Edison, population 264, sits seven feet above the Edison Slough, nestled into Samish Bay. The town’s two-block main street, Cain’s Court, is bookended by the Old Edison Inn to the south and the Longhorn Saloon to the north.
Founded in 1869, the community has built a reputation over recent decades as a quirky, affordable gathering place for artists and foodies, with accolades from the New York Times and Food and Wine. In recent years, business development has ramped up both in numbers and impact.
Head north past the Longhorn down dead-end Gilkey Road and find the Book Shucker set up in a trailer on the edge of the slough. Samish Island can be seen through the sliding glass doors of the bookstore owned by Michelle Gale, who moved from Seattle in 2020, leaving her job in publishing after the pandemic shut the world down. Hers is one of several businesses at the end of the road in the newest iteration of the town nestled at the foot of the Skagit farmlands.
On the bookstore’s bottom shelf is a copy of “Samish Island, A History,” written and published by Samish Island residents Susan and Fred Miller. The Millers document the comings and goings of peoples: the way of life of the Samish Nation, who dug clams, dried fish and steamed camas bulbs; the coming of the settlers who diked the land, built hotels, shops and farmland; and the waves of people who have more recently landed on the Skagit Flats and the islands of Puget Sound.
The ‘weekend’ just kept going
Gale is one of the more recent settlers. She and her husband, Tim Hubner, purchased a home south of Edison in farmland between the Samish River and Padilla Bay. She has worked at the Seattle newspaper The Stranger, Sasquatch Press and Modernist Cuisine, a research lab and book publishing company.
Gale and Hubner own the Raspberry Bow Press. They have printed and published books, as well as newsletters including the Edison’s Women’s Club newsletter, most recently distributed to residents this May Day.
“Our initial thought was, we’ll go there on the weekends, and maybe in five years quit our jobs, and figure out something else. And then the pandemic just went on,” Gale said.
“I don’t think I necessarily had a dream of owning a bookstore for my whole life. I just felt like Edison could use it,” she said.
Books, brews and art
Edison is no longer a sleepy little town. It has become a destination spot, with expensive real estate and newly converted short-term rentals.
“There’s, like, no real estate,” Gale said, sitting in the natural lighting of the shop, with sliding glass doors that look out on the slough and farm fields beyond. “People don’t want to leave.”
The area north of the saloon is being redeveloped by the owners of the Terramar Brewstillery, providing visitors with a bookstore, a working artist studio and a soon-to-be jewelry shop, all on the sprawling Terramar property.
“We just wanted to create this little creative quarter,” said Jen Barker, co-owner of the brewery, distillery and pizzeria. Some of the buildings come with history: “This was actually the kill floor for a slaughterhouse,” said co-owner Chris Barker, sitting in front of a silver distillery that stretches like flutes toward the ceiling where the rail system used to hang carcasses.
Edison was formerly marshland that was diked after settlers arrived to raise crops and cattle. Native populations dwindled due to disease and displacement. The first non-Native settlers were followed by a wave of socialists who founded Equality Colony around the turn of the 20th century.
The contrasts of conflicting ideologies have created tension over the years since the town’s beginnings: tribe, settler, socialist, farmer, logger, artist, venture capitalist.
A timeline on the wall at the taproom entry depicts the property’s history: a meat packing shop in front of the slaughterhouse, a repurposed wood mill, a honey business.
Jen and Chris Barker met in Los Angeles where they worked in the film industry. For the past 20 years they have lived on Samish Island. They opened Terramar in August of 2019, just before the pandemic.
“We’re lucky to still be here. We’re still struggling,” said Chris Barker, who had to take out loans to keep the staff through the pandemic. “You don’t write COVID or pandemic into your business plan.”
Terramar’s brewery/distillery room looks out over stacks of kegs ready for transport, a few customers on the outdoor patio, and land where the Barkers are growing sumac, flowering currants and hazelnuts that will screen the slough and the neighbors on the other side.
Their beer features locally sourced barley, purchased through the Washington State University Extension center and malted by a startup of engineers from Boeing at Skagit Valley Malting. That’s just part of their commitment to local agriculture.
“I mean, first off, the green quality in Skagit Valley is amazing,” said Chris, while putting Terramar stickers on small table placards. “It’s the best soil in the world. It’s like top 2%. Everything that grows here is just phenomenal.”
They source from local cheese makers such as Samish Bay Cheese, and everything else from Skagit and Whatcom farms when possible.
