NO matter how you look at it, Dawson City is hardly your typical shopping mall. It is not, for example, large, flat, and sprawling. What its small square tower, winding hallways, and Courtyard Theatre offer the shopper is a personal fairy tale, a small adventure with each visit.
Around each corner is an image that evokes the past in the minds of adults and creates small treasures in the memories of children.
Mike Dawson, owner and developer of this singular place near Edmonds, Wash., on the outskirts of Seattle, is a wizard, in a sense, who has consistently taken the risks required to see his fantastic dreams develop into concrete reality. Mr. Dawson's actions are tuned to his private vision of enchantment and excellence.
The difference at Dawson City is more than the visual delight. There are no chain stores or large department stores anywhere on the site. Each small business is unique and is run directly by its owner.
It's the personal touch here that makes all the difference.
``The megabucks formula is wrong,'' says Mr. Dawson. ``What counts is people.'' The key, he adds, is building the customer's respect, acceptance, and repeat business through quality merchandise and services. The result for Mike Dawson: a whopping success.
Mr. Dawson has always liked the old-time atmosphere of Seattle's Pike Place Market, where vegetable and fish hawkers bargain with shoppers, laugh, and keep up a lively banter on their goods. He says he wants to make a place where people feel comfortable and where, for example, the shopkeeper remembers a customer's name.
The heart of Dawson City is the Courtyard Theatre. Here the ``Cracker-barrel Mornings'' are becoming a Saturday staple, a lively alternative to TV cartoons for many families in the suburban areas around Dawson City.
At the first performance only a few children sat around the potbellied stove listening to songs played to the accompaniment of a banjo. Then storytellers, mimes, and short plays were added. Now, each Saturday morning is like a carnival -- with balloons, face painting, and all sorts of activities.
Suellen Adams, general manager of the theater, says: ``Every Saturday we create magic.''
The dinner theater, however, provides most of the employment at the Courtyard Theatre. Five nights a week the theater is filled with laughter as another lighthearted performance brightens the stage.
The shopping center began six years ago when Dawson bought a nondescript commercial building in which to start a branch of his meat business. The ``village'' then began to grow organically and whimsically around that first building. Now, the Brazilian granite flooring polished in Italy, handcut cobblestones, a stone bridge near a waterfall/fountain, a Spanish-tiled roof, and ornamental brass, iron, and wood trimmings are orchestrated to keep people aware of being somewhere out of the ordinary -- somewhe re different.
Mike Dawson has a talent for wrapping his commercial endeavors into entertaining packages. His latest dream, still on the drawing board, is a more elaborate fantasy village to be built on 20 acres. This may include homes and a small train traveling around a lake in the center. Overcoming building codes and the doubts of the lenders, Dawson says, is hard, but he works at it.
The Dawson City developer predicts a trend toward what he describes as ``quaintness'' in shopping centers nationwide. Some, for example, already have a country look.
``That implies,'' he says, ``that the size will be in a proportion that people can relate to and that the materials will reflect a culture that people want to remember.''