& & by Ann M. Colford & & & &

Brief counselors tell us that every ending is a beginning. In a sense, that's the case with the closure of the Rings & amp; Things retail store in River Park Square after 28 years and three different locations. Owner Russ Nobbs plans to focus on the mail-order side of his business, and the retail employees will move on to new adventures after the doors close for the final time. But many loyal long-time customers are still working through the stages of their mourning.

"Customers are just plain upset," says Dori Turner, the store's buyer and a Rings & amp; Things employee for the past 14 years. "They say, 'What are we going to do? Where are we going to go to find all these things?'"

The store's manager, Darrin Buster, understands his customers' feelings. "I don't know where I'm going to get my stuff now," he admits. "For years, if people come in looking for unusual things, I don't know where to send them, because if we don't have it, chances are nobody would." And yet, while the customers are grieving the loss of a friendly place to visit and shop, employees like Buster are losing the source of their livelihoods. "When they exclaim how upset they are, they forget this is our job. We're not just here to have fun visiting. We have to explain why [the closing] has come about, and there are a thousand reasons. Nobody wanted to do it. Russ hates it. It just came to that. Nobody's happy about it."

While it's true that many factors influenced the decision to shut down the store, the bottom line, so to speak, comes down to money and time. "We've had dwindling sales during the demolition and construction in River Park Square, and things never picked backed up again," owner Russ Nobbs explains. "The store has lost money for the last two years." While retail sales have fallen, business is booming for the mail-order and Internet side of Rings & amp; Things, taking most of Nobbs' time and energy. "The retail store is now only about 5 percent of our business, and I haven't been able to spend as much time in the store as I should," he says. "We have a lot of loyal customers, and [closing] is a sad thing to do, but we can't keep it going just for them."

Rings & amp; Things began back in 1972 within Second City, the retail center for artisans that occupied the southeast corner of First Avenue and Wall Street. Although its physical presence only lasted five years -- the building was torn down to make room for the Farm Credit Bank tower, now the Metropolitan Financial Center -- many solid Spokane businesses emerged from within its brick walls. Among both former tenants and customers, Second City is legendary.

"It was very much in the spirit of the '70s, with people doing little crafts, making their own things and selling them," says Susan Durrie, co-owner of the Children's Corner Bookshop, which also got its start at Second City. While it was not a cooperative, Second City provided the kind of stimulating creative environment where artists and craftspeople could nurture and encourage each other, all at reasonable rental rates. "It was a great adventure, a counter-cultural place, with people getting out of the materialistic thing," she says. "People had passion, expertise and commitment. It was an opportunity for people without a lot of money to go into business." Durrie credits the supportive nature of Second City with getting her business off the ground. "Would we have a bookstore if not for Second City? No way!"

Andrew Baucom of Art By Yourself on South Lincoln spent lots of time at Second City as a kid. "I remember going to Russ's store and making necklaces," he says. "Then I'd go to Moreland's for lemonade and a brownie, and then on to the Children's Corner Bookshop. It was so much fun to grow up in there."

Like most of the creative souls in Second City, Russ Nobbs started Rings & amp; Things with little more than an idea. "I had a job at a photo lab in 1972, and I opened the store with my ex-wife as a partner," he says. "When she left, I hired some kids to work the store at first, but then I had to quit the photo job and do this full time." Early on, Nobbs sold primarily handmade jewelry and beadwork, along with a few beads and supplies. Later, he discovered that other craftspeople -- including his current wife, to whom he's been married for 25 years -- needed the same supplies he did, so the business focus expanded. In the '80s, they developed an eight-page flyer of jewelry parts and began distributing it at craft shows. "We found a niche in the jewelry supply trade for people who assembled beads and components into jewelry." From that niche sprang the mail-order side of Rings & amp; Things, a business that now employs 65 people on the ninth floor of the Bon building downtown and ships beads and jewelry components all over the country.

Beyond the personal and financial reasons, it's clear that recent changes downtown impacted Nobbs' decision to close his retail space. "Downtown is becoming more high-end now," he comments. "We're building our retail core back up with the big stores and national chains, but we've lost some of the unique shops." Nobbs worries that the emphasis on big-name retailers will make downtown no different than a suburban shopping mall. "If you look at the interesting areas of other cities, it's the unique shops that make them that way. Take Robson Street in Vancouver. What made the street was the more unique local or regional stores. Or Westlake in Seattle -- they have the national stores, but it's the excitement of the smaller businesses that make it a fun place to shop."

Other local merchants downtown feel optimistic that the big-name stores will draw the shoppers needed to support smaller, more creative merchandisers. "People want to go downtown where there are restaurants and fun shops," says Durrie. "Shops like Rings & amp; Things add texture, but you have to have the big stores to lend economic strength." The Children's Corner Bookshop faces competition from national super-chains like Barnes & amp; Noble as well as growing online booksellers such as Amazon.com. "How are we going to compete against them?" Durrie asks. "We have to depend on our reputation and on traffic. After 28 years, we may be a destination for some people, but generally we need national stores to bring the people in."

As owner of an arts-based small business, Baucom is one of a new generation of downtown business owners who remember Second City fondly and would like to see the concept revived. He has worked closely with Rob Brewster and Jill Smith, who are restoring the block of West First Avenue between Monroe and Madison, with the goal of attracting artists and small businesses to the area. He helped organize the first Rally In The Alley back in October to draw attention to the changes in the neighborhood and its potential. "There's an area in the mid-block for arts space," he says. "The rents are still reasonable, and when the Davenport [restoration] is completed, that will help foot traffic."

Baucom is sad to see Rings & amp; Things disappear from the downtown scene. "Now, I go to Rings & amp; Things together with my daughter and she makes necklaces," he says. "It's a real tragedy to see it go." Like Nobbs, he values a diverse retail base to make downtown an attractive shopping destination. "If all that's there are national stores, that's not interesting," he says. "A lot of people want smaller stores and more unique shops. We need a balance between national and local."

Back at Rings & amp; Things' retail store, the seven employees keep busy with the Christmas rush. Sales have been particularly brisk, due in part to the close-out sale prices. When the store closes at the end of the month, buyer Dori Turner will move over to the mail-order side of the business, although she's not sure what her job will be. Nobbs offered employees the chance to explore opportunities in wholesale, and that's the path Turner has chosen. As for store manager Darrin Buster, he's not sure what his future holds. "I decided it was my chance, or my kick in the butt, to go to school, move to a bigger city -- all those things I've been talking about for years," he says. When the story ends at Rings & amp; Things, new stories will be just beginning.

& & & lt;i & Rings & amp; Things will be open at River Park Square through Dec. 31. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &

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