Life, Business, Olympia

Orca Books Co-op opens in new downtown Olympia location

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It’s been a wild year for the folks at Orca Books.

The long-standing downtown Olympia-based bookstore packed up and moved from its Fourth Avenue storefront to a new spot two blocks away. It also fully transitioned to a cooperative (co-op) business model, allowing for community and employee investment in the business.

Orca Books opened its new doors Oct. 1 at 315 Fifth Ave. SE, right next door to Rainy Day Records. 

Co-op board President and Events Coordinator Clare Follmann said the new spot is roughly one-third smaller than the Fourth Avenue location, but the smaller size comes with some benefits. It’s easier to keep the store heated and it’s easier for every staff member to familiarize themselves with the merchandise.

Follmann said she first toured the new spot in February. She showed other staff members the location, and they agreed moving was a good decision. It made financial sense, as rent prices at the old location were increasing annually, she said.

The transition started at a precarious time. When March began and the COVID-19 pandemic caused business lockdowns, Orca Books closed its doors, and limited its business to curbside services. 

They signed the lease for the Fifth Avenue location in April and started moving in June. It took plenty of work to get the spot ready, as the space had previously been a vape shop, and before that an insurance office. Staff members and hired workers tore out carpet and old cubicles and did electrical work.

Three additional people were hired to work at the bookstore in the midst of the transition.

“These poor newbies. Theoretically you’re signing up to be a bookseller, but instead of that you’re a mover, a packer, a carpet tearer-upper,” said Follmann. 

Follmann noted the location looks very similar to Orca’s old store. The aisle arrangement, polished concrete floor and resident bookstore cat Orlando are still around.

“It’s like a baby version of the old space,” Follmann said.

But moving locations wasn’t the only change in Orca Books’ business. On April 1, the bookstore fully transitioned to a co-op business model. This means that the shop is worker-run and ownership is divided among co-op members. To join the co-op, community members can buy in for a one-time membership fee that ranges from $25 to $100.

“Olympia has become a leader in the national co-op community over the last five years,” wrote John McNamara of the Northwest Cooperative Development Center in a press release. “Orca Books offers the community a chance to keep an anchor institution downtown that helps define Olympia’s identity and continues to build a resilient cooperative economy for our community.”

Follmann said the co-op business model was attractive because it allowed for more financial security and it’s an increasingly popular business model in Olympia. Other co-op businesses in downtown Olympia include Burial Grounds Collective, New Moon Café and Dumpster Values. Orca Books’ transition has been a few years in the making, and coincided with the retirement of Orca Books’ owner and founder Linda Berensten.

Co-op members get 10 percent off purchases and a vote in electing the co-op board. Follmann said they are currently seeking board candidates. 

“For me, it’s really heartening to be a part of an organization where I have agency to suggest ideas for improvement,” Follmann said.

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