PENINSULA PROFILE: Wild Birds gives couple their niche in business

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

GARDINER — The “dead of winter.” As a phrase, it doesn't work here anymore.

Inside and outside Marc and Christie Lassen's lair, there's a lot of feeding, caffeinating and mousing.

Wild Birds Unlimited, right next door to the Espresso Garden coffee shop, is lively this time of year. And though Wild Birds is one of some 280 franchised nature stores, the Lassens' story — and the cat in the midst of it — set the place apart.

Marc Lassen was a self-described California refugee. He was into surfing and motorcycles. So back in the 1990s, he left his home town of Bradenton, Fla., for the Pacific waves and highways.

Next, Marc migrated north to the Olympic Peninsula, tending bar at the Oyster House and living in Blyn.

Christie, who had also grown up in Bradenton, was going to college in Boston. And 11 Decembers ago, she went to a Christmas party in her home town.

She and Marc are four years apart in age, but they'd known each other from going to the Presbyterian church together.

“Bradenton's a small town,” added Christie, “and it was even smaller 30 years ago.”

At the Christmas party, Marc and Christie got a good look at each other. The conversation went well, too.

The next day, Christie said to her mother: “I saw Marc Lassen last night. And just so you know, I think we're going to get married.”

Sometimes, two people just know. This was one of those times.

Three months after they re-met, Marc and Christie were engaged and, as so many have done, they decided to start their new life out West.

They came to the far northwestern corner of Washington, where Marc had been driving past, and eyeing, a vacant building on U.S. Highway 101 between Discovery Bay and Sequim.

There may have been people who said this romance would not last. And the Lassens put their union to a test right off: They went into business together, buying that property on 101 in June 2002 and opening a little coffee shop in August. The Espresso Garden was a 9-by-12-foot shed where, “hopped up on caffeine,” as Christie said, they made coffee drinks for travelers from near and far.

Then, since the building next door was empty — gutted by a fire in early 2000 — the couple took another leap. In August 2003, they opened Wild Birds Unlimited, an emporium of birdseed, bird feeders, indoor and outdoor art and furniture.

This Dec. 27, the Lassens will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. And it is hard not to call them love birds, even now. The pair, when posing for pictures outside the store, can hardly wait to toss an arm around the other's waist, look into their mate's eyes and giggle.

“It's cornball,” said Marc, “but this is a labor of love.”

The Lassens have found a retail business — as well as a customer demographic — that suits them.

“The community here is people who love the outdoors, who love wildlife,” said Christie.

“I can't speak highly enough about the nature of our clientele,” Marc added.

Christie gives talks at places such as the Dungeness River Audubon Center in Sequim's Railroad Bridge Park ( www.DungenessRiverCenter.org ), in which she discusses the loss of natural habitat across Washington state. As thousands of acres are turned into housing developments, more winged wildlife — such as hummingbirds — are being seen in residential neighborhoods. This isn't necessarily because more people are feeding them, Christie said. The influx of birds also is due to the loss of wildflowers and open space.

Maintaining a bird feeder, Christie added, is a simple way to give something back; to create a wildlife refuge, however small.

The Lassens emphasize too that feeding birds — especially in winter when natural food sources are dormant — is something that lifts human spirits during this dreary time of year.

Even in the recession, the Lassens haven't seen a decrease in birdseed buying. Christie boils down what she believes is the reason.

“Bird watching, for people, is happiness,” she said.

With a dozen feeders set up around the store — and their home, which is upstairs — the Lassens should know.

“It's amazing how much time we spend at the window,” said Marc, adding that he and Christie, along with the customers, get excited each time someone new shows up. There are the woodpeckers, who appear one or two at a time, and there are the pine siskins arriving in flocks of 100 or more.

Christie and Marc also delight in the company of another creature, a furry one who enjoys immense popularity at the shop and on Facebook. He is Luther Lassen, the fluffy orange tabby cat who, Christie reports, is exactly the mouser this place needs.

Luther appears to be relaxing most of the time. But Christie reported that he caught two mice last week alone.

Without Luther's services, rodents could be a problem, with all of the sacks of seed and grain lying around. Between 3,000 and 6,000 pounds of bird food moves through the store each week, Christie said.

Luther, whom the Lassens found at the Peninsula Friends of Animals shelter near Sequim (www.safehavenpfoa.org) also attracts flocks of people to Wild Birds Unlimited.

Cat-loving customers come to fawn over him. And many buy Luther memorabilia such as the Sibbett Studio-made jigsaw puzzles bearing his image and the Luther jewelry created by local artist Amy Weber.

On Facebook, Luther has 372 friends and counting. Marc apparently talked him into the social media milieu; he and Christie didn't want the typical dry page promoting their business.

And Luther is “an educational guy,” added Christie. He's a publicist for the Cats Indoors program, part of the American Bird Conservancy effort to protect the health of felines and birds (www.ABCbirds.org).

And “it's amazing how much Luther knows about birds,” quipped Marc, who helps the cat keep up his Facebook profile.

With Luther's help and with the gardens they tend behind the store, the Lassens have sought to build community here. Wild Birds Unlimited is a forum for some 60 local artists to sell their work, Marc said. The store also hosts Earth Day festivals with music and visits from the hawks, owls and human volunteers of the Northwest Raptor Center.

“It's a joy,” said Marc. “It's a joy to have an Earth Day.”

The Lassens also invite the Santa Claus of nearby Diamond Point over every December. Santa will arrive in full finery this Saturday to share holiday wishes and candy canes, Christie promised. “Bring your kids, bring your pets, bring yourselves . . . he'll be here from 1 o'clock till 3-ish,” she predicted.

Wild Birds Unlimited has stayed busy through all four seasons, Christie said. And while 2012 was not a growth year, it equaled 2011, which was the store's best year so far.

When asked what their hopes are for 2013, the Lassens held a quick marital conference, starting with Christie asking Marc if she should go ahead and disclose their plan. Not immediately sure what she meant, he leaned down while Christie whispered in his ear her wish for the new year.

Oh, yes, go ahead, he said.

“We want to put in solar panels,” Christie announced. Some day, the Lassens want their building to run on the sun.

Then Marc added his own wish: “I'd be thrilled,” he said, “to have 10 more years like the 10 we've had.

“You try things,” he said. And sometimes they fly.

“This,” said Marc, “has exceeded our wildest hopes.”

Last modified: December 08. 2012 6:41PM
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