Archives Spotlight: Seattle’s first retail store sat on Alki Point

Archives Spotlight: Seattle’s first retail store sat on Alki Point

Charles C. Terry“That’ll be six dollars,” Charles C. Terry probably said to J. N. Low on November 28, 1851.

Low bought two axes from Terry, the first sale at Seattle’s first store, located in the town of New York, which is now known as Alki Point. The next time you tell yourself Seattle is super expensive, remember this sale. Six dollars in 1851 is roughly $180 in 2018. Pretty steep for a couple of axes, right? Then again, I haven’t checked prices in a Home Depot in Seattle lately.

The sale was charged and recorded in a memorandum Terry maintained for the duration of the store’s existence. According to HistoryLink.org, the memorandum is still around, but there are no images of the log.

Charles Terry set sail from New York in 1849. Like many others, he was headed to the West Coast to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush. After two luckless years of prospecting, Terry headed north trying to beat the crowd to Oregon. In Portland he met a pair of brothers, Arthur and David Denny. Terry barely had time for a cup of coffee in Oregon before he joined the Denny Party on the schooner Exact and sailed to Elliot Bay, where Terry’s brother, Lee, was already living on the western shore.

Although Charles Terry left Oregon without gold, he certainly didn’t leave empty-handed. Aware that their destination was mostly unsettled, he got the idea to sell essential goods to the few people already in the area. He carried in a supply of axes, tobacco, alcohol, tin ware and raisins.

The store found immediate success and placed a couple of substantial orders to stock up within a short time of opening. He was soon selling a vast supply of meat, clothing, guns and logging supplies.

For a while, business had something of a monopoly. It was the only supplier of most goods on the west side of Elliot Bay, hence the high prices. The only competitors were across the water in the Seattle settlement. Because that was inconveniently distant for the villagers in “New York,” they paid what Terry asked.

The business thrived until Charles Terry’s death in 1867. He looks about 60 in his photo, but he only lived to be 38. Shortly afterward, the store crumbled under competition from the Schwabacher brothers, who stormed into town in 1869 and ultimately propelled Seattle’s status as the region’s commercial hub. Expect to hear more about them in a future History Friday article.

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