By Liz Leighton

Window Shopper at State St Storefront circa 1950. Photo from Bellingham Herald, supplied by Whatcom Museum Photo Archives.

As a young boy growing up in the 1950’s, John “Westy” Westerfield remembers walking into Ira Yeager’s little sporting goods store on State Street in downtown Bellingham. Evinrude boat motors, fishing and hunting supplies filled the shelves. Westy knew at once he had entered a really special place. He just loved going in and exploring everything in the store, and became well known by the patrons and employees, alike.

In 1959, when Ira had outgrown the State Street location, Yeager’s opened the new store, way out on the “outskirts” of Bellingham at 3101 Northwest Avenue. Westy continued his fascination with all things hunting and fishing, and went into the new store every chance he got…  Imagine the thrill of this large, new space, and all the new products Ira was able to now offer. In addition to hunting and fishing equipment, Yeager’s now offered house wares, hardware, clothing, toys, footwear, marine supplies and BOATS!

Young boys grow up, and by 1969 Westy had finished his stint in the Army, and returned to Bellingham to attend Western Washington University. Instead he ended up working in insurance,  spending his lunch breaks in Yeager’s, checking out the gun and fishing departments.  Westy recalls that “One day I heard that someone had just been hired, so I went up to Ira and asked him to hire me. I went upstairs and filled out the application, and shortly afterwards was offered a job as the fishing, tackle and shoe clerk! I was thrilled at the prospect of actually getting paid to work here!  I worked my way up to assistant store manager, learning all I could about the products we offered.”

After almost a decade at Yeager’s, Westy took a few jobs on the road, representing a number of the major hunting and fishing companies he knew through his time at Yeager’s, and stayed in close contact with many of the reps he had worked with. A bit “road-weary” after almost 30 years of travelling, he returned to Yeager’s. Frank Uhrig, the store manager at that time, offered Westy the position of store manager in 2009.

Westy says, “Initially, I was surprised by the affection and loyalty of our customers, and I make sure that our employees work to maintain that same or an even greater level of amazing relationships with customers through integrity and positive sales ethics.”  He says, “While there’s nothing special about me, there is something extra special about Yeager’s. I want everyone to know that Yeager’s is proud to be here.”

He goes on to make clear that “a 96-year-old business is not just the bricks and mortar, but the people who have made it so successful to have lasted so long.” Westy says, “Yeager’s has well-trained employees who provide a level of service to be proud of.” Westy advises people going into the sales fields as follows: “Your best product as a salesperson is your integrity. Learn your products and sell them on their own merits.  Understand that your customers are well informed: they’ve done their research, so practice exceptional sales ethics. The bottom line is that you want the clients’ return business, so be honest, open and meet the needs of the customer.”

Westy says, “We have employed hundreds of kids going through college, providing them with part-time jobs so they could focus on their studies; and we have full and part-time employees who have been with us a long time. The previous generation of employees had two folks who were each here for over 40 years. In the current generation, Jane Allen has been with us for 27 years.”   Yeager’s currently employs 22 full-time and 12 part-time men and women.

Westy feels an enormous responsibility to live up to what the community has come to expect from Yeager’s. “Our longevity, our integrity and our crew make us who we are!  The chain retailers and the Internet have proven to be a challenge, but with our solid history, Yeager’s is moving forward and reaching out to our changing demographics, providing a wider spread of price points.” Westy goes on to explain, “While we provide the average person the best bargain, we also offer higher grade products. We subscribe to the Gearfire System, providing hunting-buyers a huge range of products we can order for them.”

While not yet participating in E-Commerce, customers can stay connected via their website, Face Book, Twitter, Yelp, and e-mail