Bookstore looks to co-op route to stay at heart of its community

Orca Books in Olympia WA is one of a wave of US businesses looking to alternative models of ownership as a generation of proprietors nears retirement

A bookstore that has served its community for 26 years is looking to become a co-op as its owner gets ready to retire.

Orca Books has been an important fixture in Olympia – the capital of Washtington state in the USA – for 26 years, when it was started by its current owner, Linda Berentsen.

Now she is retiring, workers at the store are trying to raise US$150,000 by 1 April to buy it from her, to keep it open and transition to a worker-run, member-owned co-op.

Members will receive discounted prices on all goods in the store, as well as voting rights to elect the board of directors which will provide financial oversight for the co-op. 

Orlando, star of the store’s fundraising campaign

They say: “Forming a co-operative will enable us to continue providing affordable, quality books to the Olympia community while supporting our staff with secure and fulfilling jobs … and providing a loving home for everybody’s favourite shop cat, Orlando.”

The store also holds fundraising sales, classes, workshops, readings and film screenings; its mission statement is to “foster community education through the support of authors and artists, creating a friendly, open, and safe space, and access to a diverse collection of fiction and non-fiction books”.

Related: How a human chain made world news of a small co-op bookstore

As a co-op, it says it will strengthen existing partnerships while seeking new ways of collaboration with its growing community.

“Our customers and staff come from all walks of life, forming a vibrant, supportive, and generous book-loving community. We rejoice in offering a wonderfully eccentric haven for our wonderfully diverse patrons. Orca Books Co-op is dedicated to providing a safer and welcoming space for all and intends to contribute to the Olympia community for many years to come.”

You can purchase a membership online or you can click on the link below to download and print the membership form. Additional support can be provided through Orca’s GoFundMe page.

It adds that its top priority is “to provide a curated selection of used, new, and out-of-print books at affordable prices. The orca whale is an iconic creature, playing a fundamental role in our ecosystem. Orca Books Co-op is similarly iconic and integral to the heart and soul of Olympia.”

Transition to worker co-op or employee ownership is an option being increasingly considered for firms in the USA, with the country braced for the “silver tsunami” of baby-boomer business owners approaching retirement. It is feared many of these companies could simply close or be bought by larger corporations, losing their distinctiveness.

The national co-op movement has been lobbying policymakers to make it easier to transfer to employee ownership. Last month a Congressional committee was warned there are too many barriers to worker buyouts, with difficulties in accessing finance and a lack of awareness and education.

Similar campaigns are being carried out in the UK, with organisations like the Employee Ownership Association, Co-operatives UK, Wales Co-operative Centre and Co-operative Development Scotland all advocating the transition to employees.

Related: Campaign encourages Welsh businesses to consider employee ownership
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