The Story of Judith Gille (City People’s Mercantile)

Aug 26, 2021

American Dream Achieved

IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability.  In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded freelance writer, David Garfield, to tell their stories.  It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

The Story of Judith Gille (City People’s Mercantile)

By David Garfield

Judith Gille’s entrepreneurial spirit, “calculating mind” and “good business sense” were created before she was ever born. Her grandfather, who died two months before Gille’s birth in Chicago, was an entrepreneur who owned the first car dealership in Kansas City, Kan., and the first service and gas station.

“He could really see things coming,” Gille said. “He was a really excellent business manager. He was very successful at what he did. I think I was reincarnated from his stock because I just seemed to inherently or instinctually know something about business management. It was just a natural fit for me.”

Long before Gille created a “mini retail empire” managing four multimillion dollar a year businesses in Seattle, she was a budding 10-year-old entrepreneur growing up in Prairie Village, Kansas. Gille, who calls herself a “born entrepreneur,” and “visionary,” “went door to door selling things that I made for people like soap boxes that I would paint their name on them. I always had some kind of little entrepreneurial thing going. I was always making something and selling it or looking for little business opportunities and ways to make money.”

“I was kind of born to do my own thing, work for myself,” she continued. “It kind of runs in my family. My sister is a real estate agent and my brother is an architect and has his own firm. In our family, we kind of do our own thing.”

Drawn to retail, her first job was at age 15 at TG&Y in the fabric department while also working at Harzfeld’s, an upscale locally owned department store in Kansas City, in addition to working retail jobs in college. Her interest in retail and passion for creativity and entrepreneurship ultimately guided her to a Seattle landmark at City People’s Community Mercantile.

“I was always very entrepreneurial, very creative,” Gille said. “I think that definitely led to the founding of City People’s. I always saw our retail stores as a creative endeavor as much as anything because I was the merchandiser and marketer. I did all the buying and merchandising, marketing, and product selection. That was my forte. I had business partners who were the financial managers.”

An art history major in college, she received her first job in retail management in Ashland, Oregon, where she was the manager of the Ashland Community food store for three years, starting an organization that worked with food co-ops and natural food stores. Gille moved to Seattle in 1978 since she needed to be in a bigger city with more resources.

In the fall of 1979 at age 26, she opened City People’s Community Mercantile with two partners with humble beginnings in Capitol Hill with an $8,000 inheritance from her grandfather in a little 800-square foot building with rent of $300 a month. It was the first women-owned hardware/mercantile store in Seattle.

Fascinated with challenges and overcoming uphill odds, Gille and her partners “couldn’t get any of the hardware companies to sell to us because we were three women. We finally found a woman who had a program for small businesses. There was a guy there who decided we were OK and they would sell to us.”

In her award-winning 2013 book, The View From Casa Chepitos: A Journey Beyond the Border, Gille wrote that her store “limped along on long hours and sweat equity” the first five years, only making “at the top” $350 a month. “Many of us had to work at other jobs or try to do other things to make money or live with a lot of other people in our house. It was tough those first five years.”  She also faced great adversity before her success skyrocketed, when she and her partners tried to buy an old grocery story for $400,000, just two blocks from her house.

“We had to go to 10 different banks to try to get a loan to expand the business,” Gille said. “Again, it was all men bankers and they wouldn’t make the loan to us. We finally found a woman who was president of Olympic Savings and she made the loan that allowed to expand from a tiny space to 10,000 square feet. But the men bankers would have nothing to do with us so we had to go to her.”

Her new store on Capitol Hill in 1984 opened a month before Christmas. She and her partners blew past their sale projections in the first two years. Their store had an eclectic mix for everyone—from hardware, garden, lifestyles, clothing, cookshop, gifts, toys, and office and arts.

“That store was beloved,” said Gille, “the place to be and be seen,” as she wrote in her book.

“The people on Capitol Hill are very committed to shopping local,” she said. “They loved the success story of three women in hardware. As I mentioned in the book, the people on Capitol Hill really identified with the store. They kind of thought it was their store. People were very invested in that store. We were very popular, people constantly came into the store and told us how much they loved City People’s. We didn’t let it go to our head, but we knew we were a really important part of the community.”

Lifelong friendships and marriages formed between the employees and also the customers. Gille admits though, that the store had its share of management challenges. “(It was) extremely stressful,” Gille said. “We had to suddenly manage a bunch of people, we had to be hiring all the time, we had to deal with employee issues. We had some real growing pains.”

Gille and her partners, who shared profits with her employees until the day we closed our stores,” opened the City People’s Garden Store in 1988, City People’s Fremont in 1991, and City People’s Sand Point in 1998.  “I was always wanting to expand and grow the business,” Gille said. “It wasn’t necessarily to make more money, it was because I felt like everybody either needed or wanted a City People’s in their backyard. I thought City People’s was a good concept for many neighborhoods in town.”

She regarded all her partners and employees as family and her customers as family, too, and friends. Gille, who volunteered on numerous non-profit boards and earned many awards with City People’s, including her stores being named one of the “Top Ten Quintessential Seattle Shopping Experiences,” was a beacon in the community with her partners over the decades, donating money, goods and services to hundreds of public schools and local charities.

