A new shop in downtown Oak Harbor transports its patrons to a medieval realm while offering goods made right here on Whidbey Island.
TerraVen, located at 890 Bayshore Drive, opened for business Dec. 1. The “tinker shop” is a sort of playground of invention and creativity for owners Kristi Uhles and Shea Looijen, who make many of their wares in house, including the historical pouch games that have earned them a name in the gaming community.
“Wherever our inspiration happens to hit, we can just go chase it and make that thing and find out if it’s any good,” Looijen said.
“Hopefully inspiring others and getting them eager to make, as well,” Uhles added.
Decorated to evoke the imagery of a castle interior or medieval fortress, the shop front displays wares perfect for anyone who loves history, fantasy or adventure. Historic decks of playing and tarot cards carved out of wood; dice sets and leatherbound quest logs for role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons; large, rustic pencils that appear to be carved straight from tree branches and must be sharpened with a knife; and tiny leather pouches on strings for collecting keepsakes are just a few of the items sold at TerraVen.
Almost everything made of leather or wood is made in house, Uhles said. She added that since she and Looijen plan to make whatever they find interesting in the workshop, there will regularly be new items for sale.
The shop’s pièce de résistance are the pair’s “pouch games,” portable leather and stone game sets that strive to revive methods of leisure and revelry lost to time.
The pouch game is Looijen’s concept; the playing board is etched onto real suede leather that can be drawn up into a small bag to carry the stone game pieces. Several of the games are Looijen’s and Uhles’s own creations, but the couple also recreates lesser-known ancient games that have largely disappeared in the annals of history.
Recreating these games began with an extensive research period, Looijen said. Online sources were limited. Old books were slightly more helpful. After collecting what few primary sources they could find — sometimes just a few old poems or letters — they spoke with museum curators and archaeologists about likely versions of gameplay and which rules would have made the most sense in the cultural context of the society and time period the game is from.
Where they couldn’t fill in the gaps definitively, they made their best guesses based on their discussions with the experts. Uhles said their goal was to create a playing experience that is faithful to what the original, ancient players might have experienced, while also making the games logical and playable for modern audiences.
Though TerraVen only opened this month, Looijen and Uhles have been making games together for over two decades. Both grew up in Kirkland — Uhles describes them as high school sweethearts who didn’t meet until after high school.
Despite their largely overlapping friend groups, the pair never crossed paths until 1998 when, as fate would have it, they were dining in the same Denny’s at 2 a.m., and the rest was history. Looijen had been making pouch games since 1994, and Uhles’s own passion for creating made her a natural business partner for him.
“We have very complementary skill sets,” Looijen said. Uhles is the team’s lead researcher and business development manager, while Looijen serves as the lead designer and product engineer.
They first began publishing games in 2012 under the name Bibelot Games. “Bibelot” is a French word, meaning a small item of rarity, beauty or curiosity.
After a few years, including a temporary hiatus from the game industry, they decided to take their show on the road. At the beginning of 2020, Looijen and Uhles launched a new business venture which hinged on selling their games at large public events such as Renaissance fairs, Society for Creative Anachronism events and other similar venues.
Despite the unfortunate timing — COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns put the kibosh on large gatherings less than three months later, effectively torpedoing the couple’s business strategy — they enjoyed a wildly successful launch. For those first couple of months, Looijen and Uhles were hailed with enthusiasm by former patrons, Renaissance regulars who remembered them from the early days of Bibelot Games.
“People would come running down the aisle, down the dirt track, screaming, ‘The game people are back!’” Looijen said.
When the pandemic ended all medieval rollicking for the foreseeable future, Looijen and Uhles took the time to reassess.
“If we have to start from zero anyway, where do we want to be?” Looijen remembered them asking.
The answer was clear almost immediately — Whidbey Island.
The couple had traveled far and wide since that first chance encounter in the Totem Lake Denny’s. With the Southwest, the East Coast, and even a stint in Europe under their belts, they wanted to return to their Washington roots. Looijen’s parents had lived on Whidbey Island for years, and the place had always possessed a sort of magic for Looijen and Uhles. Uhles described Whidbey as a safe haven, a place where they could be themselves and create freely.
Upon moving to the island, they decided to open TerraVen as a tinker shop, a place where they could make whatever they wanted and explore whatever creative avenues piqued their interest. They also plan to host workshops, classes and game nights there in the future.
As per the shop’s website, www.terraven.org, TerraVen is open “most days, morningish to eveningish.”