In 1978, the Grammy for best record went to “Hotel California,” where “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
That same year, Bob Mauk accepted a job at Northwest Seed & Pet, but cautioned his new employer he probably wouldn’t stick around long.
Forty years later, Mauk not only hasn’t left, he owns the business.
During a recent interview, Mauk discussed how the competition has changed over the decades, why his store hasn’t and Northwest Seed’s “least valuable person.”
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Mauk: On Spokane’s northwest side. I went to Shadle Park.
S-R: What was your first real job?
Mauk: I started working at East Sprague Drive-In when I was 12. My best friend’s dad was the manager. I earned a buck an hour popping popcorn and baking frozen pizzas from 7 p.m. until around 2 in the morning.
S-R: What were your favorite subjects in high school?
Mauk: Biology and horticulture.
S-R: How about other interests?
Mauk: Outdoor stuff – fishing, hunting, hiking, messing around.
S-R: Did you have a career in mind?
Mauk: I figured I’d end up in some kind of plant business. My dad started me gardening when I was 5. We had half an acre and gardened most of it. I was in FAA (Future Farmers of America) and did a lot of plant ID competitions. I worked at Ritter’s Nursery for three summers, and when customers would ask this old guy questions about plants, he’d say, “Hell, I don’t know. Ask that kid.” I probably knew more about plants back then than I do now.
S-R: Where did you attend college?
Mauk: WSU. I was a plant pathology major and earned a degree in agriculture.
S-R: What did you do after graduating?
Mauk: I came back to Spokane because I needed a job. When Northwest Seed hired me, I told them I wasn’t going to be here very long. Then my girlfriend moved here, we got married, and life changed.
S-R: What do you remember about Northwest Seed circa 1978?
Mauk: I remember it being really busy, especially in the spring.
S-R: Who was your competition back then?
Mauk: Ernst and Pay n’ Pak.
S-R: Both those chains went bankrupt. Who’s your competition now?
Mauk: Lowe’s, Home Depot, Walmart, Costco, plus every Albertson’s, Safeway and Fred Meyer on the garden side. On the other side, we have Petco and PetSmart.
S-R: How does the economy impact your sales?
Mauk: It’s counterintuitive to what you might think. When the economy is too good, our business slows down because people aren’t growing as much food. When things get tighter, they stay home and garden more.
S-R: Does revenue ebb and flow with the seasons?
Mauk: It does. This is our Christmas season. April, May, June are our biggest months.
S-R: How about the pet side of the business?
Mauk: That’s pretty flat. The biggest change we’ve seen over the years is less interest in birds. Maybe their grandma used to keep a parrot or canaries, but now they don’t. And a lot of the exotic pets we used to import aren’t available anymore. Back then, before tighter regulations, we had monkeys, agoutis, kinkajous. I’ve heard stories about how way back we used to have orangutans, elephants, kangaroos.
S-R: Were those for sale or for show?
Mauk: Probably both. If people wanted exotic animals and the store could get ahold of them, they’d bring ’em in. When I was a little kid, we’d watch “Wallaby and Jack” (on KREM-TV), and the wallaby was from here. They’d take him down to the station every Saturday.
S-R: What was your trajectory from nursery clerk to business owner?
Mauk: I managed the North Division store from about 1982 to 1990. Then I became general manager over both stores, and we opened a third store out in the Valley. That lasted for about three years but didn’t pan out. I bought the business in 2003 with financing help from the owners.
S-R: Did you take any business classes at WSU?
Mauk: A couple. I should have taken more.
S-R: You mentioned you didn’t expect to stay long when you were hired. Do your employees tend to stick around?
Mauk: (laugh) Our bookkeeper has been here longer than I have. Our nursery manager has been here since 1980. Same for the manager of our North Division. There are other old-timers, as well.
S-R: What keeps them here?
Mauk: It’s a fun place to work. We help people be successful with their hobbies, whether it’s a fish tank, some other pet, or in the garden. People come here because they like coming here.
S-R: Do you see the same customers year after year?
Mauk: Sure. That’s how we know it’s spring.
S-R: What keeps them coming back?
Mauk: Thankfully, there’s a “buy local” movement. And our employees know the products, the plants and the problems. County Extension sends us people when they can’t figure out something. What we don’t get as much are people who just moved here – who haven’t discovered that we treat our customers a lot different than most places, which keeps them coming back for generations.
S-R: What are the downsides of retail?
Mauk: Taxes. L&I. People making unreasonable requests or trying to take advantage of us in some way. And people who steal. That’s my least favorite part of the job.
S-R: What do they steal?
Mauk: The thing that gets the most notoriety is puppies. The last thief bent the bars of a cage back and took a $500 puppy.
S-R: Has the business struggled at times?
Mauk: When I first purchased it, I struggled for years. Sleepless nights. Work seven days a week. No vacations. Thankfully, my wife, Lee Ann, had a good job. But those tough times taught me to be more conservative.
S-R: What challenges lie ahead?
Mauk: Rising minimum wages – especially the one coming up in 2020. For us, it’s another $80,000 or so annual increase, which means people who have been here longer and are more knowledgeable don’t get bumped up.
S-R: Your East Sprague store looks just as I remember it from 50 years ago. Do you ever feel pressure to modernize?
Mauk: Yes, but I’m afraid to. We tried that out in the Valley, and it didn’t set us apart from anyone else. If we spruce things up here, we become like everybody else, and where does that put us?
S-R: What’s your business philosophy?
Mauk: Treat customers the way you would your best friend.
S-R: Are there misconceptions about your business?
Mauk: I’ve heard people say we are mean to our animals, which amazes me. The employees in the pet department are more dedicated to the care of living things than anyone I’ve ever seen.
S-R: Some of your animals are like mascots. Which ones have been here the longest?
Mauk: Ruby, our parrot, has been here at least 20 years. The same for Nelson, our tortoise. And our snapping turtle was here when I arrived in ’78.
S-R: What qualities do you look for in potential employees?
Mauk: Personality, primarily. Are they happy and eager to serve customers? The people we hire tend to be hobbyists. Most of our employees were customers before they applied for a job.
S-R: When you bought the business, how old were the owners?
Mauk: About 65.
S-R: How old are you?
Mauk: I’m 60. My wife retired last year.
S-R: How long before you hand the store off to someone else?
Mauk: I’m closing in on that magic date. That’s why I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to make myself the least valuable person here.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.