Webster’s Dictionary defines “alternative” as representing or appealing to “unconventional or nontraditional interests.”
A number of businesses in downtown Spokane have decided that definition fits them quite well.
Sixteen shops - two of which have closed - joined together last month and created a three-fold pamphlet advertising themselves as “Spokane’s Downtown Alternative.”
Spokane’s conservative reputation would suggest it’s a place where alternative businesses would not thrive. Store owners, however, don’t buy that stereotype.
“I would’ve never opened this place had I not thought that Spokane was ready for something a little different,” said Jim Franey, owner of Big Mamu Burrito Company at 8 N. Howard.
The other businesses include coffee shops, a pizza parlor, two vintage clothing stores, an art gallery that supports struggling young artists, a music store that carries mostly independent labels, jewelry stores and a skateboard and snowboard shop.
What Spokane defines as alternative may be mainstream in larger metropolitan areas.
“My store is alternative for Spokane, but you go to Portland or Seattle or San Francisco and it’s not the only one in town,” said Andy Dinnison, owner of Boo Radley’s, a gift and card shop that sells things like lava lamps and punching nun dolls.
Some of the conservatively dressed business people who pass Big Mamu on their way to lunch are turned off, Franey said, by the decor. The walls of the small restaurant are decorated with African masks and toy lizards climb the walls. Still, Big Mamu’s product is conventional and appeals to a cross-section of consumers in bargain-hungry Spokane.
The Big Mamu is an oversize burrito big enough to feed two. You can buy it and a soft drink for less than $5.
Some of the alternative stores, like Rings and Things in River Park Square, have been around for years. And some businesses outside downtown - such as 4,000 Holes, a music store on the North Side, or Card Tramp, a card shop in Coeur d’Alene - seem to fit Spokane’s definition of alternative.
Although the downtown businesses have talked about joint promotion for at least two years, the pamphlet is the first effort to market themselves as outside the mainstream.
Store owners like the alternative label because it says they’re trying to offer consumers something different than they’ll find at huge department stores or malls.
“The term has evolved,” said Brian Fountaine, a Rings and Things employee who designed the alternative shopping district’s brochure. “To me it means what’s hip in the ‘90s. It’s a label to stick on to attract a certain market. It’s changing to what the individual wants, and do they care what other people think.”
Rings and Things owner Russ Nobbs is sort of an unofficial patriarch of alternative business owners - or at least specialty shops - in downtown Spokane.
In business for more than 20 years, Rings and Things sells Native American jewelry, gifts and beads from around the world. The store still is considered “cool” by the younger generation, while attracting people of all ages.
That’s exactly the right approach, Dinnison said.
“Russ doesn’t want to portray his store as a freak store. None of us want to get exclusive by just allowing in a certain crowd,” Dinnison said. “I sell as much to the bizarros as to the clean-cut South Hill gentrifieds.”
Two women who look no different than the average mom wandered in Boo Radley’s on Friday chuckling over a refrigerator magnet with an expression that can’t be printed in this newspaper.
Linda Hastings, 51, said she shops there because of the eclectic display.
“It’s a fun store,” Hastings said. “There’s just nothing like a little cultural diversion in Spokane. It sure is a pleasant surprise.”
Funded by Nobbs, Fountaine designed and printed up 1,000 pamphlets and distributed them to all the member stores and to the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. The pamphlet has a map showing the stores, along with addresses, telephone numbers and brief descriptions.
At Brewhaha, an espresso cafe at 12 N. Howard, employee Linda Pommier said joining together and advertising as alternative is a good way for small businesses to attract customers.
“We’re not the Crescent and we’re not The Bon and we’re not Nordstrom’s,” said Pommier, who also works at Boo Radley’s. “Alternative works for us and we’re in good company. For somebody that’s small, it’s important to plug in wherever you can.”
Dee Farmin owns Vinyl Garage, an alternative music store at 208 S. Wall that sells mostly independent labels and local bands. He buys, sells and trades music, but doesn’t try to compete with large record stores such as Hastings Books Music and Video.
Farmin sees the joint marketing effort as “a grass roots thing” which he hopes will brings more attention to smaller businesses.
Farmin, also lead singer/guitarist for the Spokane band The Fumes, opened the store 15 months ago and says money’s tight at times. But becoming a millionaire is not his goal.
“Money is pretty nice, but I’m really not in it for the money,” Farmin said. “Music is my life. I’m in it to give Spokane another option. It’s whatever I can do to boost the knowledge of people in Spokane so they don’t go home and listen to Meat Loaf.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo; Graphic: “Downtown’s alternative shopping”