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Front & Center: Pamela Barclay finds magic in owning, operating Wonders of the World

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 19, 2021

Pamela Barclay left an executive job with a subsidiary of Heinz Corp. and founded Wonders of the World in 1992. The world import shop, which sells art, sculptures, fossils, beads and more, is still going strong nearly 30 years later.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Pamela Barclay left an executive job with a subsidiary of Heinz Corp. and founded Wonders of the World in 1992. The world import shop, which sells art, sculptures, fossils, beads and more, is still going strong nearly 30 years later. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Pamela Barclay has been operating a museum where everything is for sale for nearly 30 years.

In 1992, Barclay founded Wonders of the World, a world import shop in the historic Flour Mill at 621 W. Mallon Ave., Suite 412. The shop contains a massive, eclectic collection of jewelry, artifacts, sculptures, fossils and minerals.

Some of those one-of-a-kind items include Annie, a 50,000-year-old cave bear skeleton, and Sherman, a life-size replica of a T-Rex skull.

Barclay expanded Wonders of the World in 2003 to include a bead shop across the hall from the main store. The shop has an extensive variety of beads, incense and aromatherapy products.

“(Wonders of the World) has been the joy of my life. Not counting my family – my family are the first and foremost of my life,” Barclay said. “But if you put it in terms of things you do that make you happy – I absolutely adore everything there is about Wonders of the World.”

Out of the corporate world

Barclay was born and raised in Phoenix. She married and moved to Spokane in 1973. Barclay, who has two children, was a homemaker until about 1986. After Barclay and her husband separated, she obtained employment with Weight Watchers, a Heinz Corp. subsidiary at the time, where she rose through the ranks of the company to become general manager for an 11-state region.

The late Sandi Ashton, Barclay’s mother, was an accomplished Phoenix-based artist who sold thousands of paintings at the height of her career. In the 1970s, Ashton opened Carl’s Gems and Minerals, which sold jewelry, fossils and minerals. Barclay would often vacation in Phoenix and work alongside her mother at the shop.

“I discovered that I loved it,” Barclay said. “I absolutely loved her work.

“Meanwhile, I gradually discovered that the corporation I was working for was downsizing in 1988. My job was eliminated, and I was sidelined,” she added.

Barclay inquired about a severance package from the company.

“It was my good fortune that they went to the vice president of human resources, who said, ‘six months severance pay and all her stock options,’ which were worth enough money to start this business without debt,” she said, referring to Wonders of the World.

Prior to Barclay’s departure from Weight Watchers, the company paid for her to complete a bachelor’s degree in communications at Whitworth College, now Whitworth University.

The company also provided Barclay with the opportunity to learn the financial skills needed to open a business.

“I had to be taught how to read a profit-loss statement in order to become what I became with the corporation. However, I was taught by an accountant,” she said. “I learned a lot during the corporate years, and all that corporate training was in my head and available to me when I started Wonders of the World.”

She founded Wonders of the World with business partner David DeGraff in 1992. Barclay later bought out DeGraff, and he left the business in 1996.

Wonders of the World underwent an expansion that year. Barclay had also briefly operated Creature Comforts in a space across the hallway from Wonders of the World.

“It was all about things that represent animals, but it was not successful,” she said. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever done that kind of flunked and one day, one of my managers said, ‘Let’s just move all the beads over there,’ and we moved the bead shop over and it has been dynamite.”

When Barclay relocated the bead shop, Wonders of the World became two separate spaces again, spanning a combined 2,600 square feet.

“There’s only two places now that I know of in Spokane that sell beads,” Barclay said. “We are now the go-to site for beads and also for incense, and all of the things related to that particular market.”

Finding a hidden gem

In the shop’s early days, Barclay traveled to Bali in Indonesia, where she procured “container loads” of Balinese art.

“At that time, it was extremely popular,” she said. “So, I was successful in those kinds of purchases.”

Now, Barclay finds a vast majority of the shop’s items via catalogs or wholesale gem and mineral shows, which are typically held twice a year.

“There’s a great big, huge Tucson gem and mineral show where I buy jewelry, minerals, fossils, crystals and a number of other kinds of artifacts,” she said.

Barclay and Andrea Broemmeling, general manager of the shop, also attend trade shows, although that has slowed during the pandemic.

“We don’t plan to go to those but every two years,” Barclay said. “They’re extremely demanding, and you have to wander through an awful lot of stuff that you’re not interested in at all in order to find anything you are (interested in). Whereas the gem and mineral shows are like heaven. They are so fantastic. I have gone to the Tucson gem and mineral show for 13 years.”

Rare, unique and wonderful

Wonders of the World quickly gained popularity among Spokane-area residents and visitors for its unique and interesting items.

“They were impressed with the fact that we had things nobody had ever seen before – the rare, unique and wonderful,” Barclay said. “In 1997, I got Annie, the cave bear, and put her in the window. Nobody in Spokane had ever heard of a cave bear or seen a prehistoric creature.”

Barclay also featured Native American artifacts from her mother’s shop in Phoenix.

“I sold anything that I liked myself or thought would be interesting, and people in this town gravitated to it,” Barclay said. “I’ve often said that I’m the best kept secret in the city, because about a third of the people who come in have never been in before.”

Barclay’s personal favorite gemstone is rutilated quartz.

“It’s gorgeous. It has a gold shimmer to it, and I love it because it symbolizes multitasking,” she said. “All the stones have symbolism, and that particular stone represents how I need to be in order to be successful.”

Wonders of the World has 12 employees, some of whom have been working at the shop for several years, Barclay said.

“My greatest gift is the people that I have,” Barclay said, referring to her employees. “I treat them with love. I run the shop with love. Love is the center of everything in my business.”

Popularity during the pandemic

Wonders of the World, like many other retailers, had to temporarily close because of the pandemic last year. However, sales skyrocketed after the state lifted stay-home restrictions, allowing the shop to reopen, Barclay said.

“If you look at Wonders of the World, it’s entertainment,” she said. “You can go and see a fossil that’s 400 million years old. You can go and take your kids and there’s toys for them. The best thing I ever did was get the toy section. Or if you love fantasy, we’ve got fairies, elves and gnomes.”

Jewelry and beads were among the more popular items during the pandemic, with customers looking to treat themselves or work on beading projects while spending more time at home, Barclay said.

“We’re so grateful to get to come back, and we’ve had an unbelievable response. I’m aware that might slow down once we finally master COVID and that we might see this peak and then a valley,” she said. “I don’t worry about it because the place is successful and profitable at whatever level it’s functioning.”

A creative calling

Barclay, 77, typically works four days a week at Wonders of the World.

When Barclay is not at the shop, she enjoys gardening.

“All spring, summer and fall, I’ll spend whatever time I can tending my garden, and it’s all flowers,” she said. “So, that’s the other thing I do that makes my heart sing. I have done things like write poetry. My mother lived with me for 10 years, and we wrote poetry together before she died.”

Barclay also likes to spend time with her grandchildren.

“They all live within a few miles, and I love that,” she said.

Barclay said she found her calling at Wonders of the World and that’s what keeps her business going.

“It’s passion for what I do. Passion for having satisfied customers and interacting with my employees. Passion for the product. I love buying it. I love ordering it,” she said. “I don’t know where that came from, except it’s a part of me and I fell into it and knew almost instantly – even in the very beginning of that tiny little 699-square-foot shop – that I had come home and the bigger it got, the better I liked it.”

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