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Spice up your holidays in Olympia

Buck's Fifth Avenue has stood the test of thyme

Anne Buck has been spicing up Olympia since 1973. Photo courtesy of Facebook

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It's that time of year again: not just the time for cold weather, short days and a retail frenzy, but the time for visions of sugarplums, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Christmas cookies and rugelach.

In other words, it's the time of year when even non-cooks might find reason to visit a spice shop.

Enter Olympia's venerable Buck's Fifth Avenue. The shop, which opened in 1973, began with owner Anne Buck's mission to provide the town with whatever it didn't already have.

At one time, she sold all manner of items in various rooms of her shop - from boating supplies to cotton clothing for kids - but it was the spices that stuck.

"This is the one I kept, because it was the most interesting," she says.

And it is interesting. The small shop is stuffed with spices and spice blends and rubs, mushrooms, teas and exotic kitchen tools from coconut graters to wooden tortilla presses to Scandinavian krumkake pans.

How specialized does it get? "We have 37 kinds of sea salt," Buck says.

She also stocks four blends of apple pie spices - American, English, German and Dutch.

And yes, it smells good. A sign near the mail slot invites customers to open it for a sniff when the shop is closed.

"It makes people remember when they were little and Grandma used to make them something or other," says Lamia Murphy, who works at the shop. "A sniff brings good memories."

The stock and the scents have won loyal customers.

"I go there because it's the only place in town where you can get a lot of the ingredients she sells," says Laura Killian of Olympia. "And she always knows exactly what's going on in town, so you get the straight story. I just love her.

"And it's downtown, so I can go there on my lunch hour."

But the shop also has customers around the world. Buck offers to ship the exact quantities of every spice needed for any recipe to customers everywhere.

"If people want a pinch of this and a pinch of that, why not?" she says. "If they don't like the recipe, they aren't stuck with this spice."

It's a popular service. "We've sent spices to Guam and London and Alaska - a lot to Alaska," she said. "They have nothing up there."

Buck mails the spices in an envelope with a bill and says she's always been paid.

"It isn't what anybody does," she says. "Service is the business. Nobody gives service anymore.

"I'm old enough to know what service is. There is none."

Buck's opinions are as strong as her spices. She holds forth on what downtown needs to make it better, why employees try to get fired and which gender has the better cooks.

Men make up the majority of her customers. "They're good cooks," she says. "They are a lot more creative than women."

Men, especially young men, also love hot spices, she says. "It's a macho thing," she says. "The hotter the better."

Women do bake more than men, she says.

Among her new ventures: gallery space, a space for art and cooking classes, and a blog called Never Again, Ever ( "Have you ever looked back and wondered, ‘What was I thinking?' I have," the first post asks.

But the spices will remain her mainstay. She's one spicy woman - and apparently, it runs in the family.

"One of my great-grandchildren is named Kyen because his parents like cayenne," she says.

Buck's Fifth Avenue, 11 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday, 209 Fifth Ave. SE, Olympia, 360.352,9301,

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