In 1969, Julian and Leslie Schmidtke, new to Gig Harbor, thought the growing little town could use a gift shop. So they opened one, next to the barber shop across from Finholm’s grocery.
Fifty years later, the Beach Basket, now in an historic old sawmill on Harborview Drive, is one of the city’s iconic places — a must-see for tourists and a familiar stop for old-timers. Its baubles and bangles have sustained two generations of the Schmidke family.
“We’re so excited to have made it this far,” said Kim Stokke, the founders’ daughter. “That’s why we’re having a party.”
The Beach Basket will celebrate its 50th Anniversary next Saturday, Sept. 21, with a band and a hot-dog barbecue in the parking lot. The band kicks off at noon, and the first 300 visitors will get a Beach Basket baseball cap.
Julian and Leslie Schmidtke, both in their 80s, are semi-retired now, and Stokke runs the store with her brother, Michael Schmidtke.
Kim Stokke was in the sixth grade when her parents moved to Gig Harbor from Tacoma, where her father was a teacher at Mount Tahoma High School.
“There wasn’t much retail here at the time,” she recalls. “There was a furniture store, a clothing store, a drug store, a hardware store and that was about it.”
But the Peninsula was a popular getaway for people across the bridge. “Groups of ladies would come out to Gig Harbor to shop and have lunch,” Stokke recalls.
By 1971, the Schmidkes had expanded into the present building, originally the Austin-Erickson sawmill. Like its neighbor, Borgen Hardware, it was built in an unusual style, using logs erected vertically.
“We still have the conveyor belt with the saw in the back,” Stokke said. “But we keep it covered because it’s too dangerous to leave open.”
With its long porch, the building resembles an old-fashioned general store. Inside, it’s a tschotchke-hunter’s heaven. There are t-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, magnets, postcards, kitchen towels and shot glasses. The air is tangy with the smell of lotions, candles and bulk candy.
But it’s the souvenirs that keep the doors open.
“Visitors always want something that says ‘Gig Harbor’ on it,” said Stokke. “T-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, things they can take home.”
The hottest sellers? T-shirts that simply say “Gig Harbor, WA.”
“We carry like 12 different designs,” Stokke said. “We discovered that people from overseas wanted something to say they had been to America, so we added a T-shirt that says, ‘Gig Harbor, USA.’ It sells very well.”
The store carries a lot of garden-related products: Wind chimes, bird feeders, birdbaths, garden statuary, garden flags and poles. Then there are the goodies: Salt-water taffy, double-dipped malt balls, gummi bears, English and German licorice.
Stokke traces her family’s interest in gifts and souvenirs to a trip they took from Michigan, where he father was studying for his master’s degree in teaching.
“On the way back, we stopped at every gift shop in every town along the way,” she laughed.
In the early years of the store, Julian and Leslie made buying trips to the Philippines in search of wicker furniture and baskets.
“We used to get huge consignments of wicker furniture, by the shipping container,” Stokke recalled.
“We sold a lot of baskets, a lot of mugs, wind socks, cards. People were really into incense and candles, that sort of thing, in the ‘70s.”
One year, they stocked so many Christmas ornaments there was no room for them all. That led to the Christmas Shop, now an institution almost as well-known as the Beach Basket itself. It began as a seasonal offering in the attic of the building next door, and quickly became a year-round operation occupying three full stories.
“We have people who come from all over the country to buy Christmas ornaments,” Stokke said.
The shop stocks German nutcrackers, Italian nativity figures and many other kinds of Yule-related crafts, included some made locally.
“We have a wonderful local artist, Marilyn Wills, originally from Key Center, who makes beautiful hand-painted ball ornaments,” Stokke said. “We try to buy locally whenever we can.”
At one point in the 1990s, the family expanded the business, opening stores in the Lakewood Mall, Southcenter and University Place. That got to be too much, Stokke said, and she and her brother begged off. They closed those stores, but kept one, the Basket Nook, in Tacoma.
Several Beach Basket employees have been with the store more than 20 years, she noted, and one, Sally Lacadie, has greeted customers for 35 years.
“We like to make it a homey experience,” she said. “That’s one of the things that make it different than going to a big-box store. People are busy. We try to make it an experience that’s worth the time.”