In Ron Sher's 'third places,' people come first
No, it was not Sen. Hillary Clinton with her perfect makeup and tireless politician smile. It was not the line of 1,500 book buyers that stretched out the door on a hazy summer day. It was not the heaps of books, the Secret Service agents or the author's apparent immunity from writer's cramp as she signed and signed and signed her best-selling autobiography.
Rather it was the reaction of some customers to Ron Sher, the unpretentious bookstore owner who was mostly ignored by his frantic employees and shooed to one side by the police. The mild-mannered entrepreneur seemed lost in the crowd, yet strangers kept coming up and saying things developers don't often hear:
"I just want you to know how much I appreciate this store."
"This is a wonderful thing you've done for Lake Forest Park."
"Thanks for keeping Elliott Bay Books the way it is."
Now wait a minute. We know all about Mr. Developer. Overweight guy in a polo shirt one size too small whose boat throws a wake three sizes too big, a Bubba who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing, and a "property rights" enthusiast (his, not yours) who quotes Adam Smith and KVI (not necessarily in that order) as he brings his Wal-Mart taste and wallboard sensibilities to your cherished neighborhood.
And Ron Sher is not just a developer, but a son and brother of developers. He is even that suspect subspecies of developer called a shopping-center developer. Horrors!
Yet people like him. Admire him. Cite him. Because, in his words, "I am a bridge between people who want to change the world but are way out there in left field, and people in mainstream business."
"I'd love to crawl around his cerebellum for an hour," said Bellevue Mayor Connie Marshall, who admires what Sher has done with that city's Crossroads Mall. "He thinks about life in ways that I don't. He's such a thoughtful, careful developer."
The best developers don't think of themselves as Bubbas, of course. They're visionaries, trying to create a better environment for the rest of us to live our lives. Seattle actually has more than its share of good ones, and Sher, 60, is this type in spades. He doesn't want just to make a buck; he wants to create a community. And dang if I could find anyone who doesn't like him.
People who work with him use words like "honest."
"A great mentor."
"Best landlord you'll ever have."
"He just likes to see people succeed," said Bernie Gordon, a business friend who headed Pacific Linen and Bernie's Bagels.
Sher leads by example, and you can see the result on a Saturday night at Crossroads Mall, a one-time East Bellevue trouble spot that Sher has turned into a cross-cultural, family-oriented gathering place. It is "Bite of Crossroads" time, and the place is jammed, its food court filled with independents instead of chains and serving food on china and silver instead of paper and plastic all at the developer's insistence.
WHEN AUSTRIAN-AMERICAN architect Victor Gruen conceived the first post World War-II shopping centers, he once told columnist Neal Peirce, he envisioned them as becoming roofed town centers, not "selling machines." He later disavowed most of the 45,000 commercial malls in the United States, but, Peirce wrote, "One would like to bring Victor Gruen back to life for just a day and take him out to Crossroads Mall."
Sher took over the failing 1962 shopping center in 1988 when "there wasn't a tree in the parking lot. It was monolithic, it was ugly, and it had no character." Bellevue was changing from upscale suburbia to a more complex and ethnically diverse community, but no retailer had adjusted. Instead, Crossroads, about 2½ miles east of downtown Bellevue, had a reputation for crime, gangs and drugs.
When his father became ill, Sher was drawn back to mainstream business in California. He and his siblings took over properties and developed the largest retail-leasing brokerage in the United States, called Terranomics. (His brother Merritt developed Oakland's Jack London Square and now is trying to refute Gertrude Stein's famous description of the city, "There is no there, there," by helping redevelop its downtown. Their sister Abby manages property in Los Angeles.)
Sher raised a family of two girls and a boy. Then he sold the business and name (his new company is called Metrovation), came back north, and decided to try putting some of his long-simmering social ideas to work in a dumpy shopping center. Crossroads is the local tip of a much bigger business iceberg: Sher is a partner in a number of shopping centers and office buildings in California and New Jersey.
What the new owner realized was that Crossroads' supposed disadvantages were potential advantages. The ethnic stew made the neighborhood the east side's liveliest place. The distance from downtown meant it served a need. The center's plainness meant it could attract families uncomfortable in upscale Bellevue Square.
Most of all, Crossroads was a canvas on which Sher could begin to paint the "third place" experiments inspired by Oldenburg's book. Oldenburg's thesis is that besides work and home, people need a third place to meet friends and socialize. America's bars, he argued, are not as socially inclusive as the English pub, French café, German beer garden or Viennese coffeehouse. We lack the kind of social environment to foster community. Our stores don't encourage us to linger and our restaurants are apt to yank the plate away and present the bill before the last mouthful is barely chewed.
Coffeehouses and brewpubs are one obvious attempt to address this lack. Sher's shopping centers and bookstores are another.
He's also cheerfully cheap. At Crossroads he uses galvanized watering troughs for planters and leftover window glass for store dividers. One of his points is that you can still make money while making a place.
So the differences are in the details. He planted trees in the Crossroads parking lot. He created small gardens near the entryways, decorating them with sculptures. Instead of courting big department stores, he lured businesses to making his center a meeting place: an art deco Blockbuster Video on one street corner, a multiplex movie theater on the other side. Also encircling the mall are standard draws such as Circuit City, Top Foods and a mammoth sporting-goods store.
The mall itself is, well, different. Its "big" anchors are Old Navy and Gottschalks. There's a large Barnes & Noble bookstore at one end, but front and center is a funky Half-Price Books that looks assembled with recycled lumber; an adjoining welcoming plaza includes a fountain he picked up at a Paris flea market. There's a library, a branch of Bellevue City Hall, a children's arts center run by the Children's Museum, the "Public Market" food court, an in-mall QFC, a stage with a steady flow of events, and even a police precinct office at one end of the parking lot. Sher was savvy enough to politic for that one.
