Spokane Journal of Business

Mary’s Pacific Island Store: Marshalling in a taste of home

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-—Nina Culver
Store owners Sherlynn Mito and Ausdon Joel stand in front of shop, located on North Monroe Street.
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-—Nina Culver
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-—Nina Culver
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Mary’s Pacific Islands Store on north Monroe Street opened in May as a way to give Spokane’s Marshall Islands community a taste of home, with some popular favorites lining the shelves.

Getting to the store, however, has been a challenge. The street outside the shop at 2315 N. Monroe has been ripped up since the store opened, but portions of it are now finished. The sidewalk in front of the store is in place and the landscaping is in. 

“They started here when I first opened,” says Sherlynn Mito, who owns the store along with her husband, Ausdon Joel. “Right now, it’s good, because it’s almost done.”

The couple is from the Marshall Islands, which lie in the central Pacific Ocean, about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, where Mito says jobs are hard to find, and there are few doctors. They stock their store with items purchased from the islands, which is one reason Mito says she didn’t want to wait to open the store even though the road construction has put a damper on business.

“We just wanted to open and help our people,” she says.

Right now, the spaces on either side of Mary’s Pacific Islands Store are empty, but there’s a coffee shop next door to the building and the Institute for Extended Learning is across the street.

Like many people, Mito and her family left the islands to look for work. They arrived in Hawaii in 2003 and have lived in Washington state since 2006. There are about 5,000 Marshallese in Spokane, she says. The population has been growing as people follow friends and family who have already settled here.  

The growing Marshallese population in the area will be the key to the store’s success. “We have some of our food in the Oriental store,” Mito says, asserting, “This is the only store from our country.”

Some of the food labels in the store are printed in Japanese. Japan has had a large influence on the food in the Marshall Islands, Mito says. Japan occupied the islands, located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, until the U.S. took control of the islands in 1944. The Republic of the Marshall Islands later became independent but still has close ties to the U.S.

One of the most popular items the store sells are small packages of crab ship biscuits. There are also shrimp-flavored crackers, canned mackerel, and another favorite: cans of bullet tuna in coconut cream sauce. The breakfast crackers also have been popular.

Rice is a staple in the Marshallese diet, and shoppers can pick 25-pound or 50-pound bags of Thai Jasmine rice. Multiple types of Ramen noodles line the shelves near packages of kimchee, a traditional side dish made of fermented vegetables. People in search of snack foods can buy bags of whole dried peaches or dried plums dusted with Li Hing Mui powder, which contains dried ground plum, sugar, and salt.

Mito also sells bottled water turned rust colored by chunks of tree bark soaking inside. It’s used as a medicine. Mito claims it treats headaches, back pain, and diabetes.

“We call it Kojbar,” Mito says. “They grow close to the ocean.”

Mito says she drinks the bark water herself and swears by it, but she says it’s hard to describe the taste. “It’s sour,” she says.

Colorful dresses hang in the front window and more dresses, shirts, skirts, and shorts are folded up on several shelves along one wall. Some of the garments are meant to be party dresses, while others are light and thin, perfect for use as pajamas in hot weather, Mito says.

Jewelry is displayed in a case, and necklaces used as ties by men hang in a row. Purses woven from coconut leaves or pandanus palm leaves are displayed on shelves. The same leaves are used to make the decorative discs that hang on the walls in the store. The decorations, purses, and jewelry all include seashells.

One shelf holds a row of brightly colored flowers, also made from coconut tree leaves. They can be tucked behind an ear or worn in the hair and are usually worn during social gatherings or to church, Mito says.

The store also stocks a few common household items, including laundry detergent, dish soap, and soda to make it more of a one stop shop. 

Before they opened Mary’s, the couple took a trip home to the Marshall Islands to stock up on items for the store. As their stocks are depleted, they’re considering how to get more items shipped in most effectively and inexpensively.

In addition to providing a taste of home to their fellow Marshallese, the couple also want to improve their own lives. 

“Our goal is to buy our own house,” Mito said. “We always rent, so we try to make something better.”

The store is open 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It’s closed on Sunday.

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