TOPPENISH -- When Hope Johnson opened her furniture store, Amish Connection, almost 20 years ago in historic downtown Toppenish, she never imagined the friendships and cultural exchange it would spawn.
She takes annual trips to an Amish community about 70 miles northeast of Columbus, Ohio, where she buys handmade furniture that she sells in her store.
After falling in love with Amish quilts, a local friend who makes quilts began teaching her and 10 other women, all longtime customers, how to quilt at the shop. They meet weekly.
"One thing I got out of the 20 years I have been here, I got to meet a lot of friends," the 53-year-old said recently while sitting in a patio chair at her shop. "They were my customers, now they are my friends."
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Her store is nestled in a century-old building in the downtown core, where old street lamps, wood awnings and murals depicting the area's early settlement and culture form a Western theme.
Inside, the smell of cherry wood, oak and maple furniture mix with scented candles.
"Everybody says that: 'I love the smell,' " she said. "It's the candles and wood combined."
Handmade rocking chairs, tables, dining sets and bedroom sets fill most of the store. Old wood crates and cabinets form makeshift shelves where noodles, jams and candles are displayed.
Necklaces, earrings and bracelets are displayed at the store's large front counter alongside a natural ointment that offers relief from pain, arthritis and cold symptoms -- all handmade by Amish families.
"If I don't sell furniture or anything, I sell this all day long," Johnson said, pointing to the ointment. "I sell a ton of it."
The idea behind the store came from a business trip her husband, Rick Johnson, a trucking broker, took to Ohio, where he visited an Amish community.
He brought home miscellaneous handmade items such as pillows and pot holders, she recalled.
With plans to open a gift shop, she and her husband returned to the Amish community.
"Then when I saw the furniture, I thought, 'This is something the Valley doesn't have,' " she said.
She found an Amish man in Ohio who made bedroom sets.
"It all started from there," she said. "It was a handshake deal. That's how the Amish are. Now I have a lot of Amish friends."
She spends two weeks each year visiting those friends in their homes, which are lit by kerosene lamps. The Amish travel by horse and buggy and usually have large families, she said.
"It's like going back in time. Some have plain homes and others love yard sales and have a lot of glassware in their homes. And when you dine at their homes, they always have the table set."
She admits taking the plunge into selling Amish furniture in a community of people not familiar with that culture was risky.
"You take some of your money and you don't know if it's going to work or not," she said. "You just take that risk. If you don't take the risk, you will never know."
But what she found is there are a lot of customers looking for quality, and Amish furniture is all made of wood and well assembled, she said.
"They just want something that's going to last -- you're not going to see this in the landfill next year," she said, pointing to an oak chest. "It's something that your kids are going to have."
Doing business with the Amish can be challenging, however. They don't use telephones, so making sure orders are right can be difficult at times.
"I can't just call them and say, 'Hey, did that make it on the truck?' You have to write them."
Most of her inventory is based on customers' orders. Inventory is taken to an Indiana wood finishing shop, where it is kept until there is enough to truck to her store.
"I get a truck about every four to six weeks," she said.
Her toughest year came in 2004, when an accidental fire gutted her store two days before its 11th anniversary. Although insurance covered most of the damage, the store was out of commission for a year.
But her relatively quick return helped her retain her clientele.
"If you're not open for four years, they forget about you here," she said.
Like most businesses inthe Yakima Valley, she has felt the pinch of the slowed economy.
"It's tough. It has been tough the past three years," she said. "But I'm blessed. I have my regular customers and now I'm seeing their kids come in."
Now she's hoping for a better year.
"I'm starting to see things turn around," she said. "We've started getting more orders."