SEATTLE — There may be other places in the world to find a $6 sleeping bag or a $14.99 rubber raft, a $2 pair of sandals or a 99-cent mousetrap.
But it just won't be the same as finding a bargain at Chubby & Tubby's, said John Krasucki, a longshoreman browsing the shelves the other day at the quirky retailer, a 55-year-old Seattle institution on the verge of going out of business.
"Selling out to the bare walls! Entire store on sale!" read the banners at the flagship outlet in Seattle's Rainier Valley neighborhood. For longtime Seattle residents such as Krasucki, that is lamentable, the passing of one of those landmarks that give Seattle its distinctive character.
"I've been shopping here for more than 40 years," Krasucki said. "I remember coming here as a kid, buying my first pair of Converse sneakers at a Chubby & Tubby."
The liquidation of the three Chubby & Tubby outlets has generated an unusual amount of hand-wringing in the Seattle area, becoming the subject of local news accounts.
"I think Chubby & Tubby was uniquely dialed into what Seattleites wanted," said Dori Monson, the host of a talk show on KIRO-AM. "Every time I'd go in there, not only would I find what I was looking for, I'd find two or three other things that I didn't even know I needed. I think people here hate the idea of losing it."
Founded in 1947 as a military-surplus outlet in a Quonset hut by Irving "Chubby" Frese and Woodrow "Tubby " Auge, the stores thrived for decades, selling an eclectic array of goods.
But with Frese's death at the age of 82 in 1997, eight years after Auge died, the stores' ownership has been in the hands of the next generation of family members, who apparently have concluded that their small-box stores are having too difficult a time keeping up in a retail world dominated by big-box players. And unless a buyer emerges in the next few weeks, the stores are expected to close for good.
"It feels like a changing of the guard, like we're all going to see a monopoly of the Home Depots and the Wal-Marts," said Paula Terrell, a customer checking out the shelves for more bargains, such as the $19.99 union suit, a full-body undergarment ("Just like Grandpa's," reads the sign).
As the liquidation continues, it is not clear how much longer the stores will be open. General manager Mike DiCecco did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Cliff Frese, nephew of the co-founder and president of the stores, said Saturday: "We've been struggling, and we can't struggle anymore" to keep the business afloat. Frese, who divides his time between Los Angeles and the Seattle area, still hopes a "viable buyer, perhaps someone with a real sentimental attachment to Chubby & Tubby's" will emerge in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the liquidation continues.
The stores long had the feel of a perpetual, highly crowded rummage sale, and just five years ago in a commemorative circular celebrating "50 golden years in Seattle," the company boasted that "this granddaddy of all discount stores has survived an invasion of competitors as big as football fields."
But in recent days Chubby and Tubby has taken on a threadbare, downcast feel as customers clean the shelves.
If Chubby & Tubby does close, it will join other longtime local retailers that have closed in the last year or so, including Bushell's Auction House, which shut its doors after 96 years, and Warshal's Sporting Goods, which closed after 80 years in business.
Frese's general philosophy of salesmanship -- "Buy it cheap, stack it high and sell it out" -- was in evidence in nearly every narrow, crammed aisle of his stores.
Among other things, Chubby & Tubby has long been known for its huge selection of inexpensive Christmas trees. That tradition started shortly after the first store's opening in 1947, when Frese and Auge began selling trees, cut from power company right of ways, for 97 cents apiece. The rock-bottom prices continued over the years, with $5.99 the starting price for trees this season.
"We had a guy in here the other day very upset," said Brad Rogers, a medical student working as a Chubby & Tubby tree salesman this year. "He said he'd bought his tree every year here for more than 50 years. He said, 'Where am I supposed to buy my tree now?' It just won't be the same."
Many customers offered a similar dirge.
"You always just felt very at home here," said Vera King, a retired beautician who has bought sporting goods over the years at Chubby & Tubby for her four children and six grandchildren. "It's not too big. It's an old-timey sort of place."
Said Cat Jobes, a nurse who has long come to Chubby & Tubby for her gardening needs: "When a store likes this goes, it just feels like life is getting a bit more homogenous."