In short, he has built his own Sim City, a more modest Bellevue to go with the more famous and upscale one to the west. "He's created a second downtown," Mayor Marshall says. And now families come to hang out instead of gangs. It's laid-back, utilitarian, plain, comfortable and eclectic. Sort of like Ron Sher.
She did with activities what he did with structure. Sample gatherings have included "From Texas to Taxes" (a chili cook-off combined with an income-tax seminar) and a "beeper party" that led to a chorus of waist beepers and kazoos. Sher put in a good sound system, and jazz and rock mix with Middle Eastern belly dancing, Yiddish songs and a Taiwanese orphans' choir. The mall, she said, serves as "a nightclub where you can get home early without smelling of cigarettes and booze."
Gently vetoed was her proposed slogan, "Crossroads: The Most Fun You Can Have And Still Be In Bellevue."
We don't want to exaggerate the final effect. Crossroads remains a relatively modest suburban shopping mall, built for the automobile. But it has created a community spirit that its larger, slicker brethren don't have. It has become a "third place."
Everybody thought it was a dumb idea except customers.
Even the owner of venerable Elliott Bay Books was getting out of independent book retailing, so Sher bought that store, too. He recruited employee Robert Sindelar to go out to Third Place in the northern suburbs to manage, and Sindelar was stunned by his reception. "My first month I was overwhelmed at the sense of gratitude directed at me." Not only could suburbanites read, they were desperate for a big, independent bookstore that offered both new and used titles.
Lynnwood and Tukwila have stores coming out of their ears. Lake Forest Park, a city of 13,000, was searching for identity. "This put the heart into our city," said Mayor Dave Hutchinson. Suddenly it had an "indoor park" with an adjacent food court as at Crossroads (including an outlet of the Honey Bear Bakery chain that Sher owns), a stage, a chess set, meeting tables, and a scheduler recruited from University Books named Judith Chandler, who could sign up celebrity authors. (She's drawn not just Clinton, but Jesse Ventura, Ralph Nader, Dr. Phil and Hell's Angel Sonny Barger.) Sher had struck a nerve: Like Oakland, Seattle's suburbs wanted a "there" in their there.
"Everybody meets here," said Deb Weidenbacher, a member of the city's human-services commission, which was meeting there next to a knitting group and not far from a bunch of retired good old boys who gather each morning just to talk. "It's a great place to gather." More than 60 book clubs have registered for discounts at the store, and many have their discussions at the tables. Sher also increased traffic by giving a fifth of the space to Shoreline Community College for classes.
A second, smaller "Third Place" has been opened in Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood with an urban, bricks-and-board décor more reminiscent of Elliott Bay. The deliberately low shelving to make browsing easier; an Internet Café, a Honey Bear bakery and an outside fountain help mark it as a Ron Sher joint.
And at venerable Elliott Bay, author scheduler Rick Simonson describes the management partnership of Sher and active partner Peter Aaron as "fairly serene." While introducing used books and more chairs, they have let Elliott Bay continue to be Elliott Bay. Even Honey Bear was moved out of the basement when it didn't work.
All this social success hasn't translated into business empire. While Crossroads is profitable, the Third Place stores are not yet, and the recession has slowed plans to expand the "third place" idea. Sher cares too much about individual neighborhoods and store-by-store details to crank out a franchise chain. He doesn't want to conquer the world, just have it copy some of his ideas.
"It's not just the bottom line for him," said Terpstra.
In person he is gracious, gentle, charming and affable, still married after 31 years, and good friends with his three grown children: not the kind of stuff to get the juices flowing at the National Inquirer or People magazine. He has a soft spot for teddy bears, one reason he acquired Honey Bear. He's the kind of owner who walks around picking up litter and making a note that a tenant's plants need watering.
Terpstra remembers when he hosted a company-wide party at his home, but she and Crossroads store owner Carla Easton showed up on the wrong day, 24 hours late. Not missing a beat, Sher invited them for a mini follow-up party.
The developer is superbly fit from bicycling and wind surfing. He once owned Reef Island in the San Juan Islands, but sold it, and now has a getaway at Hood River, the region's wind-surfing capital. He's also a hobbyist wood-worker.
His ideas particularly come into play at his home, a cascade of four buildings (artist studio, workshop, main house and guest house) that ramble down a steep hillside above Meydenbauer Bay and are linked by the music of an artificial waterfall and stream that plunges 80 vertical feet. The result is a classic display of understated Northwest wealth: a well-to-do man preferring to blend into the landscape. The shingled buildings feel organic, the workshop seeming to grow out of the ground. The kitchen is workable but plain, its appliances old and its dimensions modest. On the double lot, paths, groves, meadows and orchards form a pattern as intricate as Tom Sawyer's Island in Disneyland. Gates are carved. Fruit trees bow with apples. Sculptures peek from behind ferns. There is a playhouse for teddy bears.
Sher has the enthusiasm of a 6-year-old and the eye of a designer. He has a keen sense of place. It is this instinct that brings him invitations to speak and serve.
But why all this emphasis on community and gathering places? Don't Northwesterners prize their privacy?
He fears the ignorance that can come from too much TV and computer time and not enough face time, from shuttling between work and home but never meeting your neighbors. "When you come to a third place," he explained, "you learn that everyone else is not scary, because all your information isn't coming from the news. And THAT is the core of a democracy."
William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Tom Reese is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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