When a wide-eyed man came bursting into The Hoarder’s Attic Thrift Shop asking for socks and carrying on a frantic babble of conversation laced with expletives and bible verses, owner Michael Kennish wasn’t fazed.
He politely spoke with the man and found a pair of socks for him.
“This happens all the time,” Kennish said once the man left the store while shouting incomprehensibly on a recent afternoon.
While Kennish has become desensitized to crazed customers, there are many other reasons that have bothered him enough to relocate his thrift shop out of Federal Way: shoplifters, a high-crime environment, lack of police response and a city that doesn’t support small businesses, he said.
The Hoarder’s Attic officially closed their doors on Oct. 21.
Kennish and his wife, Kristy, owned The Hoarder’s Attic Thrift Shop on Pacific Highway in Federal Way, with help from their three teenage boys — two of them twins — and a daughter. The blended family ran the shop since December 2016 to benefit their son Shaun McCartney, who has cerebral palsy.
“I’ve been underwater in this place for almost 13 months,” he said. “We’ve only been making anywhere from $2,000-3,000 a month … I’m lucky if I get five transactions a day. It doesn’t include the fact that to survive, we need to make about $3,600 a month just to pay the bills.”
The thrift store cannot continue to operate in a city that doesn’t support small businesses, Kennish said.
“The biggest turning point for me was the lack of assistance that the city is providing,” he said, noting that some city officials have tried, while multiple officials seems to be against businesses. “For example, the mayor and our deputy mayor — it’s like oil and water.”
The city’s business signage codes was the initial reason he reached out to city officials, as he was unable to post directory signs on the city-owned strip of grass between the road and the sidewalk. Although The Hoarder’s Attic had a street-facing location, many customers told Kennish the shop was difficult to find, so he reached out to the city to discuss signage codes.
Kennish’s lease did not include use of the plaza’s marquee sign to advertise due to the store’s front view placement and the marquee is reserved for tenants located in the back of the property, said Arthur Kim, property manager of Hometown Plaza complex.
If a business owner reaches out to the city about problems with their business, “the mayor is the first to pick up the phone or call a meeting to see if we can help,” said Tyler Hemstreet, communications coordinator for the city. He added that the city is supportive of businesses as the mayor has always included funds in his biennial budget to be a “pivotal partner” with the Greater Federal Way Chamber of Commerce “as a showing of support for the business community in Federal Way.”
However, Kennish said the city wasn’t helpful in this case.
“At times I didn’t get responses or responses were lagging, other times I got responses but they weren’t very helpful,” he said about the numerous emails he’s sent to city officials. “I’ve included Mayor Ferrell on multiple emails in the past with no response from him or anyone in his office. Basically I received one of those generic, ‘Glad you’re being helped’ type-emails and he’s never really done anything for me.”
“Susan Honda has done everything she can to help us, unfortunately she knows there’s not a lot she can do being one voice in a group of people that don’t want to agree that these things need to be taken care of,” Kennish said of the city’s deputy mayor.
After seeing social media posts about his troubles, Honda frequently stopped into the store to check in on Kennish, she said.
“I’m going to miss him in the community,” Deputy Mayor Honda said. “I’m glad that he has the new space in Tacoma. I think it’ll work well for his family, but it’ll be a loss for our community that he’s moving there.”
It is tough to be small business, Honda said about Federal Way’s business environment.
“I think we could help as a city by looking at our sign codes. Small businesses need the ability to advertise,” she said. “It’s concerning that as a city, we don’t have anything to help small business owners when they have issues like Kennish was having. It would’ve been nice to have our building inspector or perhaps someone from the Planning Department go in and help him out, handle the landlord and make sure things are taken care of properly.”
The city does not enforce the laws, whether it comes to actions by homeless people or property owners and health code violations, Kennish said.
Washington state has created protections for those who have performance issues with the landlord of their dwelling, but commercial tenancies are not covered by the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, Hemstreet said regarding how Federal Way protects small businesses.
“The law generally expects those in business to be sophisticated enough to handle these types of legal disputes on their own,” he said.
Kennish and his property owner are amid a tenant-landlord dispute regarding Kennish’s request to be released from the lease, which was signed to go through 2022.
“The city’s not trying to fix these issues,” Kennish said. “They’re dumping money into grand projects like the [Performing Arts and Events Center], the new Panther Lake Trailhead, the grand staircase that they want to put in.”
Shoplifting is a common problem, he said, but the city has a minimum amount of $25 in loss before prosecution takes place.
“It’s been a lot of talk from the city,” he said about the lack of law enforcement and crime response for shoplifters. “It’s just been one issue after the next.”
The Federal Way Police Department has responded to three shoplifts and one customer dispute since June 2018, according to Hemstreet.
Aside from the signage issues, Kennish said the dangerous area has become too much for him and his family.
“I get mentally ill people, drunk people, people on drugs in here all the time,” he said. “It does [make us panic] even though we’re used to it, but it depends how they’re acting when they walk through the door.”
Kennish even acquired a concealed carrier permit due to the high-crime environment.
“A lot of different factors compiled between the theft and the city not doing anything about it,” he said. “I think that’s what sent me over the edge.”
Apart from the dangers beyond the store’s front door, hazards lay inside, too.
The store was previously in another space of the same complex, but when the roof collapsed in spring of 2017, the store relocated to another spot in the complex. Then in December 2017, the store became a health concern and biohazard, he said.
“The backwash was caused by the [complex] owners when they had a plumber come in to use a hydrojet to clear a clogged pipe at 5 a.m. while nobody was in the shop,” Kennish said. “The [property] owners were responsible for the damage in the shop.”
Harm to the shop included a backwash of sewage into the store, destroying the carpets and damaging the flooring beneath, he said. Unreturned calls and emails with no help offered from the complex owners left Kennish to clean and attempt repairs by himself, he said.
“They never got back to me on those repairs,” he said, also mentioning the need for repairs of a shared intake vent between his own store and a meat shop next door. The improper ventilation allows smells – from cleaning bleach to cooking grease – to waft into thrift store, he said. “That has to be a code violation.”
In September, Kennish requested to be released from his lease contract early because of the damages and lack of action by the property owners.
According to the property owner Kim, one of the main sewage pipes in the building backed up, causing some backflow to various tenants and a company was hired to unclog the pipes. The damaged carpet, Kim said, was left in the space by a prior tenant and was not an improvement Kennish paid for or installed, nor was it a part of the space described in the lease.
Amid the ongoing dispute with the lease, The Hoarder’s Attic relocated to a new spot in south Tacoma, an opportunity the family couldn’t pass up, Kennish said. The new location is on the corner of 84th Street and Park in a historic district of Tacoma. A large art mural on the building’s side makes it hard to miss, and the 6,000-square-foot building also comes with a one-bedroom apartment that the Kennish’s son, Shaun McCartney, will move into once he is ready to live on his own. McCartney, 18, is currently enrolled in the Federal Way Public Schools’ Employment and Transition Program while working in the thrift shop most weekends.
The new location also has a space in the back for Kennish to park his box truck and an area to do repairs on donated items for the shop, while offering a larger sales floor and ample parking for customers. Kennish aims to host a grand opening celebration of the Tacoma location in December.
While the new shop brings new business opportunities, the city of Federal Way still remains unfavorable for Kennish.
“Even as a resident, I don’t want to live in the city anymore,” Kennish said, adding he has lived his whole life in Federal Way. “It’s not just business anymore, it’s personal too.”
This story originally appeared in the Federal Way Mirror, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.