Michael Harthorne
Owner Nicole Miller says The Field House, which was inspired in part by her grandparents' basement, breaks the conventional rules of retail.

New Field House breaks the rules of retail

In The Field House, the new store by Blackbird owner Nicole Miller, shelves have been slapped together with boards, produce bumps up against flannel shirts sitting near a collection of antlers, and there may or may not be some butter churning in the future.

The Field House, located in the old Art By Fire location near Bergen Place, is Miller's attempt at an old-time general store. One that will include classic clothing, groceries, perfumes and other assorted goods.

"It's not something I made up," Miller said. "It's how my grandparents lived. This is how I grew up."

The store is a tribute of sorts to the basement in Miller's grandparents' home in Kent. In that basement were feedbags full of antlers and pine cones – many of which have worked their way into The Field House – that Miller's grandmother never got around to throwing out.

Miller found the seashells that cover a table in the The Field House in the basement in a Tide detergent box labeled "Mexico 1992 Shells" from one of her grandmother's trips.

"This is just the more down-home, organic, fun way to do it," Miller said of The Field House's ramshackle, anything-goes aesthetic.

She said she would have liked to do something similar in Blackbird, but she could not. Retail has rules that are not easily broken, at least in the United States, she said.

The Field House breaks retail's rules in two ways, Miller said. First in the way the space is used, and second in the products she is selling.

For example, she said many people would look at her makeshift shelving and see it as cheap and temporary. Miller said she sees it as a creative use of space, like the stores in Japan she admires.

In one store she visited while in Japan, there was a giant ball of twine just sitting in the middle of the floor, she said.

She said she could not sell the The Field House's merchandise, which is entirely comprised of extra stock from her other stores, in Blackbird, at least not until recently.

Miller points to a flannel shirt as an example. A few months ago she could sell that shirt on the east coast or in Europe, but not here, because of its history with grunge music or because someone operating a jackhammer two blocks away was wearing the same shirt.

Now, after the recession, people are starting to embrace Americana, she said. They are humbler and want to spend money on something with value that embraces their culture and heritage, she said.

With The Field House, Miller has effectively staked her claim to the small corner of Ballard that surrounds Bergen Place.

In addition to The Field House on the west side of the park, she owns Blackbird, Birgitta and the Blackbird Candy Shoppe immediately to the south.

Miller said Blackbird is internationally recognized, and she could open a store in New York or Los Angeles but would rather stay in Ballard.

"The reason I like Ballard is I feel there is a need," she said. "People need a place to get groceries. People need a place to get lunch under $5. This is a big neighborhood, and we are lacking so much."

She said she doesn't want Ballardites to have to leave the neighborhood to get what they need.

The elderly residents of the Ballard Landmark on Leary Avenue have been coming to The Field House with their walkers and giving Miller notes on what kind of groceries they would like to see there, she said.

Right now there are apples and pears in baskets out front, and Miller said she plans on selling farm-fresh eggs and organic milk as well.

The store will have Christmas trees for sale this winter, and Miller said they are going to offer classes to the public later on. One employee is interested in teaching a class on butter churning, and a customer volunteered to offer instruction on spit shining boots.

For all her plans for the store, The Field House is in a very temporary situation. It is on a three-month trial period, and the landlord could ask them to leave any time, Miller said.

"We put this together in a week, we could take it down in three days," she said.

She said she will probably have a better idea of how long The Field House will be around in a few more weeks.

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