Swain’s General Store, Part Two


Perhaps, I spent my most memorable moment at Swain’s when I turned ten, long before I became an employee. Every year we Stanfields made homemade root beer with Old Fashioned Root Beer Soda Mix (gotten at Swain’s, of course-at least in the sixties). We kids picked discarded beer bottles out of garbage cans, and bought new bottle caps because, of course, Birdie Stanfield the Self Sufficient One owned a bottle capper.

While we mixed the root beer, that fragrance of warm, fruity brown liquid filled the house and reminded me of gentle ice cream pillows in an icy mug piled deep with sweet, latte-colored root beer foam. All I wanted to do was jump into a root beer float and do the backstroke.

Mom said we had to let the root beer ripen for a few weeks which, to a little kid felt like a few years. With great reluctance, we capped the beautiful, drinkable nectar into bottles and set them in a dark pantry on the back porch beneath the watchful eye of a dim light bulb for a very long time.

We had plans for that root beer.

When it finally reached its full bloom of flavor, we each grabbed a bottle, snapped off the bottle caps, and set out for Swain’s. And bragging rights.

Oh, the looks we received. We were too cool, parading through the scenic hills and valleys, the aisles of Swain’s, taking deep swigs of root beer from umber beer bottles, checking out rows of Can’t Bust ‘Em jeans, steel-toed boots, and Welch Leather Loop suspenders. Concerned shoppers stopped to stare, looked away, walked again, stopped and turned back with incredulous eyes pulled to the irresistible magnetism of a double take.

We took the evaluation process we could see taking places in their eyes as our cue to leave, so we bought popcorn from a cashier too busy to notice our bottles, and finally burst out of that store with our now empty beer bottles. My brothers and I inhaled deep breaths of pristine air, laughed our heads off. I felt older, smarter; the fine edges of my newfound cockiness blurred ever so slightly by the ittiest aftereffect of guilt.

Ah, Swain’s, as much a part of a Peninsula childhood as log booms, mountain lakes, fishing, and a River called Elwha the color of cat’s eyes rushing to an icy Salish Sea.


Swain’s General Store, since 1957

Have you been to Swain’s? You can see Sasquatch paraphernalia on an end cap, a great selection of camping gear, and some seriously tough clothing built for such a place as this glorious and sometimes punishing Peninsula. Oh, and you might want to try the popcorn, which you will find situated at the front, close to the cash registers.

Swain’s General Store

It’s not that the Olympic Peninsula doesn’t have much to offer a visitor. It does, but I am compelled to ask, have you ever visited the real Port Angeles? Have you experienced the intricacies and possibilities of an iconic place of business with its own internal landscape as vast and varied as the space it inhabits: have you been to a place called Swain’s?


Swain’s General Store “has everything.”

Sure, on the Olympic Peninsula, pristine lakes drop exclamation points beneath tips of craggy crevasses and lap at ragged edges of evergreen bowls in colors too exquisite to name;  just one of their colors impossible to label, all colors unthinkable.  It’s true, rivers the color of cats’ eyes furtively search their banks for silt to shoplift from beneath arthritic roots of black evergreens and umber feet of Madrona trunks clawing and scraping glacial melt that rushes  by from snow-capped peaks, strutting joy down, down turbulent avenues to the depths of the Salish Sea. This piece of land, this Peninsula, nearly an island hanging by threads of ragged inlets like the sleeve ripped from the body of an entire continent, promises astonishment, joy, and unsurpassed beauty, yes. But have you gone to Swain’s and checked out the jutting fishing pole trees and acres of outdoor clothing? Have you seen all the mountainous flavors of Idaho SPUD candy bars, Aplets and Cotlets, and Almond Roca there, or observed rivers of nuts and bolts, galvanized thirty gallon trash can-invaluable for monkey capture-rushing down the main aisle to cash registers, flowing into pickups waiting like handsome steeds in a rain-soaked parking lot?


Olympic Mountains

When I was a kid, I grew up in Port Angeles, the largest city on the Olympic Peninsula, set like a gemstone amid the stunning backdrop of the Olympic Mountains . We lived in a Victorian, five bedroom house right across the alley from Swain’s General Store, on Second Street. We frequented Swain’s every time we had a need, especially when we planned to hold one of our famous yard sales beneath the maple tree, not that we kids were much competition for Swain’s. My brother, Jack, perhaps the most successful businessman of us four kids, paid Little Susie a penny for every paying customer she could find in the neighborhood and bring to the sale. We ran to Swain’s for tag board and markers so we could advertise effectively. Swain’s had everything, after all, from tag board to shoes. Don’t forget the popcorn-ten cents then, twenty-five cents now.

With paper route money I bought my first horse bridle and gleaming saddle in the equestrian aisle, across from sporting goods, where I also bought fishing tackle and a license too, right before I went fishing at Peabody Creek. I even got screws for Dad when he sent me to Swain’s on an errand to the hardware department, deodorant for myself when I began the perspiration of adolescence (Chapter Three of my book Second Street), and slippers for Mom at Christmas. Swain’s existed as our sole go-to place outside of the Tradewell Grocery Store and the garden in the back yard.

It was from Swain’s I stole my first and last package of headbands the colors of a rainbow. I always was a sucker for color; I admit, the beauty of those headbands proved irresistible.  Across the alley I, thief, sprinted, and I hid them in the branches of the pear tree in our side yard, where Mom wouldn’t find them and I could return to get them later. But my experience with Swain’s was about to teach me crime did not pay.

I was wrong about Mom. As a perfectly balanced counterpoint to Swain’s motto, “Swain’s has everything”, it could safely be surmised that “Mom saw everything.” I swear she had eyes in the back of her head, because she saw me hide the headbands. Big mistake on my part, an underestimation the size of a gaping hole in the black earth of my thieving sole. After the bitter sting of a pear switch across my back side, she marched me across the alley to apologize to the lady behind the counter at Swain’s. Mom made me give the headbands back.

When we grew old enough to work, three of us four kids got jobs at Swain’s. I began at the age of fourteen as a Christmas bagger, graduating into a cashier position when I grew old enough. I worked for a total of seven years at Swain’s during Christmas and summer breaks and learned a lot of important lessons like:

  1. The customer is always right
  2. Be polite, no matter how bad you feel.
  3. Start work on time.
  4. Hardware is everyone’s friend.

Swain’s was, still is, a great place to work. Thanks goodness they forgave the headband incident of childhood and gave me a job.

To be continued….