Chubby and Tubby started selling goods out of a metal hut in 1946 in Seattle’s Rainier Valley.
Low overhead costs helped the business owners get started. Later, they built a store on an old landfill on Rainier Avenue South.
“It was cozy,” said Rainier Valley resident Mary Charles, who used to shop there. “It was also very friendly.”
Mary Charles’ husband, John Charles, bought Levis and white canvas Converse shoes there. You could buy almost anything there, Mary Charles said: “an apron for your grandma, shoelaces for your grandpa, a frying pan, a knitting needle and a fishing pole.”
The store had a foothold here in South Seattle, and it held on even when economic turmoil in the 1970s and ’80s forced the closure of many other Rainier Valley businesses.
When Chubby and Tubby closed in 2003, Rainier Valley residents mourned its passing. The grief extended to the other neighborhoods with Chubby and Tubby Stores – Aurora Avenue North and White Center.
Fiona Tsui didn’t know about Chubby and Tubby’s reputation when she opened a taekwondo studio on the store’s former Rainier Valley site.
“I’m an immigrant from Hong Kong. Chubby and Tubby is not really a landmark to me,” she said. “When we started the business, when we talk to people, I started to realize how important this landmark is.
“When I talk to my husband, he’s like: ‘Oh, Chubby and Tubby! Yes, very —’”
Tsui waved her arms about, imitating her husband’s description of Chubby and Tubby’s over-the-top business.
“I say, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, but yes, Chubby and Tubby, that’s where we’re gonna have our business.’”
It’s not a career Tsui expected. She’s an accountant. But then she discovered the joy of breaking boards with her foot.
“This is like gold to me,” Tsui said. “I get to enjoy, I get to relax.”
Tsui partnered with her taekwondo master, Jeanie Ahn. Ahn wasn’t thinking of setting down roots in the Rainier Valley. But that changed when Tsui told her about an apartment building called the Claremont on the old Chubby and Tubby site.
The developer of that building was having trouble leasing out the retail spaces on the ground floor. So it tried something new and offered the retail storefronts for sale to immigrant-owned businesses.
Lance Matteson is with SEED, the property’s nonprofit developer.
“Everybody likes the idea of owning their own property, whether it’s a home, or a business,” Matteson said. “Emotionally, it does resonate. And also, I think it is associated with having a foothold, with having a vested interest in the community.”
Tsu said SEED’s offer to own a storefront was tempting. But she had concerns about the Rainier Valley. She remembered thinking, “‘Is this a safe place to own a business?’ There were nights when I called Master Ahn and said, ‘Let’s drive around the neighborhood and make sure that it’s safe at night.’”
Tsui looks back on those first impressions as ignorant.
“We didn’t know this place good enough to make that conclusion,” she said. Since then, she has come to love the neighborhood.
Other businesses are following their lead. All the retail spaces have been sold at the Claremont building on the old Chubby and Tubby site. There’s a real estate company, a dentist and a pottery studio. And there are new businesses opening up on other properties nearby.
“Maybe it’s not the center of the city,” Tsui said of her location a few blocks south of the intersection of Rainier and Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. “But then when the whole neighborhood is improving and also developing – it is the center of everything right now.”
As for John Charles, he still misses Chubby and Tubby and its low prices.
He recalled the cheap Christmas trees, which his uncle bought every year.
“They weren’t the best trees,” John Charles said. “So he would take a drill and drill holes and then put branches on the empty spaces on the tree.”
Mary Charles added, “Chubby and Tubby did that so that everyone could afford to get Christmas trees.”
That may or may not be true. It could have been a “door-buster” to get customers to the store, but Mary’s comment shows how people felt.
Today you can buy what Chubby and Tubby sold at Lowes or Sears. But Mary Charles said big-box stores don’t have the small-town vibe of Chubby and Tubby.
“The big-box stores are just there,” Mary Charles said. “Chubby and Tubby was more than there. Chubby and Tubby was truly a part of that community.”
Then again, Seattle has also grown more cosmopolitan, which isn’t bad, John Charles said.
“We’ve got people from every color, every ethnicity, every culture, every sexual orientation,” he said. "It just makes it a more lively place to live.”
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