Whidbey import store at least one positive result of the Iraq War

Fred and Sharon Lundahl in their Langley, WA import shop. (Photo by Abby Higgins)Ten years ago Fred Lundahl quit his job in the foreign service in protest of the Iraq invasion and started a new career running an awesome import shop on Whidbey Island.  

If you’re ever in Langley, the tiny town at the foot of Whidbey Island, look for a shop at the back corner of downtown on First Street called Music for the Eyes. When you go inside, you’ll enter another world.

The floor is blanketed in the deep reds of oriental carpets and the walls are lined in strings of glass beads in a full spectrum of primary colors. Tibetan earrings hang from stands on hand carved mahogany tables and Pakistani rugs creep like vines up a trellis.

Import stores abound in Washington but I had never seen anything like Fred and Sharon Lundahl’s shop. The merchandise is all marked with little white tags and the name of the country where they personally picked it up:  Tibet, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, India, Nepal, Morocco, the list goes on.

Rugs, furniture and apparel are mainstays of Music for the Eye's stock. (Photo by Abby Higgins)
Rugs, furniture and apparel are mainstays of Music for the Eye’s stock. (Photo by Abby Higgins)

Wearing treasures from their travels, Fred and Sharon disappear into the folds of the store surrounded by their merchandise.

Fred describes it as “the flotsam and jetsam of a dissolute diplomatic career.”

They gathered most of their stock during their time in the foreign service where they lived all over the world in two to four year stints, taking advantage of the generous shipping allowance provided by the State Department

Sharon retired in 2001. And in 2003, after 35 years, Fred followed suit.

“I could have worked on for a number of years more,” he says, “but I was dismayed, like many other colleagues, by the decision to invade Iraq and decided to retire then.”

In search of their first place to call home, they set out for Sharon’s native Washington. “Sharon told me, don’t believe what they say about the weather, that’s just to keep the Californians away,” Fred said.

They moved to Langley and bought the building the store is now in. “We didn’t want to rent because then every month we’d have to think about whether or not we had made enough money to make up for it. I suppose we should be thinking about whether or not we’re making enough money to pay the mortgage but…” he shrugged the thought off smiling and throwing up his hands.

Fred’s international life started early. He was born in Sweden and was drafted in Vietnam just after graduate school. He had deferred twice, once to attend Amherst and again to get his Master’s in Russian studies. The third time he applied for deferment to serve in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia. With a raised eyebrow at what they considered a dubious history of patriotism, the draft board sent him off to Vietnam.

Fred Lundahl blends into his stores merchandise. Most of it was collected during the decades he and his wife Sharon spent working in the foreign service. (Photo by Abby Higgins)
Fred Lundahl blends into his stores merchandise. Most of it was collected during the decades he and his wife Sharon spent working in the foreign service. (Photo by Abby Higgins)

After serving in the Air force, he went to Ethiopia to teach. While he was there, the Ethiopian government was overthrown in a coup. He fled to Kenya in search of stability. Sick of relying on tourist visas, he joined the foreign service.

Fred seems ambivalent about his formal career. He describes it as “ten years doing consular stuff, getting people visas and that kind of thing, ten years writing political reports that no one read, and ten years managing other people doing those things.”

Quickly, he turns the conversation back to a painting he had bought in his favorite place in the world, Lamu, in Northern Coastal Kenya.

Now, the Lundahls use the shop as an excuse to travel twice a year. Last year, they traveled to Nepal and the Caucuses, next year it will be Morocco and Uzbekistan. In the summer, they have friends help run the shop and they fly Fred’s Cessna to Victoria. It reminds him of the Air force and the time he had a job flying commercial planes in Kenya.

“You know Robert Redford’s character in Out of Africa?” he asked me. “It really was like that, you could put a cassette in, crank up the volume and fly over flocks of flamingos across the Serengeti.”

Before I knew it, Music for the Eyes had swallowed up my afternoon. Before I headed back to the ferry, we stopped near the shop to watch the sun fall behind the Olympic Mountains over Puget Sound.

Fred spread his arms out taking in the expanse. “Look at this!” He said, “This was our first place to call home and we found this, this wonderful community…We’re not moving again. They’re going to have to carry us out of here.”