Marissa McGrath remembers a field trip she took in elementary school in Oklahoma. The students visited Rose Hill where, as part of a history lesson, the kids spent the day in a one-room country school, experiencing what education would have been like in the year 1910. For Marissa, it left an impression about how much we can learn from the past, and how much fun that learning can be. Chances are you have experienced something similar: a trip that has stuck with you, leaving you with fond memories along with an education. The area we now know as Bellingham certainly has its share of history, and it doesn’t take much digging to uncover some great stories: there’s plenty of triumph and defeat, love and lust, piety, drunkenness, and political drama to learn about here.
And now, in a small, unassuming storefront at 217 West Holly Street, is a modest, eclectic shop that sometimes confuses passersby, and usually delights those who step inside. With an intriguing name and an emphasis on local history, it is an alternative to most of the commercialism surrounding it. And with its clean, old-fashioned aesthetic, it feels a bit like a time machine. “We investigate the past, attempt to curate a collection…that says something about our present, and try to…grow a future for Bellingham that we can be proud of,” explains co-owner Sara Holodnick.
Sara and Marissa are known for overseeing a long-running series of walking tours in the area, and dreamed of growing their brand of informative entertainment into something more. After trying out a few ideas, it became clear that opening a gift store made a lot of sense: Bellingham draws a good number of tourists, and “people want a token of a visit,” says Marissa. So you will have no trouble finding memorabilia that reflect the sights and overall feel that make Bellingham what it is. But places that attract tourists are also known for a long list of stereotypical businesses: t-shirt shops, candy stores, and galleries selling safe, cookie-cutter art. The ladies of the Bureau have made an effort to avoid this trap, and have focused instead on the earthier parts of Bellingham’s history. “People are yearning for something that a human put effort into,” Marissa continues, and the great majority of the goods in the shop are hand-crafted, running the gamut from quirky little knick-knacks to artistic labors of love.
While visitors may be looking for mementos, the owners recognize that a community needs a place to come together as well. The store opens its doors for the monthly downtown Art Walk as well as providing a market for local artisans. “We wanted our shop to be a physical representation of what makes Bellingham special,” according to Sara. Seeing the output of the community’s artists isn’t hard to do at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday, but it’s not so easy in the middle of a workday halfway through the week. So the duo strives to showcase the work of original, creative locals.
Another part of the shop’s appeal is that the ladies have done an awful lot of research, and it’s not hard to get them talking about history. They tell stories to connect people to the history of their community, and help them to learn from the decisions that their forebears made. They have also found that teaching long-standing lore in a town with a highly transient population acts as a sort of rumor control.
Have a look at the ever-changing window displays that blend art, culture, and history, and then step inside for a visit. The ladies of the Bureau have made themselves a valuable resource for the weekend visitor, the thoughtful shopper, and artists and craftspeople looking for a way to connect with the public — and they’ve always got a juicy story up their sleeves.