Jeff Lyman rings up  beer, organic milk and fresh, locally grown veggies for a Monday afternoon customer. Photo by Sue Misao

Jeff Lyman rings up beer, organic milk and fresh, locally grown veggies for a Monday afternoon customer. Photo by Sue Misao

By Hope Belli Tinney,
Washington Small Business Development Center

The Carlton General Store looks like a throwback to an earlier time: a weathered, wood-plank building featuring hand-painted signs for bait, ice and gas.

But how to explain the wintertime yoga classes held alongside the ice cream display case, the kombucha in the coolers with Pabst Blue Ribbon or the quinoa on shelves a short distance from the Spam? (Kombucha is an effervescent, fermented sweet tea; quinoa is a grain-like seed crop.)

It’s all part of owner Jeff Lyman’s plan to create a 21st century general store for the diverse residents of his rural community who share a love of the outdoors and the Methow Valley.

In mid-July the store’s Facebook page had 347 “likes,” which is about the population of Carlton, Lyman said, or maybe more. Recent posts included shout-outs to local, organic eggs, fresh-picked morel mushrooms and hot dogs for $1.50.

“This is a local’s place,” Lyman said. “There are very few out-of-towners here.”

Until buying the store in December 2011, Lyman was an out-of-towner himself, albeit one with long ties to the area.
An avid outdoorsman with a history of working hard to support his fishing habit, Lyman had first visited the Methow Valley with his family when he was a teen and had returned many times since.

In April 2011 he returned again, this time with the goal of finding a way to support himself as a full-time resident.

 

Business ownership daunting

While he was pursuing several possibilities that didn’t work out, the Carlton General Store sat vacant, just a stone’s throw from the Methow River. The store had closed more than a year earlier, Lyman said, which meant those living nearby had to drive 10 miles or more for a box of Band-Aids or a gallon of milk.

The prospect of breathing new life into it was daunting, Lyman said, and several friends cautioned him against trying. But then he took a second glance and a third good long look.

He made an offer to buy, but no deal was in sight when he packed up his belongings to move back to Wenatchee. Then, suddenly, a deal was on the horizon and Lyman thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”

That’s when a friend of Lyman’s told him, “You’ve got to talk with Lew.” Lewis Blakeney is a certified business adviser with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

With 26 advisers working in communities from the Columbia River to the Canadian border, the SBDC provides one-to-one, confidential advising to small business owners working to grow or start a business. SBDC advising is provided at no cost to the client and is supported through a cooperative effort of Washington State University, the U.S. Small Business Administration and other economic development or educational institutions.

Before joining the SBDC in 2000, Blakeney had owned his own manufacturing business for 13 years. He also worked in corporate leadership positions for many years. An avid fisherman, Lyman knows the value of a good river guide, and that’s what Blakeney was like as Lyman worked to navigate the potential problems and whirlpools of starting up a business.

“Lew really helped me out in the very beginning,” Lyman said.

Blakeney reviewed Lyman’s business plan and talked with him about how to pull together a successful loan application, including creating reliable cash flow projections and a start-up budget. Getting the loan was key to the whole enterprise, Lyman said, and Blakeney’s help was critical.

 

Fishing, food and Facebook

Though Lyman had owned several small, sole proprietor businesses, taking on the Carlton General Store was new territory. Lyman said his father, a financial planner, was a huge help, providing both advice and financial support.
The business is off to a good start, but it hasn’t been easy and Lyman doesn’t expect it will be for quite some time. During the summer he has two full-time employees; even so, he typically puts in 15-hour days.

But that doesn’t mean running the Carlton General Store is all work and no play. The store’s Facebook page has nearly as many posts about fishing as it does about food. It’s easy to hear the call of the river when you’re working within casting distance.

“I could see working here for the next 25 years,” Lyman said, smiling.
Find the Carlton General Store on Facebook.