the hole in the community.”

Today, she said, 69 cents of every dollar is spent outside Jefferson County. “The people involved in (Quimper) don’t need to do this. They have good jobs and are community leaders. They have their hands totally full.”

And, she said, “it will be a really classy store.”

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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