There’s a popular litany about downtown Olympia that goes something like this: There’s too little parking, too many vulnerable people on the street, and it’s a dead end for small businesses, unless you operate a bar.
But if you talk to Dave Platt, the 17-year owner of The Mailbox on State Avenue, he’ll out point out a different reality: Downtown Olympia is home to some of the longest-running businesses in the city. And it’s not just one or two businesses.
Always Safe & Lock, Archibald Sisters, Batdorf & Bronson, Popinjay, Compass Rose, Painted Plate, Childhood’s End Gallery, Don’s Camera (now doing business as Digital Imaging Northwest), Traditions Cafe, Radiance Herbs and Massage, The Spar, Buck’s Fifth Avenue, Danger Room comics, Drees, King Solomon’s Reef, Orca Books and Browsers Bookshop — all 18 businesses, including The Mailbox, have been downtown for about 20 years or longer.
If downtown is perceived as struggling, The Olympian set out to determine how they’ve succeeded. Longtime business owners who were interviewed disputed the area’s parking problems, pointing out that downtown parking is free after 5 p.m. during the week and all weekend.
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They also questioned its other perceived challenge — the presence of a vulnerable street population. They said large street communities can be found in most communities up and down the Interstate 5 corridor.
Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby, a small-business owner, acknowledged that some shoppers can be turned off by negative experiences downtown. But she encouraged them to return, because more people downtown will help downtown change, she said.
But succeeding in business in downtown Olympia looks a lot like succeeding in business elsewhere. The business owners mentioned the importance of evolving over time to meet customers’ needs, offering good customer service, and curating items for customers — steps needed to distinguish them from their real competition: The Internet.
“They have a passion for what they do, they care about what they do, and they care about the community,” said Platt about longtime business owners downtown. “They keep plugging away.”
Here’s what business owners had to say:
BATDORF & BRONSON
Batdorf & Bronson, the coffee roaster and cafe operator, has been downtown for more than 30 years, said Dave Wasson, chief operating officer for the business.
It probably is best known for its spacious cafe on Capitol Way, but it began across the street in about 800 square feet, including the coffee roaster, he said. The roaster later moved to Port of Olympia property, and the roaster and the cafe expanded.
Downtown is dynamic, walkable and has a strong sense of community.
“We lose a toy store and somebody reopens a toy store,” he said, referring to the closure of Wind Up Here, which later became a toy store called Captain Little.
He also said the city’s parking problems are overblown.
“It’s OK to walk a couple of blocks,” he said.
Owner Paul Shepherd, who started his gift shop in Capital Mall about 20 years ago, said he always wanted a permanent store downtown and now can’t imagine leaving the area. He also opened Captain Little with another owner after Wind Up Here closed.
“I enjoy Olympia and love my staff,” he said.
Shepherd doesn’t recommend going into business like he did, with little preparation, but over time, he and other business owners downtown have learned the ropes of retail.
“All of us working together have made a good retail market downtown,” he said.
He said that sales reps who visit his store from other cities always comment on downtown’s surprisingly vibrant retail environment.
“It’s pretty unique for a medium-sized city,” Shepherd said.
Painted Plate — which invites customers to paint ceramic mugs, teapots, plates and other items — will turn 21 in April, owner Georgia LaRocque said.
She, too, wouldn’t do business anywhere else but downtown, even though she’s showed up to work to find someone asleep on her doorstep. She asked the person to move along, and the person did. She still feels compassion for the street community.
But she has had to evolve and change her business over time. That has meant offering beer, wine, small-plate appetizers and espresso. She also has created a “date night,” where couples can come in and paint something together. These changes have helped her business grow 10 percent a year the past few years.
“I think our downtown is amazing,” she said.
She said Olympia’s challenges with the street community are no different than those found in Portland, Tacoma and Seattle.
“I don’t resent it for a minute,” LaRocque said. “I love the feeling of the city and wouldn’t be anywhere else, and I feel very connected to the other businesses downtown.”
Don’s Camera has had a presence downtown for 52 years, longtime owner Tom Dorian said.
But he had to share a bit of sad news: The business will close over the next two months, but not because the business is struggling. On the contrary, the business found a second life as Digital Imaging Northwest, transferring film, audiotape and videotape to digital formats. He had so much business over the holidays, it was almost more than Dorian and his employee could handle, he said.
Dorian said he is closing the storefront because of his wife’s health. His plan is to take his equipment home and operate it as a home-based business.
“Downtown has always been good to me,” he said. “I will miss my customers more than anything.”
Dorian also said that downtown’s parking concerns aren’t founded. He said customers unreasonably expect to park directly in front of a business and get upset when they have to park across the street.
RADIANCE HERBS AND MASSAGE
Radiance has been downtown for more than 40 years, and for the last 12, it has been owned by Karin Olsen and Andrea Seabert.
Olsen loves downtown’s walkability and its interesting and unusual businesses that draw her and other customers to downtown.
She said downtown businesses have done a good job of curating items for their customers to compete with larger stores and mass-produced products.
“I’m not seeing the same things in every store,” she said.
She acknowledged that people complain about parking, but how hard is walking two or three blocks? You’ll walk that same distance in a mall parking lot, she said.
Popinjay, an established retailer of gifts, chocolates and other items, is set to turn 40.
Downtown has been a positive experience, longtime owner Janis Dean said, and downtown shoppers have a strong “buy local” ethic. Downtown has its challenges, but for Dean, that has just spurred her to get involved.
“Bottom line, I respect and enjoy my fellow entrepreneurs,” Dean said. “They are creative, energetic, hard-working and tenacious. No business can survive without those ingredients. I love my customers, whose support is essential. I believe the city of Olympia is really trying to make this a city we can all be proud of.”
BUCK’S FIFTH AVENUE
Buck’s Fifth Avenue, a retailer of bulk spices and hard-to-find kitchenware, has been around for 45 years.
Anne Buck bought the building and once had a variety of tenants, but now it’s just her, one employee and the spice shop.
“Every nationality shops here — it’s like the United Nations,” she said.
But how does Buck explain the success of so many businesses downtown? It’s not easy, she said.
“Don’t even try to figure it out because downtown is so diverse.”