Natural beauty, proud history, diverse culture, and modern vitality make La Conner most appealing.

Susan Haynes

On a crisp December morning in 1996, Sharon and John Connelllingered over breakfast at the Calico Cupboard, a popular 561LaConner cafe. Gazing out the window, Sharon was inspired by the19th-century brick beauty on the corner. "That would be a greatbookstore," she said.

After 23 years in business, the Oak Harbor, Washington, couplehad sold their lumber company on nearby Whidbey Island and wereready for their next venture, a combination bookstore and coffeebar.

They paid their check and walked across the street, apparentlywith an angel in tow. The building's lessee was ready for a change;the owner wanted to sell; and the Connells had a deal.

Today, the Connells and The Next Chapter (their successfulbookstore) weave vibrant threads through the fabric of La Conner.John coaches the high school soccer team, and Sharon givesbook-related talks to groups. Their living space above thebookstore looks out to Swinomish Channel. John says, "We loved OakHarbor, but there's a serenity here. No one is ever in a rush."

Perhaps in somewhat of a rush is the town's mayor, tall,energetic Eron Berg. The 26-year-old Hawaii-born mayor settled inLa Conner in the second grade and has lived here ever since. "Ieven commuted from here to Bellingham and Seattle for college andlaw school," he says. On a misty spring afternoon's stroll throughtown, his pride leaps two paces ahead at every turn as he shows offthe town's history and its future.

For starters, Town Hall has evolved nicely from a bank to ajailhouse to the building where Eron presides. Down the hill, theMaple Hall performing arts center incorporates bricks thattownspeople helped recycle from local historic buildings.

Below Maple Hall, Swinomish Channel separates La Conner from theSwinomish Indian Reservation on Fidalgo Island, one of the SanJuans. Good relations with the tribe and joint education in schoolsare hallmarks of the town's mix of cultures. "In 2000, we becamethe first U.S. community to honor Native American Day as a legalholiday," Eron says."The town and the tribe put together a fabulouscelebration."

La Conner's diversity captivates German-born Reinhild Thompson,whose marriage into a Skagit Valley family brought her here 26years ago. "We have Indians, fishermen, farmers, merchants, andhippies," she says. "It's not always simple to come to agreement,but we are very tolerant here."

As Reinhild's twin sons did a few years ago, many La Connerchildren walk to school from neighborhoods characterized by19th-century architecture, both original and replicated. Inhistoric La Conner, many farmers and fishermen still do well, but"now the business base is changing to tourism," says Chuck Kiser,president of the Chamber of Commerce. A self-described corporatedropout, this former Phoenix, Arizona, defense/aerospace managermoved to nearby Mount Vernon three years ago. But he spends most ofhis time in La Conner, where he's the hands-on owner of thebustling Cascade Candy Company.

"Tourist dollars have made an influx into the charities andschools here," he says, "and that's good for this town. Butgeographically La Conner can't expand, and many folks like thesmall-town quaintness. There's resistance to seeing tourismgrow."

What's so appealing to newcomers as well as old-timers soundslike an oxymoron: connected isolation. "This isn't a bedroomcommunity, and it's not a second-home community," Eron says. "Andit's very important that it not become either of those things."

(published 2001)

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