A downtown shopkeeper intent on keeping the streets clean
By Abigail Thorpe
Walk around the corner of Church Street onto First Avenue in Sandpoint, and you come across a little store called Burl Wood Dreams. A collection of interesting wood carvings and wooden furniture in the window, its hand-carved wooden sign hanging above the sidewalk, and an especially pristine section of street mark the home of Corey and Kimberley Obenauer’s unique store, and where Corey heads out from each morning to sweep up the streets of Downtown Sandpoint.
“You can walk around my corner, there's not so much as a cigarette but,” says Corey. “I won’t have it. I like to keep it clean, I like to keep it neat, because I think the first impression is a lasting impression.”
He and his wife have been in Sandpoint since 2013, when a family illness brought them out from Montana. They opened the store about three and a half years ago, after Corey put his energy into woodworking and building following the passing of his parents.
As you wander through the store, you can see his passion and detail for forming incredible pieces out of wood. The shop is home to pieces from other woodworking artists in the area as well, and Corey is the first to praise their work and welcome you in with a warm smile and handshake. His 3-and-a-half-year-old son is the center of his world; you can spot pictures of the toddler behind the counter and on articles and advertisements featuring the store. “He’s the light of our life, and Mom’s feet ain't touched the ground since,” laughs Corey. “So I work and I build, and I build and I work, and I drag on, and I push on, because they need that.”
In the summer months, you can find Corey out sweeping the streets of downtown each morning around 6:30am, before he opens his store for the day. He’s done so since day one, when he walked outside and didn’t like the trash he saw dirtying the downtown streets.
And so he grabbed a broom and took on the job of keeping Sandpoint clean—without payment or being asked. He saw a need, and he met it head on. “I learned that from my dad: Don’t mince words, mean what you say and say what you mean, and stick up for what you believe in. Make sure it’s what you believe that's right,” says Corey.
“I go all these places and I sweep up and I clean and I give and I do, and I don’t do it for reward because there is no reward. I get some air in my lungs and I get some exercise. And I'll come back, and just like building one of my tables, I'll finish a table and I'll walk away, and I’ll come back a couple hours or maybe tomorrow and I'll look at it and I'll go, ‘Wow, I did that with just these.’” He holds up his hands, a smile on his face.
Corey cleans about 15 blocks each morning, on foot. The beginning of the season is always the worst, as the trash builds up, but once he’s done it the first few times, there is less and less each morning. Cigarette butts are the number one number one thing he cleans up—no surprise. “But can you guess the second thing?” he asks. It’s plastic dental flossers—trash that won’t decay for years and years. “You’ll clean your body up and then you throw it on the ground. That’s number two. There’s been days when I’ll sweep up a hundred of them,” he says.
The neighboring businesses know Corey—he cleans their front sidewalk every morning, after all. Many will smile, some will thank him, some act like they don’t notice. For Corey, it’s about being good to people and caring for the town he lives in.
“Do the right thing, be good to people, because when you’re gone from here, that’s all they’re going to remember is who you were and how you treated people, not nothing else, and they’ll remember that good or bad,” he says. “That’s what I do. I love it. I love the life that I have from it. I get to look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘Did you do something good for someone else today?’”
The construction on First Avenue in front of his business has been hard on sales—like it has been for many of the downtown businesses. It’s dropped Burl Wood’s sales 95 percent, says Corey. But the bills and the rent don’t go away. Despite the stress of his own situation, he and his wife still find the time to give back. “What do you do? You can dwell on the negatives all you want to or you can just be positive and say, ‘Well, I didn’t have what a lot of people have, but I've got more in here than most of them do,’” putting his hand over his heart.
Despite difficult construction, the newly redone downtown promises to be a boon for business—if people take care of it. “I try to initiate it so that other people in their business could say you know what, I could get out there for five minutes in the morning, I could clean up the front of my place,” says Corey. “You’re going to make all of this beautiful and put all these benches and planters ... but if nobody is going to take care of it and it’s just going to get trashed up with cups and caps and straws and cigarette butts and McDonald’s bags, it’s going to look just as ugly as if you never did a thing. So it’s only going to be beautiful if people are going to take care of it.”
Come warmer weather, Corey will continue to go out each morning to sweep—he even does it in the winter on warmer days if he has the time and the weather permits. “The reward to me is I’ll say nothing to no one, and people will come in and say, ‘Wow this is such a beautiful town, you could eat off the street out there,’” he smiles.
The next time you’re in Downtown Sandpoint, stop in Burl Wood Dreams and take a moment to enjoy the love and detail that’s put into each one-of-a-kind, hand-made piece of furniture or accessory, and then walk outside and take a moment to appreciate how clean our town is. And then do your part to keep it that way.
“Sandpoint is one of the most beautiful places in America,” says Corey. “It’s a fantastic spot, and there’s reasons why it is, and you know what, mine—small little piece as it is—is one of the reasons why.”