New Shop Co-Op

Dieter Loibner | Professional BoatBuilder Magazine

New Shop-Co-Op members, front row from left—Joe Crecca (systems, fabrication), Joe Smith (systems, electrical), Erik Fahlstrom (shipwright, woodwork), Dylan Mackay (machinist, shipwright, welder). Back row from left—Pete Stein (shipwright, woodwork), Nic DeLorme (finishwork) holding rescue dog Sable, Jo Abeli (electrical), Maya Vega Garcia (upholstery, canvas), Ginny Wilson (shipwright, woodwork). Not pictured: Jordan Bard (shipwright, woodwork).

On January 1, 2023, a new co-operative in the Port of Port Townsend, Washington, officially opened its doors for business. On paper, the new entity is called the Shop Co-Op and was started by 10 share-holders who worked together informally in the past. The co-op idea is familiar to the boatyard culture in this Pacific Northwest town and appeals to independent tradespeople looking to reduce overhead and expenditures by sharing shop space, tools, and machinery.

The new co-op was inspired by the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op (PTSC), now a multimillion-dollar business with 13 owners and several dozen employees that operates on the west side of Boat Haven (see “Co-Op Incorporated,” Professional BoatBuilder No. 193, page 62).

The new Shop Co-Op defines itself as a Shared Services Co-Op with all members doing the work, just like the founders of PTSC did when they incorporated in 1982, and the new co-op rents the same shop space from the Port of Port Townsend that was once occupied by the old co-op when business started growing.

“We are individuals who help each other but operate as independent contractors with a mutual cause and similar goals,” explained Maya Vega Garcia, who was among the first to join the Shop Co-Op; she runs a leather and canvas business and does upholstery work on the third floor above two of the co-op’s woodworking shops.

Beginnings of the new Shop Co-Op

The guiding spirit of this new venture that attracted tradespeople from their 30s to mid-50s is shipwright Pete Stein, who was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and came to Port Townsend in 2010 with what he described as “minimal carpentry skills.” Unlike many peers who attended a boatbuilding school, Stein learned on the job, apprenticing with Dave Thompson, an icon of the local boatbuilding trade, and Bob Cunningham, an East Coaster who employed traditional skills for historic yacht restoration.

“I also worked for PTSC for a year, before going off on my own and renting their old frame shop,” Stein said. Next, shipwright Erik Fahlstrom, finisher Nic DeLorme, and Vega Garcia joined. “When we expanded our operations, we needed more people,” Stein said. “It was a bit of a field-of-dreams concept: build it and they will come, because people are always looking for shop space.”

New members can join only by invitation, must go through a six-month-tryout period, and pony up a sum similar to the membership fee at PTSC. In addition, each member pays a proportionate share of the monthly shop rent, while any proceeds from boat storage are being saved for a time when no vessels are in the shop. “Rent will scare you [initially], but boat storage covers it,” Stein said. “I’m surprised that [so far] we always seem to find boats to go in.”

At the time of my visit the 40′ (12.2m) plywood-epoxy power catamaran Admiral Jack—a former ferry and tour boat in Bremerton, Washington, now serving the Northwest Maritime Center as a multiuse vessel—was in the final stages of a partial deck refit in the Shop Co-Op’s large building. Occupying the other half of the shop was the social-media-supported rebuild of Tally Ho, a 1910 Albert Strange–designed cutter. It moved here from Sequim a couple of years ago and provides work for local boatbuilders, including members of the Shop Co-Op.

“Everyone here works and doesn’t run big crews and doesn’t have employees,” said Joe Crecca, who had worked at several yards in the area, including PTSC. Like him, current members of the co-op offer a range of skills relevant for refits and repairs on commercial and recreational craft, including shipwright work, electrical, systems, fabrication, woodworking, machining, finishing, and canvas/upholstery. If additional workers or skills are needed, the co-op recommends reputable outside contractors, who are hired by the boat owner.

A Team of Individuals

Joining Stein early in starting the new boatyard co-op was Fahlstrom, who jokingly calls himself a “Minnesota refugee.” Years ago, he left the Midwest for Florida to buy a 28′ (8.5m) sailboat with some friends to go on an extended cruise. He later learned boatbuilding at The Carpenter’s Boat Shop in Maine and moved to Port Townsend in 2013. “In the beginning I just walked around the boatyard and asked people for a job,” he said, admitting with a smile to taking creative license when asked about his skills and tools. He proved himself as a carpenter and joined a high-end furniture shop in Seattle that designed and built interiors and staircases for multimillion-dollar homes.

Dieter Loibner | Professional BoatBuilder Magazine

Shipwright Ginny Wilson fastens the new caprail of the Admiral Jack, a plywood-epoxy power catamaran serving as a tour boat and a teaching platform for high school students.

Eventually, Fahlstrom returned to the boatbuilding scene in Port Townsend and acquired the tools and big machinery needed for shipwright work, including a planer, a bandsaw, a mortiser, and a ship saw.

Like Stein and the other members, Fahlstrom juggles work for his own clients, co-op jobs, and helping to structure the business. He calls it an organic process. “We’re open to adding more members in the future,” he said, but right now the focus is on building a foundation that accommodates the current members and leaves room for growth.

To that end, the Shop Co-Op is meeting with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center at regular intervals to formalize the consensus-based decision-making process, writing bylaws, and setting up accounting procedures. The name Shop Co-Op is the working legal name, but Fahlstrom said the group is working on a doing-business-as name for when they hang out the shingle.

“The Shipwrights Co-Op inspired me,” Stein added, “but I like to keep our core values. I don’t want employees; I want to see people succeed in what they do while making a living wage. And working for yourself will accomplish that.”

Shop Co-Op, 3109 Jefferson St., Port Townsend, WA 98368 USA,