On the biggest shopping day of the year, the holiday masses aren’t exactly flooding into Ye Olde Bottle Shoppe.
Nobody besides me, in fact, has wandered into the dusty, unheated, glass-filled clutter at 21 W. Main for the first two hours after the doors opened.
The paucity of paying customers is nothing new to Spokane’s 89-year-old baron of bottledom - Harwood J. Tibbits.
“Spokane is a rotten town to sell bottles,” he mutters matter of factly.
This from someone who has invested the last 21 years of his life brokering bottles of every size and sort out of ramshackle downtown storefronts.
Tibbits, a bespectacled man, perches like a myopic owl on a stool positioned near an electric space heater. His small frame is bundled under an oversized dark blue sweat shirt and shiny aquamarine pants.
A grubby Ye Olde Bottle Shoppe baseball cap hides a thick shock of snow-white hair.
Behind Tibbits is a wall of some of his best sellers: dozens of commemorative Jim Beam whiskey decanters that range in shape from the state of Idaho and a poodle to a log cabin and a Thanksgiving turkey.
Most of his trade, Tibbits explains, is conducted through the mail with collectors who rely on his bottled wisdom. The name Harwood J. Tibbits, he says, is a vital resource in the world of vials, flasks, jugs and even beer cans.
Tibbits claims to own more than 67,000 bottles, ranging from racks of Coca-Cola to a bottle of something called Peptomist Lime Rickey. There is a 1947 Cougar Club soda pop sold at WSU and rows of 1917 Rainier beer bottles.
“I used to have thousands of those,” says Tibbits. “Now that’s all I have left.”
Some of his treasures date back to the heady days of Spokane brewing.
Take, for example, two Jimmie Durkin whiskey bottles at $40 each. Durkin began selling spirits here in 1897. The bottles are imprinted with a slogan the pioneer saloonkeeper dreamed up to appease his temperance-minded critics:
“Don’t buy booze if your children need shoes.”
Call me a sucker, but I couldn’t resist giving Tibbits 16 bucks for a dark brown Golden Age beer jug. Golden Age was considered one of the city’s tastier beers until the company sold in 1948.
Surrounded by so many vessels that once contained alcohol, Tibbits makes it clear that he doesn’t drink a drop.
Nor, for that matter, does he collect bottles. Tibbits says he looks at bottles the way a mining magnate would view a rich vein of silver.
More than 20 years ago, the man was struck with the notion there was money to be made in old bottles.
“Like everything else I do, I made quite a survey of it,” he says. “I looked into what the competition was. When I found out there was no competition I thought, ‘this is it.”’
With Jennette, his wife of 64 years, Tibbits plundered some old Montana mine shafts, recovering bottles that prospectors tossed away decades before. He sold them quickly, fueling the conviction he had stumbled upon a lucrative enterprise.
On one trip to New England, Tibbits says he discovered some valuable English-made whiskey bottles dating back to 1644.
He’s been a salesman for most of his long life. During the Great Depression, Tibbits peddled furniture. When World War II broke, he sold insurance and stuck with that for years.
He fell ill in 1970 and retired. After sitting around for a couple of years, he opened what must be one of Spokane’s most unusual businesses.
It hasn’t made him rich, but “this has kept him alive,” says Tibbits’ son, Harwood Jr. “He still drives and manages to get down to work five days a week.”
Tibbits agrees. “I’m in better health now than I was 20 years ago,” says the bottle baron.
“But if somebody had told me when I was a kid that I’d be selling all these bottles, well, I’d have said, ‘No way!”’
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo