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May 9, 2021

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Ridgefield Pack and Ship owner turns a buck into so much moose

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
3 Photos
Abbey Huettl bought Ridgefield Pack and Ship for $1 when the previous owner retired. The pandemic has brought her a new wave of business.
Abbey Huettl bought Ridgefield Pack and Ship for $1 when the previous owner retired. The pandemic has brought her a new wave of business. (Joshua Hart/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Abbey Huettl remembers how her hands were zip-tied together as she lay on the floor of a Woodland motel where she worked in 2013. A masked robber had entered the motel with a bomb, and threatened Huettl with a gun.

“It was very traumatic,” she said, still visibly affected with her voice breaking.

Two days later after the robbery, at the beginning of her mental recovery from the trauma, Huettl walked across the street of her Ridgefield home in her pajamas to Ridgefield Pack and Ship. She needed to mail a letter to the Department of Labor and Industries.

She found two young employees who “were just panicking because they didn’t know what to do,” she said. “The woman had just retired who worked there. The store had been open for a year.”

Huettl walked to a side office, where she found the owner, Tim Armstrong, and inquired about a job.

Two days later, Huettl began working at the shipping-and-mailing service. But it would become more than a job for her: For a recovering trauma survivor, it would lead to a way to feel safe and meet many friends. It would also lead her to buy the business for $1. But most unexpectedly, it would lead to assembling perhaps the county’s largest collection of moose memorabilia.

Starting fresh

Being in the woods runs in her family: Born in Portland to a father who worked for the U.S. Forest Service, as a child Huettl moved around Oregon and Washington with her parents. Her grandfather owned a logging company on an island in Alaska that she’d visit.

After landing a job with Ridgefield Pack and Ship, it turned out to be the perfect way for her to cope with the robbery. Not many people would stop by, and she could see everyone from a distance before they entered the store.

“When I started here, it was great,” she said. “It was really slow; 20 hours a week. It was perfect for what I needed.”

On her second day on the job, Armstrong came into the store with an idea.

“Tim comes in and says, ‘I think it’s kind of boring in here.’ ”

He suggested that she transform it into a moose lodge.

“I was thinking like the Great Wolf Lodge,” she said, “A woodsy atmosphere. I thought it was a good idea. It was something different.”

When Huettl told her counselor, who helped her cope with the trauma, she was excited for Huettl.

“She said, ‘Make it your own,’ ” Huetl said. “So that’s what I did.”

One day she found herself at Goodwill looking at a stocky, fluffy stuffed moose, antlers and all. Not long afterward, it was sitting in a rocking chair at Ridgefield Pack and Ship.

The collection

On a workday between Christmas and New Year, Huettl, 48, was ready to greet every customer with a smile at Ridgefield Pack and Ship, at 7509 S. Fifth St., No. 101.

But the first thing one sees upon entering the store in the gray, boxy business park is a massive collection — about 300 pieces — of moose memorabilia lining the room: Stuffed moose toys, pictures and paintings of moose, moose sculptures, moose quilts, moose pens.

One customer walked in, looked around, and said, “I didn’t think someone would like so much moose.”

“Doesn’t everybody?” quipped Huettl  before launching into a story about moose steak and how it compares with buffalo, which the customer appeared to find quite interesting.

Almost all of the moose memorabilia in her store was given to her, she said. It started when one of her regular customers, in 2013, came in and saw that first moose from Goodwill.

“She said, ‘Oh a moose! I have a moose for you.’ And she brought that in,” Huettl said, pointing to a charming handcrafted stuffed moose made of waxed cotton and wearing a white dress.

“That was awesome,” she said. “I was thinking this might be easier than I thought.”

It’s not hard to see why Huettl’s friendly personality would cause her customers to dredge up old moose toys from their basements and under their beds to add them to the collection; her enthusiasm is contagious.

“It started flooding in,” she said with a laugh.

As Huettl walked around the shop, she pointed to a small, bug-eyed moose with little yellow antlers.

“This one I got at McDonald’s in the drive-thru,” she said. “I went through the drive-thru just for the toy.”

