By Eric Rosane / [email protected]
Sometimes, it’s best to go with your gut.
That’s what Ron Sturza says. He’s worked at the Sunbird Shopping Center for roughly 45 years, and it’s that gut feeling that’s helped lead his local store through floods, a pandemic, recessions and even into the digital age of modern retail.
But all good things eventually end.
Just months after the death of former co-owner Ghassan “Gus” Salloum — his partner since the 1970s — Sturza is announcing the sale of Sunbird Shopping Center to the owners of Shelton Outfitters, which is located in Mason County.
The sale, which has been in the works over the past year, goes into effect Oct. 1. While he’s going with his gut on this one, Sturza, 67, said his heart will always be with Sunbird.
“My heart has always been (with) Sunbird, and it always will be, too. But it’s the right time,” he said. “For the next 20 years, or longer, I know that’s the right thing to do. I know these guys want to grow, they want to be involved, they do all the right things. And I know they’ll be good community members.”
Shelton Outfitters, located at 707 Cascade Ave. in Shelton, is a clothing store specializing in providing “premium apparel at affordable prices for men, women and children,” including work and recreation wear, its website says.
Owners of the store did not return phone calls left earlier this week inquiring about the future of Sunbird Shopping Center. A store manager reached Friday morning said they weren’t ready to comment on the acquisition.
Speaking with The Chronicle this week, Sturza praised the new owners and said they are the right fit to continue on the legacy of Sunbird. Though the store may be renamed Chehalis Outfitters sometime in the future, Sturza said, he called them the “perfect buyer.”
“They’re younger, quite frankly more tech-oriented than us old guys are,” Sturza said. “It’s the right move. It’s a good move for Sunbird, the employees and the community.”
Dave Coulter, one of the owners of Shelton Outfitters, even played a big role in helping the store during the 2007 Chehalis River flood. The store was inundated with more than 8 feet of water and sustained more than $3 million in losses.
“He was here for the cleanup. He lived the flood, just like Sunbirds did,” said Jared Hedgers, a current Sunbird co-owner who will step into a managing role after the acquisition.
“He understands what goes on in this location. He understands what goes on at Sunbirds,” Sturza added, underscoring their close relationship with the owners and characterizing Shelton Outfitters as something of a protege to the Sunbird Shopping Center.
Hedgers said his understanding is that the new owners will look to keep things fairly status quo when they come in. They’re not looking to shake things up, he said, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to affect retail supply chains, shipping and product availability.
Sturza said the sale is all about sustainability and making sure that there’s someone at the helm who can help the store weather the current climate.
“With ownership change, it’ll be a little bit of change. Gus and I, we didn’t change much over the last decades, and they’re going to improve on a lot of areas we were too old to deal with,” Sturza said.
Since 1977, Sunbird Shopping Center has been Lewis County’s darling outfitter store, selling products including sporting goods, clothing, hardware, housewares, gardening and canning supplies and more.
According to a biography on its website, Sunbird’s original niche was in sporting goods and hardware, but it branched out over the early years under brother owners Tom and Jack Sturza, who opened the store in the old Yard Birds building on North National Avenue. Jack is Ron’s father.
An old newspaper clipping on a second-floor walkway alongside other staff photos and memorabilia heralded the store when it first opened: “Sunbird Shopping Center opens in Chehalis in 1977.” The operation was characterized by the paper as “pretty much a family affair, with the sons and daughters of the brothers helping their parents at the center.”
Sunbird back then employed 35 people, in addition to the employees of several concessionaires, the article says. As of September, Sturza said the store employs 40 people in its current location. The store has continued to sustain the test of time due to its customers and knowledgeable salespeople, he said.
Alongside their wives, Sturza and Salloum purchased the store in 1996. Just a few years later, the fledgling store owners would be presented with their first major challenge: Walmart.
Sturza said he remembers when The Chronicle sent a reporter out to Sunbird to get the reaction to the new big box store in town. Word was Walmart was going to drive mom-and-pop businesses out of town.
“Our response was, ‘we’re not going to concentrate on what they do well, we’re going to concentrate on what they don’t do well,’” he said.
Retail is all about person-to-person contact, Sturza said, and other key tenets and detailed practices larger corporations aren’t well renowned for.
“When you’re a general merchandise, you have a lot of merchandise. But you have to have good, knowledgeable personnel,” he added.
Sunbird for many years also operated a store in Yelm in Thurston County. Hedgers managed that store for a decade until its closure early last year due to their lease being “astronomical and unsustainable,” Sturza said. Hedgers back then called it an “emotional process.”
Most days, Sturza has a “collage” of work he does, which spans small detailing to ordering products. It takes a lot to keep a store running — more today than it used to.
But the more days that go by, he said, the more at ease he is with letting his store spread its wings and fly out of his hands, onto grander horizons.
Sturza said he’s looking forward to golfing more. He and his wife, who used to work at the store, have some travels planned.
“Hopefully she’ll put up with me,” he said.
Hedgers, 43, is optimistic for the future of Sunbird — whatever its name. Maybe it’s a gut feeling.
Around the end of the interview, Sturza began choking up reminiscing on the help Sunbird customers lent to the store after the 2007 flood. They truly couldn’t have done it without them. Six months later, they were back open.
“That flood, we had hundreds of customers who went in and helped us cleanup. You can’t put a price on that,” he said. “It’s huge. I’m saying hi to everyone (on the sales floor) everyday. It just feels like a family business.”
Some Important Dates
Due to the sale, Sunbird Shopping Center is urging all customers to use any remaining funds they have on existing gift cards by Sept. 30, as the company will be switching its gift card service.
The store’s final sale will run Sept. 16-29. It will be the 20th annual Truck Load Boot Sale, during which customers will help the store “give hunger the boot.” The store will donate $5 from the sale of every Georgia Boot to the Lewis County Food Bank.
Sunbird Shopping Center is located at 1757 North National Ave. in Chehalis. Its hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays, and 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Sundays,