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Jack’s Country Store Honored By WFIA For Community Service

Jack's Country Store

Jack’s Country Store’s roots in Ocean Park, Washington, date back to 1885, when the area was still known as the Washington Territory. Founded by John Morehead, Jack’s is believed to be the oldest continuing retail business in the state.

Over the years, leadership and location changed (the store burned down in 1937 and was relocated, for instance). But it wasn’t until 1969, when Jack and Lucille Downer purchased the store, that ownership passed from the original family.

Jack's Country Store in 1970

Jack and Lucille’s son, Tom, now owns the store, and a third generation – daughter Christy and her husband, Anthony Caruthers – are working in the business; she as the store’s general manager, he as the treasurer/bookkeeper. They live 10 hours from the store but can work remotely thanks to technology.

The store is located on the western edge of Washington, on the North Beach Peninsula. Tom Downer said a woman from Kansas who visited the store recently told him that she lived in the middle of nowhere, but that he was at the edge of nowhere. That may be so, but Jack’s is central to the community of Ocean Park.

Its community support, in fact, led the Washington Food Industry Association to name Jack’s the recipient of its 2023-24 Community Service Award. Jack’s backs a range of local groups, beach cleanup efforts and the area food bank.

The family not only aids these efforts with dollars and volunteers, but through leadership as well. Jack Downer served on the local school board and as president of the chamber of commerce, a role that his son also has held. Tom Downer also has volunteered with the local fire department for about 45 years.

WFIA President and CEO Tammie Hetrick said, “Oftentimes, a community doesn’t fully comprehend how ingrained a store like Jack’s is until they face a significant challenge, like a fire or natural disaster. Tom and his staff never hesitate to help out, to lend a hand or to provide resources in the middle of a crisis.

“At a time when seemingly nothing lasts forever, it’s good to know that Jack’s Country Store continues to serve the people of Ocean Park and all who visit.”

[RELATED: WFIA Names Top Retailer Of The Year, Other Honorees]


Starting from scratch

When his parents bought the store – the same week in July 1969 that the Apollo mission put a man on the moon – neither had any retail experience, Tom Downer said. But his dad had a background in math and physics and a master’s degree from Yale.

The store they purchased had been built in 1938; the previous location had burned down in a fire the year before. About half of the 2,800-square-foot building was sales floor; the rest was backroom.

“We didn’t have much in the way of refrigeration; we did not have indoor plumbing,” said Downer, noting that “adding a toilet was my mother’s prayer.” (It eventually was answered.)

Downer was 16 when his parents bought the store. He worked evenings and weekends while in high school. He went to college in Seattle, three-plus hours away, but still worked a lot of weekends and summers before making the store his career.

Jack Downer’s philosophy was that even in a small town like Ocean Park, “You can make a living selling what other people don’t have.” (Ocean Park has about 6,000 permanent residents, but the numbers may swell to as many as 60,000 in peak tourist season.)

Thanks to that mindset, Jack’s offers 250,000 items, split about equally between food and general merchandise, in 16,000 square feet of sales floor. It has an old-world ambience thanks to wood floors, rolling track ladders, large oak product cases, rotary phones and a stained-glass ceiling.

“We hit a lot of the points when it comes to being in a destination business,” Downer said. “When people are in the area, oftentimes they’ll tell us, ‘We had to make a trip to Jack’s.’”

Other customer draws include the in-store smokehouse, which turns out jerky, sausages and smoked salmon and oysters, sourced locally from the nearby Willapa Bay. Other fresh food departments include a butcher shop, produce and a deli/bakery that offers take-and-bake pizzas (popular in an area without many restaurants), rotisserie chicken and sandwiches.

On the general merchandise side, the store sells items like bear traps, wood cookstoves and sewing awls for repairing ship sails. In the late 1990s, during the uncertain days before Y2K, Jack’s was the top seller of Aladdin kerosene lamps. 

“If you can forecast where the next step is and get ahead of it, you’re going to come out well,” Downer said.

That mindset came in handy when COVID came along in 2020. Downer saw early on that people were buying vegetable seeds.

“So, my move was to buy all the canning supplies I could lay my hands on,” Downer said. He eventually had a 10-year supply in stock to handle the demand.

“We didn’t have an awful lot to start out in this business. We had to anticipate and try to forecast what was on the horizon next, and that’s always been one of our strengths,” Downer said.

The store never ran out of toilet paper during the pandemic, thinking outside the box when supply chain breakdowns occurred. Institutional suppliers like Sysco weren’t delivering to their normal accounts in the early days of the pandemic, so Jack’s was buying huge rolls of toilet paper and consumers were, too – happy to have it in any form. Same applied to “50-pound bags of beans and rice and sugar and flour and everything else,” he said.

When his grocery wholesalers began having to limit orders, Jack’s turned to its hardware suppliers for candy, tobacco, pet food, cleaning supplies and anything else they had available.

“Being as far out as we are, we’ve always had to be self-reliant and be able to improvise with whatever comes our way,” he added.

Social connection

Jack’s interaction with customers, and potential customers, on the Facebook platform continues to grow.

When Downer coordinated with a local potato grower in spring 2020 to buy about eight tons of his excess crop, Jack’s sold them for 10-12 cents per pound for a while but moved to giving them away when their freshness was waning. 

Jack's Country Store

“That has led to several potato giveaways where we’ll get to anywhere from five to 10 tons of potatoes bulk, and just hand them out to anybody who wants them,” he said.

Since then, Jack’s has discovered that people love learning about the history of the community.

“We’ll resurrect some old store artifact or old photo, and most people comment and share,” he said.

Years ago, Jack Downer found a plank in the backroom of the store that he gave to a member of the store’s founding family. Sawed out of a huge tree, the plank once had been used as a workbench. 

A local man came into possession of the plank and set about cleaning and then steaming it to straighten it out. He then framed it and gave it back to Jack’s to hang in the store as an artifact. The store’s Facebook post describing the plank garnered 25,000-30,000 views.

Career path still open

The store has about 40 staff members and is looking to hire five people immediately, Downer said. He said Jack’s wants to keep the pathway open for those who want to make a career in the grocery business. That was certainly the case for Grocery Manager Mark Bolden, who has been with Jack’s since he turned 14.

“I was impressed by his work ethic and told him he had a job as soon as he became eligible,” Downer said. That was 46 years ago.

But the same opportunities are there today “for anybody who takes an interest in it and wants to grow,” Downer said.

About the author

Lorrie Griffith

Lorrie is Senior Content Creator at The Shelby Report.

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