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Churchmouse is an oasis for the knitting crowd
Kit Hutchin and John Koval are Bainbridge Island Chamber's Business Couple of the Year

John Koval and Kit Hutchin, owners of Churchmouse Yarns & TeasKit Hutchin started knitting when she was seven years old. But it took her nearly 20 years job-hopping in various professions to figure out what she was meant to do.

Hutchin, co-owner of Churchmouse Yarns & Teas on Bainbridge Island along with husband John Koval, tried her hand at catering, bookkeeping and advertising. Nothing stuck until a friend suggested she consider opening up a yarn store in 1999.

She had taught others to knit and had even formed a knitting group at a church on the island. Even so, she was reluctant to take the plunge. “I didn’t know how (to run a retail store); I didn’t have any experience; I didn’t have much capital,” she recalled.

At the urging of her husband, she took a week to mull it over. “I allowed myself to think I could,” she said, “instead of thinking I couldn’t.”

Bainbridge Island has been the beneficiary of that decision ever since.

Churchmouse — now in its 11th year — has become an island destination, attracting throngs of local shoppers and knitters from afar who enjoy the store’s cozy atmosphere, on-going classes and workshops, friendly staff, tasty tea, and beautiful yarns.

In just over a decade’s time, Hutchin and Koval have built an extraordinary business in their little alcove shop on Madrone Lane that is known by knitters across the continent.

For their ongoing business success and acumen, and their ever-present support of Downtown Winslow, the Chamber of Commerce has named them its 2011 Business Couple of the Year.

Hutchin and Koval, who have been married for 31 years, will be feted at a special Business Couple of the Year Banquet Luncheon on Wednesday May 18 at 11:30 a.m. at Wing Point Golf and Country Club. Cost is $30 per person. The public is invited. They will also be the Grand Marshals at the Chamber-sponsored Grand Old Fourth of July Parade and Community Celebration.

“It’s an honor and privilege to be recognized,” said Koval, “but we want to accept this award not only for ourselves but for the other hard-working merchants in Downtown Winslow.”

Churchmouse now has 15 full and part-time employees, all but one an Islander, and has seen sales increase almost every year since its inception. “Our staff is the real key to our popularity,” said Hutchin.

Indeed, Google the store’s name or go on “Yelp” and you will see some very flattering reviews of the Churchmouse customer experience — visitors are treated kindly and enthusiastically by people who are passionate about yarn and tea.

Some fans are extreme in their support, especially in light of the current construction outside the doors on Winslow Way. “We would climb over barricades to get to this store,” one customer told Koval.

“We’ve been able to have this type of shop because we’re on Bainbridge,” said Hutchin. “We’re proud to invite people to the Island. When visitors come, they feel like they’ve been somewhere. (Downtown Winslow) is not a commercial strip … When you’re here, it’s unlike anywhere else.”

Hutchin credits the support of fellow downtown shopkeepers in creating this congenial atmosphere for locals and visitors. “Many retailers here have been in business fifteen, twenty, thirty years. They’ve set an inspiring example for us.”

The name — Churchmouse — came to Hutchin almost immediately. “We wanted something that sounded traditional and English, and was easy to remember,” she said.

Hutchin designed the décor herself with advice from friends, using English pine fixtures and table lamps. “We really wanted the store to have a residential feel.”

She added teas so that non-knitters who might be intimidated could “give themselves permission to come in.” That section of the shop now has its own loyal following, including many Island men.

Churchmouse serves a clientele that ranges from seven year olds to seniors, all connected by an interest in knitting, crochet, needlepointing and the enjoyment of tea.

“These activities include all types of people,” said Koval. “Young and old, men and women, avid and occasional, analytic and organic… all connected by the same passion.”

The couple’s future plans for Churchmouse includes expanding its web site and continuing its pattern design business.

Over the years, Hutchin designed scarves, hats, gloves and baby clothes and gave the patterns free of charge to customers who purchased yarn. In 2009, the couple launched the first line of Churchmouse patterns. “We worked with a Brooklyn photographer who, because he’s also a knitter and designer, really captured the knitting. Originally from the Northwest, he really captured Bainbridge Island, too.”

The patterns were sold initially in the store and online, but then other yarn shops expressed interest in carrying the line. The couple ran a marketing campaign that attracted more yarn shops and then added a second collection of patterns, “Churchmouse Wee Ones,” for babies. New collections are in the works.

Today, Churchmouse has nearly 300 wholesale customers throughout the US, Canada and England. “We just added an Australian shop and heard from one in Paris,” said Koval. Churchmouse recently had visitors who learned about the shop, and about Bainbridge Island, after purchasing a pattern in a Chicago yarn store.

Despite the potential of this side of their business, both Hutchin and Koval admit that the heart of the enterprise is their Bainbridge Island shop.

“We offer what many other yarn shops offer,” said Hutchin. “The only way we can be different is with how we make you feel when you’re in our store. Did we inspire you? Did we encourage you? Did you learn something? Did you have a success? Did you make a friend when you were here?”

With this kind commitment and a passionate staff, Churchmouse proves on a daily basis that the art of customer service has not vanished.

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