By Laurelle Walsh
After 22 years as a fixture on the Winthrop boardwalk, the White Buck Trading Company and Museum will shut its doors at the end of the month.
“I’ve enjoyed a lot of good years here, but it’s time to move on,” said owner Kjell Lester. “It was a lot of fun work and hard work.”
All items with price tags are now 30 percent off, with further discounts to come during the store’s final week. The White Buck will be open to Trick-or-Treaters on Oct. 31, its final day, and coffee and cake will be served from 1-3 p.m. that day.
The White Buck is known for novelty items and Western-themed gifts. Winthrop T-shirts can be found there, along with cowboy hats, PEZ dispensers, postcards, games, puzzles, and dozens of wooden signs with humorous sayings.
But continue through the building, and the store becomes an antiques store and museum, with some items for sale, but many items not.
Lester himself designed the display cases that line the walls in the rear half of the building. They are filled with antiques from the technological revolution of the late 1860s to the mid-20th century. There’s military gear, early cameras, kerosene lamps, toys, office machines, and bottles, jars and containers of all types.
Alcove rooms re-create the interiors of a pioneer kitchen and a turn-of-the-century general store. On the walls hang taxidermied wild game, framed posters from old films and rodeos, and a collection of antique clocks.
“I’m not sure what the plans are for the museum,” Lester said. “It’s up to the family to decide what we want to do with it.”
One thing Lester knows for sure: “I don’t want to see the antiques go back into boxes” — advice he got from the American Pickers television crew when they shot part of an episode at the White Buck in 2012.
“Mike Wolfe [the show’s star] said what he wanted most was to get antiques out of the barn and into people’s homes,” Lester recalls. “I had a good time talking to them. They are very sharp collectors.”
Lester’s parents, John and Carol Lester, and grandparents, Herb and June Gatewood, started collecting antiques at H&J Hardware, the family’s general store that was located where the Tenderfoot is today.
“Farmers would come in to trade in their old wood-burning stoves for new electric ones,” Lester said. The family also bought out the inventory of a second-hand store in Wenatchee and found treasures in the backyards of stores and farms around the region that “people forgot they had,” he said.
His parents sold the hardware store in 1978 and kept most of the antiques in storage until around 2005, after Lester doubled the size of the White Buck to create a museum.
Not enough customers
Today, smaller collectibles are displayed on the White Buck’s saleroom floor, while larger items like cars, appliances and tools fill the building’s basement.
But the White Buck didn’t draw customers the way Lester had envisioned. “We had hoped to entice people to come in and see the antiques, but the museum part didn’t take off the way we’d hoped,” Lester said. “We just could not draw people in.”
Lester said he’s seen several generations of the same families — most from the west side of the Cascades — come into the White Buck, bringing their guests, children and grandchildren with them.
“There’s gonna be a lot of unhappy people here next season when they find out the White Buck is closed,” said sales associate Teresa Nielsen, who has been with the business for the last eight years. “There are guys who line up at the gate [on the west side of the North Cascades Highway] every spring and compete for who was first and second and 11th and 12th to come over the pass. Then they drive straight to Winthrop and come into the store to look at old rifles,” Nielsen reminisced.
But Lester says he hasn’t seen the next generation come back to the store.
“Now most of them have grown up and went different ways,” Lester said. “The younger generation is not as interested or appreciative of what the older generation did before them.”
The Lesters have no plans to sell the building, but expect to rent out the space, Lester said. “It’s time to let new people come in and revive the town again.”
Lester was born and raised in Winthrop and graduated from Liberty Bell High School in 1985. He plans to focus his energies on his domestic well pump business, Lester’s Well Pump Service, which he started five years ago.
“I’m pretty sure I’m the last business owner left in downtown Winthrop to have seen the opening of Highway 20,” Lester said. “I’ve spent most of my life in downtown Winthrop.”
Lester’s aunt Emma Lester came up with the store’s name, from a white mule deer buck that Lester’s grandfather, Bill Lester, shot near his Campbell Lake homestead in 1953.
Ken White mounted the white buck’s head, and over the years it was displayed on the walls of Sam’s Place, the Pool Hall and H&J Hardware, before coming to its current place above the White Buck Trading Company’s cash register.
“That deer has been in town longer than me,” Lester said.