“The thing that I am happy that we could do for 37 years, I think we served our communities really well,” Gille said. “We provided a service and created sort of a beloved community. We were responsible business owners. We gave back to the community, we treated our employees well. We had all the same problems that many businesses have, but I think we really tried to run a business in a conscientious way despite the pressure from Amazon. We survived and lived through many ups and downs in terms of the economy, in terms of things happening out in the world.”

In addition, Gille built her success by being a visionary and building partnerships with teams. Gregory Kovsky, president and CEO of IBA who sold Gille’s and her partners’ Sand Point store in 2016, said “many times, the owners of companies want to do it their way and they’re more of a pyramid with someone at the top. She’s more of a collaborative, almost like I’d say a socialist business model, not about I, about we. She’s really good that way.”

Gille, 68, elaborated on Kovsky’s statement.  “Ideally that’s the way I tried to manage,” she said. “If I wanted to do it all my way, I wouldn’t have gone out and looked for two partners. The partners that joined me in City People’s didn’t bring any money to the table. They brought energy and ideas. Why invite people to come to the table and not accept their energy and ideas. You can’t be in a partnership for 37 years and not disagree with your partners, but we were always committed to working it out and keeping the business in the forefront.”

Gille also built great teams with her employees while always focusing on her quality workplace and tremendous and affordable products.  “I think the many, many nice letters and cards I got from employees when they left said it was a great place to work and thank you for that,” Gille said. “I still have people coming back to me years later and saying City People’s was their favorite place to work even though they’ve gone to work many other places.”

By 2000, Gille’s stores became “overextended” and she and her partners owed almost $1 million to Bank of America and had 140 employees. A management consultant advised them to close the Capitol Hill and Fremont Stores. She closed the Fremont store at the end of 2000 and the Capitol Hill store at end of 2001.

“It was my baby,” Gille wrote about City People’s Capitol Hill. “The thought of losing it was inconceivable.”

Gille also wrote in her memoir that laying off the intensely dedicated Capitol Hill manager  — a woman ”with a heart the size of Montana and more integrity than anyone I’ve ever known” in October after 9/11 “was the worst (day) in my thirty-eight-year retail career.”

“It was pretty heartbreaking to tell her we were closing the store,” Gille said. “She loved that store. It wasn’t an easy place to manage, but she was very committed to it. She loved her job and loved working for us. She was just heartbroken.”

A few weeks later, and a month after 9/11, she had to lay off 38 people at Capitol Hill, including one woman with breast cancer. “It was hard to take people’s jobs away from them, at that particular time, especially.”

Gille, who also laid off about 20 people at the Fremont store, although she still retained a few people from both stores, went into  a “deep, dark depression. Some of my ex-employees (felt betrayed). I don’t blame them. They weren’t taking it very well. Not just the employees, but people were mad in that (Capitol Hill) neighborhood. My name was mud for a while.”

Her house even got egged and her car was vandalized. Gille couldn’t sleep and lost her appetite.

“I felt tremendous sense of guilt for people losing their jobs,” she said. “These people were like family to us. There was a lot sorry and guilt. It was just a very sad time.”

Flash back to December 1973 until May ‘74 when she dropped out of college at Virginia Commonwealth and did a study abroad program in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, at the Instituto Allende.  “It’s the happiest place on Earth,” Gille said about San Miguel. “It’s full of sunlight and liveliness and it’s beautiful. It’s colonial. The culture is very warm and embracing. I just remembered for years how happy I was down there.”

Gille, who first fell in love with Mexico in 1967 at age 13 on a trip with her mom and family, said in her subconscious she always yearned to return to San Miguel. After all, this was the place where she thought at just age 20 and 21 that she could settle down and make an exotic life.

“Enchanted by the colorful cacophony, I think: ‘I could retire like this,’’ Gille wrote in her book. “But the thought passes quickly. I am only twenty years old. Retirement is a lifetime away. Years later, for no apparent reason, the memory began to migrate toward the front of my brain. To the place where longing resides.”

Gille, a big risktaker who was striving for a “second chance in life” and battling a midlife crisis and to escape the dreary Seattle weather, sleet, “gloomy winters” and extreme guilt she felt about closing City People’s, went to San Miguel for 10 days in 2002 and impulsively bought her dream home, while liquidating her retirement account. She described the home with a breathtaking view located in an alleyway called Callejón de Chepito so eloquently in her book:

“I felt drawn to the house’s hot pink facade, like a magpie to a shiny jewel.”

While it took her about five years to feel most comfortable and assimilate and learn more Spanish, Gille eventually found her much-needed peace since closing City People’s Capitol Hill. She made friends with her neighbors, especially Gracia and her daughter Lupe, who treated Gille like family.  With her seasonal affective disorder, she had had wanted to sell City People’s in about 2006 and move to Mexico, but her partners weren’t willing. After 2002, Gille divided her home between San Miguel and Seattle, while still owning the City People’s Sand Point and City People’s Garden Store in Madison Valley.

