After 33 years, birding and nature store One Good Tern (1710 Fern Street) near Fairlington is closing as longtime owner Charles Studholme faces a grim kidney failure diagnosis.
“It’s doctor’s orders,” Studholme explained, then with a chuckle. “Well, the doctor’s orders were to stop three years ago.”
Studholme said the plan is to close the store “when the inventory runs out.” Initial plans were to do so by the end of October, but he said that will likely run into November with closure before the end of next month.
Virtually everything in the store outside of bird feed is marked with an at least 25 percent discount. The walls are lined with birdwatching paraphernalia, from telescopes clocking in at several hundred dollars to bird-themed socks and earrings at $10.
But One Good Tern is more than a store. Like a busy bird feeder, customers come and go, chatting and chirping at each other. As the store comes into its final stretch, there’s a constant flow of people in and out. It’s a gathering place for a niche community, with Studholme at its heart.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do once he goes,” one customer said.
Studholme didn’t found the store — a man named Mark Farmer founded it in 1986. Studholme started working there part-time in 1999 and two years later, bought it from the woman who’d replaced Farmer. Studholme, who’d previously worked in other retail jobs, described himself as a shopkeeper through-and-through who has had a longtime passion for birds.
He was born in Massachusetts and his father worked in fish and wildlife. Studholme recalled that all of his father’s friends also worked in that field and talk of nature filled his house. One friend went on a walk on the beach with Studholme when he was five and while most adults tended to ignore children, she talked to him and really listened to his questions.
“I knew about birds, but that was really the extent of my five-year-old knowledge,” he said. “She pointed to the sanderlings running down to the water’s edge and coming back to avoid getting wet, and it really anthropomorphized them. I found out later that was Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring and ignited the eco-movement in America.”
Studholme said that beach walk with Carson helped to shape his passion for birds and nature, though he didn’t it until later. But since then, Studholme has passed that passion for nature onto visitors to the store. It’s mostly birds, but customers come into the store and ask Studholme about things like hibernation patterns of chipmunks and other nature questions.
“I was able to feed the robins the cranberries like you suggested,” a customer told him.
“He’s got all the knowledge,” another said.
One customer came in to ask whether he should take a position in a rare-bird focused organization.
“It’s a thankless job,” Studholme said, “but when has that ever stopped you? You worked at the Pentagon.”
Studholme doesn’t hide from his customers that he’s facing the end stage of kidney failure. A transplant could extend his life for ten years, and he said he’s keeping his options open, but Studholme said many of the treatments involve a great deal of pain and his preference would be to spend his final years in comfort.
Once the store closes, Studholme says he plans to move up to Smethport, Pennsylvania. It’s near the Allegheny National Forest and his family is from the area.
Studholme said he’s wracked with concerns about what will happen to the birds in years to come. Birds are disappearing at record numbers — with nearly 30 percent of the North American bird population disappearing over the last half-century — and he said it won’t stop with the birds.
“The birds are a harbinger of what we’re doing to ourselves,” Studholme said. “What’s happening to them is a sign of what is to come. It’s a symptom of the degradation of the environment and it is human-caused.”
Studholme has seen the impact personally. Bird flocks he tracked have thinned. Road trips where he once had to stop to wipe bugs away from the windshield have been become insect-free, evidence of the decline in the food source for the birds.
“The migrations are starting to get strung out because they don’t have enough to eat, and that impacts breeding seasons,” Studholme said. “You can thank Monsanto. The indiscriminate use of insecticides is the big deal. If you have a garden and you’re spraying for insects, you’re part of the problem.”
Larry Cartwright, a friend of Studholme and a fellow bird-watcher, said Studholme always gets impassioned when it comes to ecological issues.
“It’s terribly sad to see him go,” Cartwright said. “We’ve been birding together for years, in Texas and Florida. Those were some of the best years of my life… It’s a terrible loss.”