"People circle the parking lot every day of the week," said Virginia Lange, a co-op staffer.
The 30,000-member co-op, which has a second store at 921 Rogers St. N.W., is searching for a new home because both stores are running out of space, Lange said.
"People as far away as Roy, Aberdeen and Tacoma come to shop here," said Lange, who thinks Olympia's two food co-ops are the only such stores between Seattle and Portland.
New home coming
The co-op's board of directors hopes to settle on a downtown Olympia-area location by fall and move into to a new home in 2009, Lange said. The board has not settled on whether to move to an existing location or build from scratch, she said.
The co-op is similar to a credit union; its members get a say in the merchandise it sells. It specializes in organic foods, bulk items and dairy products, and includes a generous offering of herbal extracts, fair-trade coffee beans and spices.
The store offers magazines and books for vegans, gardening and canning supplies, and gluten-free products.
"I find items here I can't find in other stores," said east side store shopper Carmen Navarro, who was shopping for ginger Tuesday.
The co-op began in a storefront at 121 Columbia St. in winter 1977. By 1980, it had moved to the west side location, then expanded to the east side, to a former RV store, in spring 1994.
In the early 1990s, the co-op was doing about $2 million in annual sales.
It will close this year with nearly $10 million in sales, Lange said.
Members pay a $5 joining fee and annual dues of $6 for four years. After that, they are members for life.
People 62 and older join free and get a 10 percent discount on merchandise.
You don't have to join to shop at the co-op, but members receive a discounted price for items.
Would-be customers would be wise to leave their stereotypes at the door, staffers say.
"People think of it as a hippie place," Lange said. "It really isn't. It's for everyone."
Help for flooded farms
For the past week, the co-op has been accepting donations from customers for a farmers' relief fund to help growers flooded out from last week's rainstorm.
Customers have been contributing $500 to $700 daily for the fund, Lange said.
Kathy McManus is one of about 100 volunteers who help out at the stores in return for a food discount.
"I can buy the best organics at the best price here," she said.
The east side co-op also provides a small office for the Thurston Union of Low-Income People, or TULIP, a credit union which has about 1,000 members. It opened four years ago.
The east-side store acts as a form of advertising for the credit union, said its member services specialist, Marti Dabagoglu.
"A lot of people learn about TULIP when they come to shop at the co-op," she said.