TULALIP INDIAN RESERVATION — It’s like a neighborhood street fair, punctuated by the distant sound of explosions.
Children weave through rows of fireworks stands, peeking over the counters, asking if other children can play. Food vendors pass around Popsicles and cubed watermelon through the park. Sellers spread out lawn chairs and pitch tents to shade themselves from the unforgiving sun.
Not far off is a small lot where customers who can’t wait until July 4 light fireworks that rattle the sky.
This is Boom City, a 14-day fireworks market where, ahead of July Fourth, members of the Tulalip Tribes sell everything from pop rockets to fan cakes that are banned by the state. The Tulalip Tribes have developed multiple enterprises, but fireworks are a popular seasonal business during the summer.
Harold Joseph Jr. began helping his mother sell fireworks out of her car when he was 12 years old, and bought his own fireworks stand 50 years ago when he was 19. That year, he said, he spent $5,000 and nearly tripled that investment in profits. He bought a small fishing boat with the money.
“That’s how I ended up with three different commercial businesses,” he said.
Now, at 69 years old, he owns fishing, crabbing and geoduck-clam operations. The fireworks stand is a side business he runs with his grandchildren, all of whom he was able to send to college.
“Their welfare is the most important thing in my whole life. There’s nothing more important than that,” Joseph said.
On their own land, beyond the state’s jurisdiction, Puget Sound tribes have taken it upon themselves to regulate the fireworks market in different ways. The Snoqualmie tribe owns and operates its own firework stand, and the proceeds support tribal government programs in education and college scholarships.
“It’s a fantastic way for our tribal youth to gain on the job experience in managing inventory, customer service, security and retail services, all within two weeks,” said Tribal Chairman Bob de los Angeles.
The Tulalip Tribes handle it differently. Long before Boom City was a grid of wooden fireworks stands, people looking to buy fireworks would drive through the reservation, hoping to encounter a car parked on the side of the road with firecrackers and smoke bombs spilling out of the trunk.
After traffic accidents and complaints about congested roads, the Tulalip Tribes cleared a plot of unpaved land and designated it the hub for fireworks sellers. Cars turned into wooden stands and the reservation set up an electric power system and security detail. Then the tribal government started selling licenses to retailers — who must be enrolled Tulalip members — and to nontribal wholesalers, who can pay as much as $20,000.
“It is one of the great strengths of a tribal economy,” said Tulalip Tribes Chairwoman Teri Gobin. “Profits stay right here in our community, improving the lives of our people and our neighbors.”
Most of the stands at Boom City get their stock from those wholesalers, who sit a few yards away at a small lot of shipping containers and makeshift offices. The sellers typically buy fireworks on credit and pay wholesalers back in installments.
Now, instead of encountering chance customers on the side of the road, Joseph has yearly customers whose children he knows on a first-name basis. Sometimes he’ll set aside the usual stash of goods for regulars.
“I’ve been doing this long enough that over the years you create these trusting relationships with people that come buy from you,” he said. “Year after year after year.”
Joseph said he spent $10,000 this year on an inventory of everything from $5 pop rockets to $500 cakes and smoke balls — things not considered “safe and sane” by the state.
To stand out from the other wholesalers, Selva Mudaliar, an Everett resident who owns Selva’s Fireworks, starts looking at fireworks demos from China as early as August.
“It’s more of a hobby for him,” said his wife, Monica Mudaliar. “If I break even I’m perfectly fine because he’s happy. He’s creating.”
Selva’s Fireworks is a small company that specializes in custom-made fireworks. In 2014, their claim-to-fame firework was a custom-made cake packaged in Seahawk colors that exploded into a college navy and action green stream when it hit the sky. When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, they sold out.
But business isn’t always so lucrative. June 2015 was extraordinarily hot for the season, and the state issued a tightly restricted burn ban for 4th of July celebrations. Fireworks stands in Boom City closed, and Selva’s Fireworks had trouble tracking down retailers who bought on credit.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Monica Mudaliar said. “That was a big shock for us. We trusted them.”
There was no way for Selva’s Fireworks to take immediate action against the retailers who didn’t pay them back because they didn’t ask for much information from the sellers that sold just a few yards away.
Paying for the goods, shipping, the broker and customs fees runs the company anywhere from $30,000 to $80,000 for one fully stocked shipping container, depending on what’s in it. After paying off all the fees and selling a house, the Mudaliar family still owed the factory in China half a million dollars, they said.
Selva’s Fireworks mostly stopped selling on credit after 2015, save for a few standowners they have a personal relationship with. But in an industry that runs on credit and trust, that can be a deterrent. While Joseph expects to make a $10,000 profit, the Mudaliars are hoping to break even.
“If you say tomorrow stop it forever, I’ll stop,” Monica told her husband. “But it makes you happy, yeah?”
Mudaliar nodded. “Yeah.”
Joseph has seen stands fail in his more than 40 years in the business. People who go into the fireworks business for the first time don’t have long-standing relationships with wholesalers and customers, making it harder to turn a profit at the end of the short season.
He said most who try to break into the industry are “starting out with something small like selling fireworks” in order to jump-start other aspirations, as he did — “moving up into businesses that sustain us.”
Boom City was always meant to be a low-stakes platform for young people to explore owning a business, according to Gobin, the chairwoman.
“They learn to balance the risks of buying wholesale fireworks with the likelihood that they’ll be able to sell them,” Gobin said. “They learn the importance of marketing their businesses and building relationships with their customers.”