I recently made a pilgrimage back to my childhood, a chance to pay respects to a place that was a large part of how my family spent our weekends in the 1970’s and 80’s.
The mascot of the Yard Birds Shopping Center in Chehalis, Washington, aka “ the Yard Bird” had just went through an extensive restoration and the locals put on a “Bird Fest” to celebrate. The original bird was nearing a point where it could have easily fallen apart. Thanks to donations funds and donated labor, the bird was stripped down to its wooden skeleton and lovingly recovered and repainted over the summer. It looked magnificent.
The parking lot was filled with a couple hundred people, including former employees, who came out to reminisce about the old days of Yard Birds under a blanket of summer clouds. The store itself has seen better years. In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s it was where people came from all over Washington and Oregon to shop. A combination of Cabela’s, Wal-Mart, Costco and an Army surplus store all rolled into one 310,000 square foot location.
Here is a partial list of things sold at Yard Birds: c-rations, gas masks, ammo belts, paperbacks, toys, records, tapes, televisions, puppies, decommissioned missile nose cones, auto parts, bed headboard with tape deck/lotion dispenser, tires, exotic birds, fishing poles, guns, rubber boots, groceries, plants, manure, monkeys, western wear and ten cent popcorn.
I used to spend hours digging through cardboard boxes in their closeout section (always cut at slant, for easier perusing) looking for treasures. I would create an entire wardrobe for play including army belt, ammo holder, wooden fishing net floater (doubling as grenades), and a Star Wars storm trooper rifle (missing a few pieces,) for fewer than five dollars.
I spent my Christmas money on Star Wars figures, Starlog, MAD and Cracked magazines. In 1978 Darth Vader made a personal appearance (I was too scared get his autograph and settled for a snapshot from a distance). I bought my very first cassette tape there, (the soundtrack to Xanadu –yeeesh). In the summers, there was a gigantic parking lot sale where I once took, “The Pepsi Challenge” and saw several dozen crates of Shasta soda spontaneously explode in the heat of the summer sun, sending a foamy, sticky wave across hot concrete.
When we had out fill of Yard Birds, then we drove a block to Sun Birds, which was the original site of Yard Birds (that they outgrew in the 60s). We would dip once again into their surplus (and their popcorn) and then head out to the Country Cousin Restaurant or Shakey’s Pizza for dinner. Better days never existed.
The 1980s was the era of the shopping mall and Yard Birds earthy shopping experience began to fall out of fashion as the decade went on. The original owner sold their stores to a corporation that began to cut corners and many shoppers stopped coming to Yard Birds. Two major floods caused cause millions in damage and by 1995 Yard Birds was closed.
The building still exists, housing the Shop’n Kart Grocery and “Washington’s Largest Swap Meet”. Walking through the old store, the memories flooded back, it was now rather decrepit and you aren’t allowed upstairs. The gold and brown tile of the bathrooms is slathered with flat white paint and the linoleum of the floors has buckled after years of neglect. I love walking the old store, but I will always long for the days when it was in its prime.
There is a great documentary called “Skinny and Fatty: The Story of Yard Birds” about the history of the Yard Birds stores. It’s well done, but you really had to be there to truly appreciate it.
Dozens of these Yard Birds were placed around the original store. Only a few remain today
(The Dark Lord of the Sith Arrives, 1978)
(Personal memorabilia stash)