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You might think being one of the only businesses between Enumclaw and Crystal Mountain would be a lonely gig, and a bad business decision to boot.
You’d be wrong on both counts.
And if you ask Debbie and Bob Grubb why their business, Wapiti Woolies, has done so well over the 45 years they’ve been open, they’d probably say it’s because the built their business around people, not products.
“You feel at home here… we always try to make people feel welcome and at home, not just run through the store and you’re a nobody,” Debbie said. “You’re a somebody.”
Bob added that they’ve seen families grow, watching some of their first loyal customers become parents and even grandparents, each subsequent generation visiting the store almost as a rite of passage through the mountain.
But now it’s time to pass the torch.
“They’re all sad we’re leaving, even the grandkids,” Bob continued. “We want this tradition to carry down to their grandkids, fifth and sixth generations [from] where we started. Clearly, we can’t do that.”
But John and Karlyn Clark can.
As of June 8, the Clarks are the new owners of Wapiti Woolies, and hope to continue — and even expand — on the successful service the Grubbs have offered for nearly half a century.
The Clarks moved from Montana to Black Diamond six years ago to teach in the Renton School Districts, but their love for the mountains eventually led them to become loving Wapiti Woolies customers.
So, of course, they were upset when they were coming back down the mountain during a huckleberry-picking trip last Labor Day weekend when they saw the “for sale” sign.
“It was one of those, ‘Aw, man’ moments, because any time a business goes up for sale, you never know what’s going to happen to it. And any number of things can happen to it,” Karlyn said.
But eventually, doubt turned to opportunity — as Karlyn said, “Why not us?”
The Grubbs were ecstatic to find a couple willing to continue the legacy they created.
“They wanted to make a life change, and get back to their roots,” Debbie said. “They’re hard workers, they’re not afraid of a challenge, and so we thought, ‘This is it.’”
“We are really putting a priority on continuing the legacy,” John said. “We don’t keep things in this country much anymore. In the name of progress, we change things into something and never get it the old way back. Our intent is to keep the old way.”
This, of course, includes continuing to sell the Nepalese wool hats Wapiti Woolies is famous for having.
The Grubbs used to have a group of women knit the hats by hand when the business was still new, but as demand grew and the group of knitters shrank, Debbie and Bob chose to turn to Nepal with the help of a Sherpa friend they knew.
While more than three-quarters of Nepalese women are employed, more than 60 percent are not paid for the work they do, according to Womankind Worldwide, an UK-based international organization for women’s equality; Debbie said the workers they contract with are grateful for the wages.
The huckleberry ice cream is also going to be sticking around, John and Karlyn promised.
But the two do have a few ideas on how to expand Wapiti Woolies’ business and presence — the business’ website, which was likely state-of-the-art in the 1990s, will be updated and include an online store; the couple are contacting with Seattle-based White Knuckle sandwich company in order to provide a wider range of snacks and meal items; and, arguably most exciting, ski rentals are expected to be available to mountain visitors in the near future.
“But the way the business is now, that’s what we want to maintain,” Karlyn said. “Bob and Debbie have built such a great legacy with Wapiti Woolies, and that’s what drew us in… we want to maintain that. We want to maintain the Mom and Pop place that anybody and everybody wants to stop and be at.”
The only thing left to do, really, is for the Clarks to decide how they’re going to pronounce “Wapiti.”
Wapiti Woolies, located at 58414 WA-410 outside Enumclaw (GPS tends to go haywire by the time you reach the store, but it’s hard to miss the large sign), is open seven days a week: 8 a.m. yo 5 p.m. on weekdays, and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, go to www.wapitiwoolies.com.