“That relieved a lot of pressure,” she said. “When we cut loose of two stores and the union (at Capitol Hill), it was relatively easy to manage. We were kind of on auto pilot, the last two years in particular. That’s when I started writing and doing other things. I had many interests. The job became more doable. Life for the last 15, 16 years was relatively easy.”

Gille sold her interest in the City People’s Garden Store around 2007, and her partners sold the store to two employees in 2016. Then through IBA, Gille sold City People’s Sand Point with her partners in 2016. She said someone referred her to IBA and Kovsky did an excellent job of navigation and selling the store.

“It was great,” Gille said. “Gregory is so knowledgeable, he doesn’t beat around the bush. He knows what things are worth. He knew the parameters of what we could get for the business. He was upfront about it. He was really transparent. He’s a really good listener. I think that was really critical. He seemed to know really well when to push and when not to push on the buyer and probably that was true for us, too…whether we should hold tight for a certain amount or be flexible in the end when we were negotiating with people. It all went really smoothly.

“The only misstep on our part initially we chose two other guys and overlooked Kenzel and Kirsten (the Wilsons) as buyers, and that was kind of a mistake we made. But we quickly fixed it and Gregory patched it up and got Kenzel and Kirsten back on the line when we knew the guys weren’t really interested.”

Kovsky also has great admiration for Gille.  “She’s very intelligent, ” Kovsky said. “She’s a wonderful (and) dynamic person. A high-caliber person.”

Since retiring in January 2017, Gille has spent more time in San Miguel until COVID-19 and grown even closer to her neighbors. Gille, who messages Lupe weekly, was last in San Miguel in April for three weeks and still has the same pink house she fell in love with in 2002.  “I now feel like part of the gang on the callejón,” Gille said. “I know my neighbors really well. I think I’m liked by a lot of my neighbors and I like them. I’ve been lucky to be adopted by my community there. I feel like I really do have a place there. I feel very welcomed, like I belong.”

After a very successful and long entrepreneurial career in retail, Gille is enjoying retirement and losing the grind and pressures of ownership. In large part due to her Buddhist mindfulness practice, she is very content both in San Miguel and Seattle.  “I’m really happy every day of my life,” Gille said. “My whole life has been all about creating community wherever I go.”

While she wrote her first book at age 10 and dreamed of writing the “next great American novel,” she put her writing on hold after her 20s as she opened and grew her retail stores while raising two kids — son, Will, and daughter, Hannah. Gille eventually started writing again about 15 years ago regarding Mexican art and culture and immigration issues.

No longer writing, she now has a new mission in life after recently becoming president of the Latin American Relief Fund, “which helps migrants as they’re passing through Mexico with food, housing and showers.” She helps run a shelter, giving legal help and food to migrants while also running a rehabilitation program for men and women who fall off freight trains up north and frequently lose limbs.

“We run the only rehabilitation program in Mexico for people who fall off trains,” Gille said. “All of my energy is working with raising money to help migrants.”  With all the obstacles she’s faced in life and falling into a dark depression after closing City People’s in 2001, Gille said she’s grown much stronger.

“Anytime you survive adversity and go through it, it makes you more resilient and you didn’t cave, you kept going,” she said.

For Gille, her journey to success all started 42 years ago with her entrepreneurial dream of opening City People’s and those first five years on Capitol Hill, where she and her partners struggled to make ends meet.

“We never gave up,” she said. “Anyone who was more faint of heart might have given up. I remember one time, one of my aunts from Kansas City asked me how much money I made. At the time, I think I was making $325 dollars a month working for City People’s. I told her. She said, ‘Oh my God, why would you work at something so hard for such a pitiful amount of money?’

“My mom turned and says, ‘She believes in what she’s doing, that’s why.’ That was probably the most supportive thing my mom ever said about my career in City People’s. She was right. I believed in what I was doing. Luckily, eventually, what I (did) supported me and my family and was financially a viable thing to do.”

David Garfield

David Garfield is an international award-winning freelance writer based in Lawrence, Kansas. He’s been writing professionally since 1995 and has written over 20 magazine cover stories. A 1988 University of Kansas honors graduate, David has written on a variety of subjects during his long and successful career, including covering athletics at the University of Kansas, the Kansas City Royals and Kansas City Chiefs with a special emphasis on telling stories about the people behind achievement, including Hall of Famers George Brett, Roy Williams, Larry Brown, All-Star Johnny Damon, and rising NBA star Devonte’ Graham. He’s also written profiles on about 200 volunteers who played significant roles in their community. One of David’s most inspirational stories was about a Kansas native who traveled to Israel, where he donated a kidney to a 10-year-old boy and was hailed as a “hero.” David, who specializes in writing human interest profiles, has written stories from the heart on cancer survivors, recovering alcoholics and former homeless people, to successful businessmen/women, doctors, dentists, and idealist college students who wanted to change the world. He’s been published in USA Today, KANSAS! Magazine, Anchorage Daily News, Lawrence Journal-World, Lawrence Magazine, KU Today & Tomorrow, Kansas City Jewish Chronicle and Jayhawk Insider. He’s extremely excited to join the IBA family and write human interest stories on entrepreneurs who have achieved the American dream. Mr. Garfield also writes a blog about KU basketball: