Stores on the high-end island have found their niche
Many think of Mercer Island simply as a piece of land in Lake Washington filled with wealthy residents and holding bridges that connect two of Puget Sound’s major cities. Tens of thousands of Interstate 90 commuters coming and going from the east and west sides of the lake cross Mercer Island’s north end every day.
Plenty of those commuters are unaware that just off the island’s freeway exits sits a small and evolving downtown core that boasts a mix of independent retailers and restaurants, as well as a few chain and franchise stores.
The majority of Mercer Island’s 6 square miles indeed is residential property that’s home to approximately 23,000 residents. With no major manufacturers, the island’s largest employer is Farmer’s Insurance Group, which employs 600 people. The city and the school district are the second- and third-largest employers.
Town Center, the city’s retail hub that occupies about 12 blocks on the far north end of the island, has changed in the last few years. Developers replaced smaller strip malls with mixed-use buildings that include apartments, condominiums, and retail space.
Limited space and stringent zoning mean there is little chance the island will become a commercial hub any time soon, so Town Center is quaint and laid back. Funky small businesses give it charm and character.
One of them is Mercer Island Florist, a 53-year-old island institution. Second-generation owner Diane Larson’s mother, Shirley Larson, worked for the first owner, Earl Payne, before purchasing the store in 1986.
Larson attributes her business’ success to a commitment to relationships.
“That’s what I focus on,” she said. “What can we do for our community? It’s the long-term relationships that we have with customers, from corsages for proms, to flowers for weddings, to flowers for funerals.”
Roger Page, who owns nearby Island Books, takes a similar approach. Page has managed to keep his store viable since 1973 by listening to and respecting his customers. Excellent customer service is essential, he said, but he also pays heed to what the local customers want and need.
“You have to pay attention and really listen,” Page said. “We haven’t done what all the other bookstores have done. The residents here have very high standards. But if you meet their standards, (the island residents) are terrific customers.”
And loyal. “This community really supports us,” Larson said.
Larson said that island shoppers are educated and savvy, a sentiment Terry Moreman, executive director of the Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce, echoes.
“There’s a misconception of the Mercer Island clientele,” Moreman said. “It is sometimes assumed that because it is Mercer Island, you can charge a higher price. But these folks are smart. They didn’t get to where they are by spending idly.”
The local customers also are sophisticated, Page said. “Our customers shop in Bellevue and Seattle … and London and Paris. Their standards are pretty high.”
It’s easy for shoppers to leave the island and shop elsewhere, but the converse also is true. Successful Mercer Island retailers pull from a large geographic area. “There aren’t enough residents to sustain a business on Mercer Island,” Larson said. “You have to have off-island customers as well.”
Page estimates about 25 percent of his bookstore customers come from off the island.
“There isn’t anything like Island Books on the Eastside,” Page said. “We have the feeling of an old-fashioned store and service. There are people in Bellevue and Issaquah who seek us out.”
Jim and Ginny Clarke opened Clarke & Clarke Art and Artifacts on Mercer Island earlier this year. The Clarkes are longtime retailers who sell art from countries around the world. They have been in retail for 30 years in markets such as Bellevue, Seattle, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The company has strong online sales, but the couple spent about a year and half looking for the perfect location for their Puget Sound-area showroom.
“We were looking for that village feel,” Jim Clarke said. “We love (Mercer Island) because it really has that small-town feel, but is in the middle of the megalopolis that has become King County.”
A high-end art store does need clients of a certain demographic to thrive, Clarke said; thus, Mercer Island’s $152,000 median income was attractive.
In its first few months, Clarke & Clarke already is pulling many off-island customers to its showroom. “Just yesterday we had people in here from British Columbia, Seattle, and Spokane,” Clarke said.
Carly Burns, who owns the C.Michele Interior Lifestyles store, has many off-island customers. Burns’ business is half interior design and half retail. On the retail side, she sees few off-island customers, with the exception of parents killing time while their kids participate in after-school activities.
Burns, who grew up on Mercer Island, said Town Center could be a great shopping location. She hopes the city’s long-term vision will include a strong small business component.
Mercer Island’s business vibrancy hinges on changes expected in the next decade, and on whether the community can agree on the direction of those changes.
On the horizon is the $20 million Mercer Island Center for the Arts, a 23,000-square-foot facility featuring concert, recital, and theater space, as well as an art gallery and cafe. There is no set date for construction to begin, but fundraising is underway, Moreman said.
There is hope that the theater and an East Link light-rail station, slated to be completed in 2023, will breathe new life into Town Center.
“There is lots of discussion about new buildings that are coming, the light rail, more density in downtown,” Page said. “Is that going to come about? I’m not sure. Mercer Island (residents have) always struggled with how much they want to be a small town and how much they want a vibrant business district.”
It’s a common conundrum, Jim Clarke said. “It costs a lot to run a city, a lot in taxes,” he said. “Everyone wants to keep it the same, but they want those perks.”
Burns sees the big picture.
“It’s important for the community to note that they need to support the businesses in order for them to grow,” she said. “We want a lot of things for the island, but we need to make the conscious effort to support that.”