Kitsap entrepreneur Marit Bockelie talks business, art and equity in times of COVID

Marit Bockelie is all about community. The central DNA of her business, The Bremerton Letterpress Company, is all about connecting people through print. Wayzoose Kitsap, the nonprofit she founded and now serves as Executive Director, was born out of a drive to make art accessible to everyone—regardless of age or background. 

And while she makes it all look easy, the COVID19 pandemic has been as trying for Marit as it has been for anyone else, forcing the decision to close her beloved Downtown Bremerton storefront, pour her energy into creating a thriving ecommerce model, reinvent the Wayzgoose Kitsap street festival and double down on work around diversity, equity and inclusion… all while juggling the joys and challenges of having a new baby at home at a time when all of our respective ‘villages’ of support were massively limited. 

And yet, she did it. She’s doing it. If you’re looking for your daily dose of inspiration, you’re going to find it here as we sit down with Marit for a little Vibe member Q&A.

Before we dive in to your ‘today’, tell us a bit about your backstory.

Marit: I grew up in Bremerton. And though I lived elsewhere for a decade and have been lucky enough to do some traveling, I’m so happy to call Bremerton home again. We live in the most beautiful region I’ve ever seen. And exploring the forests and shores and communities of Kitsap County is a constant adventure and source of inspiration. 

I left home for college immediately after high school. I was the oldest in a big family, and we were poor. I wanted to find a way to make the world a better place for people, to change a system that created suffering. I was driven and probably a little angry. 

I studied Communication at the University of Washington because I wanted to be a journalist—to travel and tell stories that could change the world. Then I discovered a little program on campus called Community and Environmental Planning, with a student-directed curriculum and student-led governance. My brain is wired to think in terms of patterns and connections, so I fell in love with planning. The program also taught me a lot about self-determination and leadership by requiring and supporting students in making  decisions that impacted, not only ourselves, but future generations of students. Urban planning was a tangible way to make an impact on the world. 

I also took advantage of two study abroad opportunities while at the UW: first at CIMAS in Quito, Ecuador, and then in Perugia, Italy. My studies in both programs centered around language, but what I really learned was how to be on my own by traveling alone, how to open myself up to new perspectives and cultures, and how to apply my learning—it was how I learned the meaning of praxis, of the connection between theory and practice. 

After living in Seattle, my husband, Reier, and I moved back to Bremerton because we wanted to buy a home we could afford and be closer to family. As a land use planner working in municipal government, I wanted to live in a walkable neighborhood, and we both needed to be near a Seattle ferry for our commute. 

So we looked at houses within the immediate downtown Bremerton neighborhood and waited patiently for something to come up on the market. When our first house on Highland went up for sale we knew we hit the jackpot. We’ve been in love with our street and our neighborhood ever since. And even though I only ended up commuting by ferry for a few months Reier, has been a ferry commuter for over 10 years now.

Jumping forward to today, how does the environment that you’re working in impact you and the work that you do as a human, as an entrepreneur and as a business leader?

Marit: Environment is everything! Over my professional life I’ve had the opportunity to work in a variety of settings: a couple municipal offices, working with the public and great small teams; a corporate office where everyone was siloed and pretty much kept to themselves; my storefront, which was open to the public and had me on my toes constantly; as an executive director working remotely/online with a small team; and now a home office and studio where I’m in charge of my time and my production pace, but working completely alone. I have learned something about myself in each situation.

What I know now is that I need both time with people in an upbeat environment (music! food! light! big open tables and big windows!), and time alone for deep thinking and flow (quiet, calm, no distractions). This is the best way for me to do my best work. And I’m starting to see that I need about four days of independent work for every one day of collaboration. It’s hard to design our work spaces and workflow, and sometimes we feel like we have no control at all. But we should be on the lookout for even small ways to be intentional about our work environments. It’s a small but deeply profound way to be kind to ourselves and set ourselves up for success.

Tell us more about your business, The Bremerton Letterpress Company. What has your journey as an entrepreneur been like?

Marit: My love for letterpress and paper ephemera runs deep. I first started dabbling in printing while I was working in Seattle as an urban planner and, when the recession hit and I lost my job, I went back to school at Olympic College to study business and graphic design. I acquired my first printing press, a 1950s Chandler & Price 10×15 from a friend I met through my involvement with the Kitsap Community Food Co-op, and began working out of my garage designing and printing stationery and wedding invitations. After working at the Kitsap Sun as a designer, I opened my downtown storefront in 2015.

I thank my lucky stars that I’ve been able to turn my craft hobby into a small business here in Kitsap. The Bremerton Letterpress Co. has evolved over the years—it’s been a struggle at times to find my footing as a small business owner in a town that doesn’t have the traffic to support much retail, but my mission continues to be connecting people through print. As we pivot to an online platform, I’m finding that our reach is amplified, and my business can continue to support the local community that I’m so passionate about, even as we reach out to a wider audience online. 

