Ashland has developed a reputation for being home to outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers of all types. Now with COVID, extended quarantines, and children at home, there is a need for outdoor and creative play more than ever. In today’s interview I meet with Kathy Uhtoff, who along with two of her three children, Chris and Marie, run the Northwest Nature Shop here in Ashland.
Hi Marie, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today. To begin with, will you please share a little history of the Northwest Nature Shop here in Ashland, Oregon?
Hi. Thank you Shields for the chance to talk with you about the Nature Shop. We are one of the oldest continuously running retail stores in Ashland. I imagine that my parents would have never guessed that their shop would still be going strong 35 years after they opened it – or actually maybe they would have, it was most everyone else who didn’t imagine it. My Dad, who died in 2009, was a former high school biology teacher, then director of Portland Audubon Society, had an insatiable curiosity and an infectious passion for the natural world. My Mom, who we won’t let retire, even after 35 years, shares the adventurous spirit my Dad had but with a practical side to her. Running an independent retail store isn’t straight forward and she has this unflappable quality that has allowed the shop to weather many ups and downs. She has guided this shop with patience, never overextending the business, rather, slowly building a strong foundation. I can tell you that this method has been incredibly important now in 2020. When my parents first opened the shop, I was 10 years old and I remember overhearing my parents talking with someone who was skeptical of the shop’s ability to succeed who pessimistically mentioned the failure rate of new retail businesses was 90%. My eyes opened wide. I was shocked. I thought to myself… “wait a sec… my parents just moved us to this new town away from our school and friends and my grandma and their jobs to open a store that is doomed??” I learned two things from that, first, they really believed in themselves and were willing to work all day every day to make the shop succeed and second, I should step up my game and be a little more helpful around the house and shop because although I was sad to have moved from Portland, I didn’t want my Mom and Dad’s dream to be crushed.
Kathy, how has 2020 been for the Northwest Nature Shop?
2020 has been a unique and challenging year. Throughout the year we have often said “How lucky we are to live in Ashland.” First during the lockdown, we had opportunities to take wonderful walks in the surrounding mountains. Then when the shop could allow customers inside, we were grateful for the support the community gave us. We can simply say that we have wonderful customers. Some customers–now friends–have shopped with us for all 35 years that we have been in business. We can only say thank you.
The birds in Ashland are truly well fed. In all of our 35 years, we have never sold so much bird seed. They say that dogs are very happy that their owners are home so much more in the pandemic–well I think the same could be said for the birds in your yard.
There is an awareness in Ashland that community doesn’t just happen. The people of Ashland are actively involved and engaged in making Ashland unique and we see that every single day. By supporting local businesses, it is the community who keeps our area vibrant.
Marie, what are you seeing in how COVID is changing parenting and how children play outside?
Oh my goodness. Can I first say parenting during Covid is so hard! I had no idea how much math I had forgotten, especially middle school math. Early on in remote learning, I realized if we were to maintain any remote sense of sanity, we would have to put down the screens and do some hands-on learning. I started to eye our toy area at the shop completely differently. What I first viewed as supplementary educational and active toys was now ESSENTIAL. We devoured science and craft kits and played new games that were fun and reinforced the remote learning we were struggling with.
We cherished our outside time. Without organized sports that had previously consumed our afternoons and weekends, we now have time for long hikes learning about local birds, plants, mushrooms and animal tracks.
Those shelves of field guides we have at the shop are key to answering the kids’ questions of what we were looking at.
Going back to my parent’s start of the Nature Shop… a key part of the shop has always been education. In the early years of the shop, my Dad led these wild trips from the shop in an old green Ford Econoline van to go birding at Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge and Malheur. He rounded up equally adventurous Nature Shop customers to drive to Eastern Oregon where they studied the geology and looked for fossils during the day and drank Tequila Sunrises and observed the stars along the John Day river at night. These shop trips couldn’t happen in today’s world of liability but these fun educational field trips were a driving force in the first 15 years of the shop. Although tamer, we continue to offer classes and workshops.
Chris, since the pandemic began there has been a huge surge of interest in birds. Please say more.
Bird watching has surged in popularity during the pandemic. We hadn’t expected that and all of a sudden we were selling a lot of bird seed, bird feeders, bird baths, field guides and binoculars. Backyard bird feeding and watching really is the perfect activity during the pandemic while everyone is staying close to home. It is soothing and uplifting to observe the daily life of birds, even if it is just the birds in your backyard. We have people tell us that the most excitement they’ve had during the pandemic is observing the birds in their backyard making nests and caring for their young. We agree that birdwatching is the perfect pastime and we’re thrilled it is gaining in popularity.
When the pandemic hit, we realized we needed to offer a variety of ways to reach out to our customers. Through our website, customers can place orders to be shipped as well as to be picked up at the shop. Many people also call and place orders over the phone. We also offer free delivery in Ashland.
Kathy, Chris, and Marie, it’s been a challenging year for many. I hope you and your families are well and wish you all the best for 2021!
Thank you Shields. We know many of our customers have not been able to come in the shop lately and we miss all of you. For many, we’ve placed orders on the porch, mailed items or dropped them off at your house. We feel the support and more than ever we’re proud to be a part of this community.