On a crisp December morning in 1996, Sharon and John Connell lingered over breakfast at the Calico Cupboard, a popular 561La Conner cafe. Gazing out the window, Sharon was inspired by the 19th-century brick beauty on the corner. "That would be a great bookstore," she said.
After 23 years in business, the Oak Harbor, Washington, couple had sold their lumber company on nearby Whidbey Island and were ready for their next venture, a combination bookstore and coffee bar.
They paid their check and walked across the street, apparently with 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 successful bookstore) weave vibrant threads through the fabric of La Conner. John coaches the high school soccer team, and Sharon gives book-related talks to groups. Their living space above the bookstore looks out to Swinomish Channel. John says, "We loved Oak Harbor, 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 in La Conner in the second grade and has lived here ever since. "I even commuted from here to Bellingham and Seattle for college and law school," he says. On a misty spring afternoon's stroll through town, his pride leaps two paces ahead at every turn as he shows off the town's history and its future.
For starters, Town Hall has evolved nicely from a bank to a jailhouse to the building where Eron presides. Down the hill, the Maple Hall performing arts center incorporates bricks that townspeople helped recycle from local historic buildings.
Below Maple Hall, Swinomish Channel separates La Conner from the Swinomish Indian Reservation on Fidalgo Island, one of the San Juans. Good relations with the tribe and joint education in schools are hallmarks of the town's mix of cultures. "In 2000, we became the first U.S. community to honor Native American Day as a legal holiday," Eron says."The town and the tribe put together a fabulous celebration."
La Conner's diversity captivates German-born Reinhild Thompson, whose marriage into a Skagit Valley family brought her here 26 years ago. "We have Indians, fishermen, farmers, merchants, and hippies," 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 Conner children walk to school from neighborhoods characterized by 19th-century architecture, both original and replicated. In historic 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 corporate dropout, this former Phoenix, Arizona, defense/aerospace manager moved to nearby Mount Vernon three years ago. But he spends most of his time in La Conner, where he's the hands-on owner of the bustling Cascade Candy Company.
"Tourist dollars have made an influx into the charities and schools here," he says, "and that's good for this town. But geographically La Conner can't expand, and many folks like the small-town quaintness. There's resistance to seeing tourism grow."
What's so appealing to newcomers as well as old-timers sounds like an oxymoron: connected isolation. "This isn't a bedroom community, and it's not a second-home community," Eron says. "And it's very important that it not become either of those things."