She pointed to a set of wood-framed moose photos on the wall.

“My rep for the Old Dominion Freight Line dusted these off from under her bed for 20 years,” she said. “The pictures were from her cabin in Montana.”

“This moose,” she pointed to a fake taxidermy moose head mounted on the wall, “had been in a woman’s garage for 30 years.”

“This one was painted by a local girl,” she said, pointing to a small rock painted with a moose head.

She even has one of the most coveted pieces of moose memorabilia known to America: a set of glass moose-head eggnog cups from the film “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” They’re still new, in the box.

“I get something almost every week,” she said, looking around the store. “I have three more boxes of this. I tried to name all of them once; that got way out of hand.”

Huettl loves moose, obviously. She remembers seeing one at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Washington, and another while flying in a bush plane over her grandfather’s logging island in Alaska.

“They’re awesome,” she said. “They’re shockingly big.”

Taking ownership

Last March, just before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country into discomfort and uncertainty, Armstrong, Huettl’s boss, asked her to come into his office.

He told her he was near retirement and wanted to begin pulling away from some of his numerous businesses. He said there were three options for Ridgefield Pack and Ship: close it, sell it to Huettl for $1, or she could find a partner to take it over.

“It made me really nervous,” Huettl recalled. “Could I actually keep it going? I didn’t want to close it. I’ve been the only employee this whole time. I built it up so much. I couldn’t let my customers down,” she said, raising her palms to face the ceiling.

As she mulled the decision, the pandemic brought more and more business to the store, as home-bound people embraced e-commerce.

Still, the store hadn’t been very profitable, and Huettl, a “worrier bee,” didn’t think she was a business person.

She remembers talking to her mom and dad, who told her, “just read in your Bible.”

Not long after, Huettl found a passage that stuck out, Galatians 6:9, which she now has saved as a screen shot on her phone: “So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time, we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.”

“It was crazy,” she said. “I texted it to my Dad.”

Still, she decided not to buy the store. It was a hard decision to approach Armstong because she was scared, she said.

Her parents, who drove from Canby, Ore., stopped by the store that day “out of the blue,” Huettl said.

” ‘What did you decide?’ they asked. I told them I’m not going to take it because it’s going to be too much stress. They said, ‘You’re going to tell God no? We’ll see how that works for you.’ OK fine! So I went over (to Armstrong) and said I changed my mind. I’m so glad I did because I’d be out there trying to find a job.”

Gaining momentum

Since the pandemic began, the business has gained about three times normal revenue, Huettl said.

“It was busier than ever,” she said. “I was the only thing open. Nobody can do anything but ship stuff. They’re shopping online. They’re doing returns. It’s the only place they could go.”

She also found what she believed to be billing irregularities with one of the shipping companies, which was costing her money.

Huettl also hired a business consultant and earned a $3,000 COVID-related grant from the city of Ridgefield. The business was looking up, and the new flood of packages was paying off with a higher profit margin.

“It was like Christmas in April, and then this year for Christmas, it was like three times what’s normal for business. There was a line all the way down to the mailbox (about 50 feet away) from the time I got here to closing time. Everybody was 6- feet apart, but still.”

For Huettl, she’s learning that being a business person isn’t all about spreadsheets and income statements. It’s about people.

“People call from all over to come back here,” she said. “They move to Vancouver, but they come back here. Every single customer is my friend.

“They may not know it yet. I’ve met so many people through here.”

Huettl is considering hiring someone to help with the extra work, but she wants “to make sure that the personality stays.”

“I’m not in it to make a lot of money,” she said. “I’ll never be rich from this place. I just want customers to know there’s someone on their side.”

Sometimes, if customers ask, Huettl will sell some of the moose merchandise, although none of it is labeled for sale.

“People go, ‘Are all these for sale?’ I say they’re my friends,” but she can’t resist pleasing her customers. (However, a few moose she absolutely won’t sell.)

“I would love for it to keep going like it is,” she said. “It makes people feel good when they come in. It’s not so institutional. It makes it homey.”