It all began in 1946 with a large wooden block at Carl Olson’s home where Interstate 405 currently sits. There, Olson and his wife would custom fit horse riders with boots and other gear for the sport of equestrian.
Word spread, and the home business grew into its own office on 116th Avenue Northeast and continued to expand. It’s gone through several owners and survived the competition, but 65 years later, Olson’s Tack Shop remains one of a kind.
The shop predates the incorporation of Bellevue, I-405, the 520 bridge and many of the other staples of life here, but it has kept up with the times that have seen the city go from a working-class farm community to a technology hub.
Throughout its more than half century of operation, Olson’s has become an iconic spot, with serious and amateur riders venturing from all over the nation to get the in-person experience that has faded away with the popularity of the online retailer.
“Because we are a specialty store and a destination location, we have customers who make annual trips here,” said the store’s owner Michael Akers, who has been in charge since 2003.
A fanatical, and loyal, equestrian community has been one of the keys to the success at Olson’s. It is the only store in the area that represents a one-stop shop for riders. Customers can get everything from riding gear like helmets and boots, to saddles and horse clothing to medicine and treats. All the employees are riders, so they are counted on to be knowledgeable and friendly. Akers said customers call the store the “Nordstrom of tack shops.”
Akers himself has been riding for much of his life. He came from Idaho to Washington in 1995 to work with a riding instructor. He came into the store to help out a friend for a day, and it all snowballed from there.
“I did it for a day, and then one day turned into 16 years later,” he said.
After working at the store for eight years, Akers bought it from Joyce Gilpin, who had owned it since the 1970s after buying it from the Olsons.
Throughout the years, the store has built up a large clientele throughout the state, but primarily in the Seattle area. But many of the riders keep their horses in barns on the Eastside.
Maggie Downer, 14, has been coming to the store since she began riding nine years ago. Though she lives in Seattle’s Magnolia area, she rides at Evergreen Equestrian Center near Bridle Trails State Park. The location, and the diverse supply makes her a frequent visitor at Olson’s.
“It’s really nice because it’s close to where I ride, and I can come and look at everything and try it out,” she said.
Olson’s location has set it up well for sustained success. The proximity to Seattle’s riding community helps, but the store is surrounded by riding spots and shows throughout the year. Bridle Trails remains a destination for riders of all skills with trails for amateurs and arenas for pros. Shows in Carnation and Monroe throughout the year keep the sport a local focus.
The local visibility and dedication of the equestrian community helped push the store through the recent recession as well. Equestrian is not a cheap sport, with riders spending thousands of dollars on their horses to prepare for shows. It appears an ideal candidate for cost-cutting during tough times. But, Akers said, equestrian plays a role in peoples’ every day interactions. They may cut back, but they never cut out.
“The equestrian community is like a club, it’s part of your life,” Akers said. “People love their horses. They’re an extension of the family and people are not going to get rid of their horses.”
The effect of the economy on the store was lessened by the presence of large companies that remained stable. Microsoft and other nearby businesses brought money to the region that customers could use on items beyond every day life expenses.
But those companies also bring stress to the lives of people. To many, Akers said, equestrian, and horseback riding provides a great release from that.
“I think that a number of people, ourselves included, who deal with technology all day long really need that outlet where they can decompress,” he said. “Be in nature, go outside, get out of a fluorescent office. That’s their time.”
Olson’s Tack Shop
2105 140th Ave. N.E., Bellevue