- Gig Harbor Living Local
Olalla resident breathes new life into community centerpiece
By Colin Anderson
Founded by Scandinavian immigrants, the community of Olalla was once a thriving locale, thanks to its prime location on the water. At the close of the 19th and early 20th century, the Olalla lagoon helped the timber, farming and shipbuilding industries shape the Puget Sound and beyond. At one time, more than a dozen businesses stood near the bay including a hotel, blacksmith, post office, shingle mill and a store. When the Narrows Bridge went up, many of the buildings began to come down in Olalla. Today, residents enjoy a quiet, rural life and cherish the few remaining historical reminders of the area’s heyday. One such place is Al’s Butcher Shop and Grocery, which has stood for more than 120 years and has carried the name Al’s since 1959. Countless visitors have made a stop here, and it’s been a community gathering place for more than a century. Despite its history and popularity, the store closed last year and had been sitting vacant and for sale, leaving a big void within the tight-knit community.
Gregg Olsen has called Olalla home for nearly 30 years. He has written more than 30 crime novels, and his name has appeared on the #1 best sellers list of The New York Times, Amazon, Washington Post, USA Today and Wall Street Journal. His home sits just up the road from Al’s, and after it closed up, the idea that it might be gone for good inspired him to take the first step into breathing new life into the store.
“I was pumping gas one day, and a former employee of Al's called over to me and said, ‘Gregg, you guys should buy it.’ I went home and told my wife, ‘Hey maybe we should buy it.’ She thought about a half a second and said, ‘Let's do it.’ We made the offer the next day.”
Despite the monumental task of updating the more than 100-year-old building, while keeping its original character, Gregg was simply not going to let the piece of living history go by the wayside. “I always have said that a community can't exist without a gathering spot—and that's Olalla Bay Market & Landing,” he said. Because of its shoreline location, there are a bevy of ordinances, rules and permits that need to be addressed. However, a recent meeting with the county gave Gregg enough confidence to undertake the project.
One of the first items of business was to rebrand and rename the market. Before becoming Al’s in 1959, the store was previously known as Charlie Nelson’s General Store, and then Greggerson’s Market. “In all those various incarnations, each owner sought to serve the Olalla community in the best way possible. We plan to do that, too. A new name signals a fresh start,” Gregg explained.
Also included in the purchase of the store was the adjacent building that served as the post office. Both buildings are currently being renovated and will serve different purposes. The former post office building is being renamed The Landing, and Gregg and his family envision a public gathering space with multiple uses. “We intend to have it be the home base for our Positive Olalla Projects group, host classes, workshops and meetings. One feature we are developing will be a history wall that will tell our town's story. We are all about honoring the past while bringing people together in a new, fun way.” Gregg also intends to seek satellite post office status and offer mail boxes to the community within the 110-year-old building.
The market is well on its way, despite the usual setbacks and permitting issues with a project of this magnitude. During the remodel, workers removed the hanging ceiling and were surprised to find beautiful old tresses and beams. Exposing them will give the market a completely different feel, while highlighting the original build as well. It’s a balance of old and new that Gregg is working hard to maintain. “Think of the reimagining of the store and its amazing location as taking the best of what it was and amplifying those attributes and services,” he explained. Once the kitchen is up and running, the market will specialize in pizza and sandwiches, with an emphasis on regional beers as well. Gregg won’t divulge the rest of the menu, only stating that they are working on a few surprises they’re not yet ready to reveal. You won’t find a full-scale grocery store, but there will still be a unique selection of snacks and soft drinks to go, as well as more outdoor space for customers to relax and enjoy the views. The gas pumps are also being removed to open up the parking lot for more parking and more environmentally friendly landscaping.
While a grand opening date is yet to be announced, Gregg is hopeful to have the doors open sometime this summer. There are challenges on all fronts, but he and his family are committed to getting through each obstacle with their ultimate goal of preserving the central gathering point for this close-knit community. “We were a young family when we arrived and fell immediately in love with the people, the place, and the role community plays in our lives. The boat ramp park, the beach, and of course the store, all play a role in bringing us together; we simply can’t lose this place.”
While change can be difficult, Gregg says he is greeted daily with support of the project from all walks of the community. Friends and neighbors are pitching in, and all are excited to be nearing the finish line. “My family is simply overwhelmed with the support and is humbled by the great faith folks have in what we are doing,” said Gregg.
The Olalla Bay Market website and social media channels are up and running. Gregg posts frequent updates and blogs here so anyone can follow the progress. There are a few items up for sale as well including T-shirts, stickers and coffee mugs. The Always Olalla brand pays homage to AL’s in yet another reminder of the location’s history.
Always the storyteller, Gregg is also producing a documentary during the project. He’s gathering interviews from some of Olalla’s most interesting residents. “Olalla is the home of genuine characters. Our people are fascinating, caring and, very often, they march to a different drummer. That's the part of Olalla that I love as a storyteller.”
With a few more steps to go, the reality of the Olalla Bay Market opening its doors is beginning to set in. For the Olsen family, the hard work will all be worth it, and they are excited to keep the store’s legacy alive, as it has truly become a community project. “You cannot imagine the outpouring of support we have received from the community. Everyone seems to be rooting for us—and helping us in big and small ways to get where we need to go.”
For the latest updates, visit OlallaBayMarket.com or find them on Facebook.