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Wednesday, January 8, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large / Times staff columnist

Farewell, Chubby and Tubby, and thanks for all the memories

There've been some busy days at the Chubby and Tubby on Rainier Avenue South since the sale began. The owners down in California put the three stores (another is on Aurora Avenue North and the third is in Renton) up for sale and are trying to move merchandise while they wait for a buyer.

Customers have been crowding into already-tight spaces looking for a bargain, but not just that. I suspect a lot of folk drop by to say good-bye to a neighbor.

The store has been a fixture in the community for 47 years. It stayed in the valley through the difficult years when there was little in the way of retail business and it remains dear to longtime residents now as gentrification changes the face of the South End.

But, apparently not dear enough to meet competition from larger retailers to the satisfaction of its owners.

All three stores originally served blue-collar areas that desperately needed them, but times change. After Chubby and Tubby (Irving Frese and Woodrow Auge) passed on, the new owners moved the White Center store to Renton and a more upscale neighborhood. It's scheduled to close in a few days.

The neighborhoods around the Aurora and Rainier stores have changed in recent years as most of Seattle moved up the economic scale a bit.

The flagship Rainier store has to compete for hardware and gardening sales with a nearby Lowe's, but not so much for customers who want clothes and shoes because there is still no large-scale dry-goods store in the valley.

The Rainier store is still needed, so it would be good if someone bought it and kept it open. Even so, it probably wouldn't have the same hold on people that the old place has had.

Chubby and Tubby was business as an art, not business as a science.

Nothing about the store suggests its creators studied psychological profiles or demographic databases in order to decide what items to carry and where to place them or what color scheme or mood music would induce people to spend the most.

Business science is efficient and practical, but it doesn't make people feel at home.

The stores were started by two friends who started by selling military surplus after coming home from World War II. The store was their vision.

In its crowded aisles, a person could find fishing gear, skillets, glasses, tools, plumbing fixtures, work clothes and street clothes (though maybe not what office workers would be looking for), shoes and tablecloths.

A separate building across the street sold plants and gardening supplies.

Did I mention camping gear, sporting goods and furniture? Small appliances? Heck, you never knew what you'd find wedged in there.

It was a fun place to visit whether you needed anything or not. The business was a chain, since it expanded to three stores, but I never thought of it that way. It always felt like it was just ours, and I suspect people in the other neighborhoods felt that way about theirs. They weren't everywhere. You know where you are when you see Chubby and Tubby.

Maybe people who lived near the late City People's Mercantile felt the same way about it.

In my neighborhood, banks, gas stations, drug stores and groceries have changed names more times than I remember, but Chubby and Tubby remained constant almost to the end, though it changed some after the originators were gone.

OK, I know America is all about movement and growth and change, so maybe Chubby and Tubby was a failure by that gauge.

Fred Meyer, REI, Costco, Starbucks, even Microsoft are just as much, or were just as much products of Northwest dreams. They grew and prospered. They're still special, but more like a movie than, say, a good book; not as personal.

For a long time Chubby and Tubby was personal.

A young man standing in line the other evening yelled to a friend he spotted across the store, "Hey, man, we grew up in here didn't we?"

Life is full of coming and going. Chubby and Tubby are both dead now. The business was their dream, not the dream of the people who came after. They are entitled to their own vision.

It was nice to have known the place.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

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