Sparks confirms the end is near

After 132 years in Vancouver, furniture store to close, sell site to developer

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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It's now official: Sparks Home Furnishings, downtown Vancouver's oldest business, is closing after 132 years.

The store has weathered lots of history. It started as a small tin-smithing shop, became a hardware store, was a department store and then an appliance retailer before its final bloom as a furniture store.

The business just couldn't withstand the economic changes now underway, said Tom Craig, who confirmed this week he's preparing for a going-out-of-business sale. Craig is selling the building at 1001 Broadway to a downtown developer for $1.7 million in a deal expected to close in June. The buyer, Ryan Hurley, plans to transform the 40,000-square-foot building into a multitenant office and retail space that includes a coffee shop for Torque Coffee Roasters and a new headquarters for Olson Engineering.

Craig, 60, plans to retire and walk away from business challenges such as fierce competition from big-box stores, his less-than-vibrant downtown location and a lack of desire from the family's next generation to take over.

On top of those forces, the state's retail sales tax finally did him in, Craig said.

The mere thought of the 8.4 percent sales tax seemed to drive customers to Oregon, Craig said, even though Sparks has offered for years to pay it. He suspects shoppers trying to avoid sales taxes played a similar role in Nordstrom's recently announced decision to close its Vancouver store.

"Every year the state or county or city wants more (sales tax), which is fine, but there's an invisible line" between stores that will prosper and stores that won't, Craig said. "It's not going to be furniture stores, appliance stores or jewelry stores. Anything high-end is not going to survive."

Craig said the sales tax rate was 5.2 percent when he joined the business in 1977.

So Craig said he plans to close Sparks on June 15. He owns the business along with other descendants of Marshall Rowe Sparks, who started it in 1882, seven years before Washington became a state.

Sale inevitable

A local retail expert suspects the sale of the Sparks building was inevitable because the structure's worth exceeded the value of the business. The store sits one block west of the Evergreen Boulevard freeway overpass that carries cars, bicycles and pedestrians over Interstate 5 into the downtown core. It is situated across the street from Vancouver's new $38 million public library and the historic Academy building, now the subject of a $10.6 million purchase and restoration campaign.

"Perhaps there was higher value in selling the property than in keeping the business operating," said Pam Lindloff, an associate vice president and broker with NAI Norris Beggs & Simpson in Vancouver.

She acknowledged the sales tax can be tough on Clark County retailers, and that it could get worse if state lawmakers end the sales-tax exemption for out-of-state residents.

Business could become especially difficult for stores selling big-ticket items, Lindloff said.

"But I think it depends on the item and the business itself," she said. She pointed out that the county is home to several stores selling jewelry and mattresses.

"Mattresses aren't a small-ticket item," she added.

Still, the sales tax issue was cited as one reason Best Buy shuttered its Clark County stores in 2008 and in 2012, as the chain closed dozens of underperforming stores across the United States.

But Best Buy retained its stores at the first exit off both interstate bridges — Jantzen Beach Supercenter along Interstate 5 and Cascade Station off I-205.

"It's no mistake that those stores are located close to the state border," Lindloff said.

The Oregon side also is rich with a wide variety of big-box chain furniture stores, from Ikea to Crate & Barrel to Gevurtz.

Craig hopes the markdowns at Sparks Home Furnishings' liquidation sale will not only draw local shoppers, but attract Oregon residents as well, to new inventory that's just beginning to arrive from a September order.

"Back then, we didn't know what was going to happen," he said.

Craig said his 10-employee staff is optimistic about the closure. Some plan to retire. Others are moving on to new careers.

"I'm really excited to see what he'll do with the building," Craig said of Hurley's plans. If his ancestors could weigh in, Craig doesn't think they would mind that he's closing the store.

"They'd be happy that we kept it going for so long," he said. "Things had to change."