A community hub
With a new cider house and brew pub set to open at the old Willamette General Store, a past owner remembers the store's golden days
Ben Fritchie Jr. and his wife, Betty, still drive by the old Willamette General Store property in West Linn from time to time, and the sight of the storefront is always followed by a pang of sadness.
Vacant since early 2014, the property is a shell of its former self. In the Fritchies' day, it was a community hub — people would stop by just to say "hello" or to sit by the wood stove fire with a complimentary cup of coffee. Now, residents breeze right past the old store, stopping only to examine the sign promising the arrival of a new cider house in the near future.
The Fritchies don't live in the area anymore, but they still feel a connection and have a vested interest in the property's revival.
And how could they not? For nearly 50 years the Fritchie family story revolved around the property they owned, operated and lived in.
It all started when Ben Fritchie's father, Ben Sr., opened a business in 1946 at the corner of 7th Avenue and 14th Street (now Willamette Falls Drive and 14th Street).
"My dad bought the front portion from Albert Buckles and Wes Milliken, who owned the store across the street," Fritchie said. "My dad bought it with another fellow and started it as a cabinet shop."
At that time, there were three general stores on 7th Avenue alone. Thus, in the early days of the store, Ben Fritchie Sr. focused on his cabinet business.
"We had this contract that we couldn't sell anything that (the other general stores) sold," Fritchie said. "And one day, I don't know if it was Wes Milliken or Albert Buckles, he came over and wanted to buy a pound of nails. My dad says, 'I can't sell those to you — my contract.'"
The contract was then torn up.
The business's evolution into a general store continued from that point — though the Fritchies never called it that. First it was the Willamette Cabinet Shop, and it would later become the Willamette Cabinet Shop and Builder's Supply. A slew of other names would follow, but they never included "general store."
"When we got three requests for an item, we stocked it and sold it," Fritchie said. "And that's the way we built the business."
Ripe for expansion
All the while in those early days, the Fritchie family — which included Ben Sr., his wife Edna, Ben Jr. and Ben Jr.'s three siblings — lived in a room on the store's ground floor.
"And the upstairs of the front building was just a cupola where they stored junk," Fritchie said. "Well, we lifted the roof up and made living quarters up there, and we lived there for I don't know (how long). I don't have any written records of that time."
The property stretched back about halfway between 7th and 8th Avenue at that time, and the Fritchies eventually bought the lot behind the store for the purpose of expanding.
It is here when the story becomes slightly confusing. While Fritchie insists that the back half of the property was zoned for commercial use, the building currently carries a mixed zoning of commercial in the front and residential in the back — an issue that the City Council is working to solve.
"Now I understand that that City is saying it's not a commercial lot on the back end. It was at that time," Fritchie Jr. said. "I think at that time it cost us something like $3,000 in legal fees to get it zoned commercial."
Yet any records of such zoning have been lost, Fritchie said.
A hub for the community
Over time, Fritchie became more involved in his father's business.
"I had many, many jobs and I would stop in there on my way home from work, and several different times my dad says 'I'm broke, I want to borrow $500 and the bank won't lend it to me,'" Fritchie Jr. said. "So I got the $500 and I'd give it to my dad, and then I sort of worked myself in as a bigger owner of the store."
In the store's heyday, Fritchie worked about 12 hours a day, seven days a week to keep things humming. Part of what made it all worthwhile was the community that grew around the store.
"We had a 30-cup coffee maker in the store, and people would come in and always get a free cup of coffee," Fritchie said. "The mayor, who was Erwin Lange, he would come in on Saturdays — and (former City Councilor) Clem Dollar and several of the city dignitaries. We had a wood stove in there; they would sit around the stove, they all brought their lunches and would eat."
"People maybe wouldn't even come in to buy something," Betty Fritchie said. "They just wanted to visit."
The store also grew to be known as a one-stop shop for just about any household problem.
"One time, someone brought their toilet in a pickup," Betty Fritchie said.
"In the back of their car, they brought it up for us to show them how to repair it," Ben said.
"We said, 'You should have called us and we would just come!'" Betty added.
In early 1990, Ben Fritchie — then in his 60s — decided it was time to sell.
In a strange twist, the eventual buyer was a man by the name of John Lightowler — the son of the banker the Fritchies borrowed from to keep the store running.
"I always thought it was sort of ironic that John ends up buying the thing," Ben Fritchie said.
It was only after that purchase that the property came to be known as the Willamette General Store. Fritchie, for his part, wasn't especially pleased by the name change.
"I thought it was more than that," he said.
But after nearly five decades at the store, the decision was no longer his to make. He was similarly helpless when the store closed for good in January 2014.
Now happily retired and living in Milwaukie, the Fritchies just hope to see the property revived in the near future. The City is currently working to make way for the 7Bev Willamette Ale and Cider House, which was announced this past fall.
"I think it sounds like fun," Betty said.