Think back 20-plus years.
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists took down the World Trade Center and hit the Pentagon. Just four months earlier, Colleen and Michael Bowman opened their new downtown Edmonds retail store, C’est La Vie. The U.S. was shocked and virtually shut down.
After the attack, Colleen turned to Michael and said, “I have to go to the store!”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because people will need to see something beautiful,” Colleen replied
All day, people came in to thank her for being open so they could leave tragedy behind for a few moments.
That time 20 years ago marked the beginning of a love relationship between Colleen and Michael and their customers.
Now, after a global pandemic shut the world down, the Bowmans are shuttering their beloved business C’est La Vie, a poignantly appropriate name, meaning “Such is Life.”
For Colleen and Michael Bowman, it’s time to retire. “I’ve worked all my adult life. I’m ready to retire,” Colleen said. She was the face of the business but the partnership betweeen the two has been total and Michael worked at it every day as well. “I took out the garbage and changed lightbulbs,” he said. “This was all Colleen.”
Michael fell in love with Colleen long before he was able to propose marriage. But, since then, “We have the most fun together. We always have something to talk about,” he said.
Michael came up with the name C’est La Vie because he loves words, their meanings, origins. (Many detentions in middle school meant he spent a lot of time studying the dictionary!) But credit for the rest, he said, belongs to Colleen. “It’s her business. She is the best buyer, the best merchandiser, the best organizer, an amazing human being,” he said.
The Bowmans sold the building on 5th Avenue South and said they will respect the new owner’s right to make an announcement about the future of the space.
The business itself was a magnet for many loyal customers. The store sold high-quality gifts, decor and clothing that could be described as having a certain style, a panache. Michael is effusive about Colleen’s talents, “People are going to miss all the items in her store,” he said.
The Bowmans’ fundraising and charity work continually drew fans from all over the area. They created a calendar with local restaurateurs to raise money for a children’s burn camp, and held other events to fund defibrillators to schools, buy shoes, clothes and food for children in need, and more. “The things she’s done for people,” Michael said, “it’s just astounding. And it was hard. But she persisted.”
“The give-back is so important to me,” Colleen said. “When you hear about a particular charity, like Washington Kids in Transition — homeless kids! So, just look at our community: we can change that in a heartbeat by just giving exposure to them!”
“The Phoenix Burn Camp, for example. We did the calendar for them. The couple who formed this camp for burned children is remarkable This one little boy was burned just before the camp and they put him on plane and he arrived with just the clothes on his back.
Another beneficiary was the Renton-based Domestic Abuse Women’s Network. “I would do anything for them,” Colleen said, adding that after the Bowmans opened a second store in Renton, “I got all the restaurants and stores involved and we got food, wine, goodie bags and had a full-on fashion show!”
Colleen’s energy is abundant, and Michael said he was concerned that she would not be able to retire. The pandemic, however, changed the whole picture for them.
“I realized I don’t have to move so fast and I don’t want to now,” Colleen said. “I take things a little slower and can spend time watching the hummingbirds and chickadees in our yard… just slowing down and watching, noticing… not move so fast.”
On the other hand, Michael knows her well. “She will be tapped to help out somewhere and will soon be running it. I asked her not to volunteer. We need to live these next two years like they are the only ones we have.” They have plenty of exotic travels ideas.
“I had to promise Michael two years of “no!” (about volunteering),”Colleen added, although there is one exception. She spends several hours a week at Swedish Edmonds Hospital “cuddling the babies.” She does it for the babies, for herself, and now, for the nurses. “They need so much support,” she added.
The pandemic did more to the Bowmans than just slow them down. They spent much more time enjoying each other, doing things together, just the two of them. They exercised at home together, went for walks, enjoyed a new outdoor gazebo and each other’s company at a different pace. (Their grown son lives in Oregon.)
“We laugh more than ever now,” Michael said, smiling.
“Certainly the pandemic took the fun out of retail. for me,” Colleen admitted. “It was never about selling stuff. It was about community, the events you can put on for other people. Once that wasn’t possible, it just wasn’t the same. And traveling to trade shows stopped for two years. Ordering online just isn’t fun and can lead to mistakes. Sometimes items were delivered and I got a look a them, they went directly to the ‘sale’ shelf,” she laughed.
“I’m going to miss not having the store because of the people who come in… and seeing that woman coming out of the dressing room with a smile because she feels great about how she looks,” Colleen said.
Local retailers always give credit to their regular customers. The Bowmans agree.
“You can’t survive without them. They are the lifeblood of our 20 years,” Colleen said. “We have added so many new friends into our personal life, and it gives us huge smiles when they walk in the door.”
Colleen got solid retail training after 17 years at Nordstrom. She was one of a handful of Edmonds shop owners who had worked at Nordstrom. “There were a lot of us… it (Nordstrom) was a great training ground. It gave me a strong work ethic. You had to work a lot. It looks like fun but it’s a lot of work, not fluff.”
Michael had three jobs when they started the shop. But, after five years with the store, Michael agreed to help build her business by starting a website and expanding into Renton with a second store right after the 2008 crash. “It was hard, commuting through Seattle traffic, but we still have Renton customers who drive up to Edmonds to visit this store.” They closed the Renton store in 2016.
They had a good division of labor, with Michael working the back end and the financials, and Colleen doing all the creative work. As they enter a new phase of life, Michael said, “My motto is live every day with childlike awe, just don’t act like one. I simply couldn’t be happier.”
For a business that opened around the time of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, survived the 2008 recession and the reopening of a newly renovated Alderwood Mall, overcame the surge of online shopping and, now, a global pandemic, it has been a wonderful ride for the Bowmans.
“I think the city will miss her, but I have her full-time,” Michael added.
This reporter admits to shedding more than a few tears listening to Colleen and Michael reminisce as, I, too, was a regular customer and will miss them.
But we must all face reality: C’est La Vie. That’s life. Maybe the Bowmans will provide a travel blog for us.
— By Mauri Shuler