“We wanted to tie everything that we make here to the land around us,” said Jen, who maintains her job as a film editor doing marketing for film and television along with marketing for her business. “That’s why we came up with Terramar.” That philosophy also means that prices are higher, contributing to changing economics of Edison life.
Not all residents have been happy with the large operation in the quiet town, worried about what the draw might mean for impacts on the way of life.
Edison is unincorporated. There is no town government, save for the 100-plus-year-old Women’s Club, and no Chamber of Commerce.
Terramar hosts another, less polished part of Edison’s past, evoking the days before the town became dominated by a constant flow of weekend visitors.
A timeline on a wall of the Chop Shop says the site housed a Russian-mafia car operation from 1989 to 1991. Now, it’s an artists collective run by artists whose continuance is threatened in a town where rents are skyrocketing.
“Yeah, things that used to be affordable, small units for working people, are now Airbnbs,” said Todd Horton, an artist who lives on a houseboat on the Samish River. “And that’s a trend everywhere, but I think it’s a bigger impact with smaller communities.”
The former slaughterhouse turned mill was quiet before it became a brewery. James Reisin, owner of the Lucky Dumpster antique store, along with artist Pieter VanZanden, started a skate park in the space that gained a cult-like underground following.
VanZanden was arranging his sketches and paintings of toilet paper on a table in the Chop Shop studio on a Saturday afternoon in May. In the studio window was a model from his first show —a semi-automatic rifle constructed with cigarettes, energy drinks and Top Ramen.
“I made guns out of things that can kill you,” he said in characterizing his art, which shows not only his quirky sense of humor but also something about our world of leftover materials that people throw away.
The studio has a commercial space up front, and in back is a studio for Mandy Turner and VanZanden, both artists who trace their time to the last decade when the town art scene was more raw.
“It was definitely like our secret art studio, which was pretty fun back in the day.” said Turner, a member of the Chop Shop artist collective, as well as a chef at the nearby Tweets restaurant. Turner lives in the center of the town in the former home of Skagit artists John Simon, who died in 2010, and Joel Brock, who died in 2013.
“I do feel like the town has gotten very polished,” she said. Turner was worried when the Barkers purchased the property. “At first, I was really upset.” But it could have been worse. “It’s been really successful as far as like, I don’t have to go find a place to sell my jewelry, my prints,” she said.
Turner and VanZanden helped remodel the studio space after the Barkers purchased the property and allowed the artists to remain. The Barkers comped their rent and subsequently kept it relatively low in order to maintain the commercial presence of the artists.
“The value [of the space] is way higher than the rent we could pay for. So, basically, he’s a patron of the arts,” said Horton of Chris Barker. Two tigers walk the track of a rainbow in Horton’s abstract/realist painting, a signature style on his wildlife works. He is a full-time painter who minds the Chop Shop during the weekends.
Artists are required to be present to sell their paintings and the collective takes only 10% compared to the 50% a typical gallery takes in.
While Edison may have lost its edge, Horton says, some of the original cast of characters are still here. “This is still an amazing place. But the Wild, Wild West days are kind of going. And I don’t think those are coming back.”
Tension and creativity
Though Gale’s Book Shucker may not be the Wild West, it brings something new to town, with books from their own press, and a focus on foods. She has been working on a cookbook through her publishing company in concert with Genuine Skagit Valley, a consortium that promotes farm-raised foods in the valley.
She is planning on growing her collection of local titles. Right now, she features nearby Bow writer Jessica Gigot, whose memoir, “A Little Bit of Land,” on the life that has landed her in the Skagit flats as a farmer, biologist, poet and mother is prominently displayed, as well as her two books of poetry. [Disclosure: Gigot serves on the board of directors of Salish Current.]
Gale has a section of prints from her own press set up on the register. There are novels that resonate with her, children’s books and a shelf of graphic novels featuring a local comics artist.
“What’s cool about having a small shop is that I certainly want to carry things that will resonate with people, but I didn’t want to worry about the chance that someone comes in and says, ‘I’m looking for this specific thing.’ We probably wouldn’t have it. And just being okay with that, because we don’t have the room to have more.”
The tension created in this limited amount of space between the old and the new continues. What grows here within the space available, and those tensions between movements of people are what make this place alive, Turner said. “The tension is always what makes things beautiful in the world.”
“I think everybody has a different philosophy on what the town should be,” said Chris. “I think we’re doing our best to be good neighbors.
— Reported by Anna Ferdinand