By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
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“This is fantastic; it's huge,” Maloney, 18, of Port Angeles, said as other shoppers strolled about the 17,000-square-foot first floor of the former Gottschalks building at First and Oak streets near downtown's western edge.
“I like the old-fashioned aspect to the decor,” Maloney said, pointing to the shelved antiques lining nearly the circumference of the wall high above the store's customers.
“It's warm and homey,” she said.
Owners Robyn and John Miletich purchased the long-vacant, two-floor building for $650,000 on July 5 from the K.O. Erickson Charity Trust.
Their building permit called for $293,800 in improvements to the first floor.
That area more than quadrupled the space Country Aire had had for 37 years at its former home at 117 E. First St., which offered narrow confines crammed with products and was starved for the parking offered at its new First-and-Oak corner location.
Largest retail store
Country Aire is now the largest retail store downtown, said Barb Frederick, Port Angeles Downtown Association executive director.
With that large, empty space now occupied comes renewed hope for more foot traffic downtown, she said.
It's good for the spirit, too, that two people native to Port Angeles who have built their business up over nearly four decades can expand “into something this wonderful” and realize a dream, Frederick added.
“In a niche of the market where large-type chain stores are starting to really dominate, it's great to see that a home-grown business has been able to come in and flourish and add light and vibrancy to that corner,” she said.
The store closed in its old location Saturday through Monday and reopened in its new incarnation at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
It features a delicatessen with organic coffees to which customers can add organic creamer, organic sweeteners and organic flavoring.
There's an incense-candle room, a health-and-beauty-aids counter, an expanded produce section, a kids' play-zone, Wi-Fi access, wheat-grass-drink stations and bar-stool and table seating.
“The excitement is with our deli,” said Sam Nugent, general manager.
It was so busy at the deli Tuesday morning that employees — part of a workforce that has tripled to nearly 50 — retrieved a seventh cash register from the old store 11/2 blocks away so cash-only coffee and tea customers would not have to wait, Nugent said.
Nugent said Miletich was not available late Tuesday morning.
Employees finished preparing for the store's grand opening at about 3 a.m. Tuesday, he said.
“We got it set to where we felt the customers could have a successful visit to the store,” Nugent said.
“All we did was move existing products over here,” Nugent said.
“Now, we've got to grow into it.
“Now, we're going to expand.”
Late Tuesday morning, Nugent wasn't able yet to assess the store's sales numbers, now tallied with a newly purchased, bar-coded “point-of-sale” system.
“We can monitor any product that we sell,” Nugent said.
“We know how many we sell. It makes it much more sophisticated.”
More space to fill
Everything has been moved from the old store, and about 30 percent more shelf space must be filled before the new Country Aire is fully whole, Nugent said.
Herb department manager Melinda Castleberry said there's still room for more products behind her counter near the automatic sliding front doors.
“This is all very new to all of us,” she said, adding, “It's beautiful.”
Alan Comulada, 64, of Port Angeles, who was perusing the cheese bin, has shopped about three times a week at Country Aire since 1990 — “easily,” he said.
He figured he has visited the store more than 3,000 times, he said.
“I ride a bike, so I can't carry much,” Comulada explained.
“This gives them more room, more space,” he said.
“For what they're doing, compared to the old store, this works better.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.