Today, our offerings include greeting cards for retail and wholesale, a stationery subscription program called Snail Mail Society, and custom design and printing. The products we offer are designed by me and a selection of local artists who license their work to us to publish as greeting cards and art prints. This has become one of my most cherished forms of collaboration. Our cards are available on Etsy and at local stationery and gift shops. 

For five years, we had a storefront on Pacific Avenue in downtown Bremerton, which closed in March of 2020 due to the COVID19 pandemic. Through the storefront, I was able to launch Wayzgoose Kitsap, build community through letterpress workshops and Bremerton First Friday open houses and pop ups. And I started offering digital printing (business cards, signage, marketing materials) for local businesses and artists. 

I learned so much as a shopkeeper with a downtown storefront—about myself, and about being a small business owner. Now that I’m working from home and a local private studio, I’m finding a new balance and rhythm, and I’m focusing my work in more meaningful ways. The storefront was a joy and I will always treasure the employees and shoppers who I spent time with. But now I’m returning to that original joy of letterpress and design. I’m finding ways to have a more balanced life; now that I’m a full time mom I’m finding that’s even more necessary.

In addition to The Bremerton Letterpress Company, you also started a local arts nonprofit, Wayzgoose Kitsap.

Marit: I am so honored that my dream of bringing a printing festival to Kitsap County has been met with such enthusiasm by the community. Wayzgoose Kitsap is an arts festival, focused around giant three foot square prints being made in the streets with steamrollers. We give about 30 artists each a set of carving tools and a roll of linoleum, and they spend a few months carving their own artwork into the material. 

At the festival, teams of volunteers work with the artists to ink up their linoleum, carefully place paper on it, and then someone drives over it with a steamroller (more accurately, it’s a drum roller, but steamroller sounds more fun). We have vendors and live music, and we celebrate all things printerly, including letterpress, bookbinding, and print making. 

It’s all about building community, and making art more accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. Anyone can apply to be an artist who creates the linoleum carvings; artists are selected by lottery, and no experience is necessary.

Fill in the blank: Wayzgoose Kitsap has made a name for itself by _________________.

Marit: Printing in the street! The live festival is all about inspiring people to let their own inner creativity bubble up and spill over, without fear of judgement or shame. It’s gritty and messy and fun! It’s the opposite of “fine” art. And I think we need more of it!

We didn’t come up with the idea of using steamrollers for printing. That awesome trend started with the San Francisco Center for the Book, and I found out about it by volunteering for both the Tacoma Wayzgoose, which happens every April, and the School of Visual Concepts Wayzgoose that used to take place in the parking lot of their Aurora Avenue location, and is now a huge party that happens inside the South Lake Union Block Party. These events were so inspiring! Organizers brought together people who love letterpress and the books arts, people who love heavy construction equipment, good food, live music, teachers, students, and the general public. After moving back to Bremerton I knew I had to bring something like this to life in our community.

Running a business in 2020 was not for the faint of heart, but neither was running a public festival. What are some of the things that you achieved with Wayzgoose Kitsap this last year that you are most proud of?

Marit: We were tempted to call off the Wayzgoose Kitsap festival altogether this year, and just hope for things to work out better for next season. But the organization is new, and we had some great momentum in terms of a transition towards growing our donor base as a supplement to the local municipal grants that helped us get started. I knew we would lose this precious momentum and possibly have to shut down all together if we took the year off.

So we asked artists if they would still be interested in printing even if they wouldn’t have the same audience and energy that the big festival brings. They all said yes. Then we leveraged our small but mighty team of core volunteers, and some new folks chipped in this year as well! And finally, we found a local site (my parent’s house!) that had a driveway conducive to steamroller printing, and would allow us to keep materials set up for a month. 

Looking back on it, I’m amazed at how everything came together. It was physically and emotionally exhausting to print for four weeks, instead of two days. And the logistics of having my then-infant daughter on-site with me was challenging. But I couldn’t be happier with how it all worked out. So many artists and volunteers shared their stories with us, and the thing I heard over and over again was that this opportunity gave people a chance to make art, be a part of something, and connect with people in a way that was especially needed to help get through the pandemic this year. My heart swells when I think about having this kind of impact on people right here in Kitsap. The artwork that came out of this year’s printing just blows me away—people were so open and vulnerable and generous with their work.

You are currently recruiting board members for the 2021 season. Talk to us about what that looks like, and how you keep the Wayzgoose Kitsap team excited and inspired. What makes Wayzgoose Kitsap a great organization to volunteer with?

Marit: The Wayzgoose Kitsap team is AMAZING! The group has evolved over time, but the kind of work we do attracts people who love creativity, hard work, and collaborating with others. They also have a unique vision for making art in Kitsap County as accessible and collaborative as possible. We are currently recruiting board members for our 2021 season: we have two members staying on, three nominations, and we’re looking for two more.

Right now, we have heavy representation from Bremerton and Central Kitsap, and we’d like to see at least one member each from North and South Kitsap. Board members can be involved in the Festival Committee as well, but the Board’s primary task is fundraising and development work—including networking locally, building relationships with our existing donors, and supporting the work of the Executive Director (that’s me) and our Program Coordinator (Hadley Cook-Dryden) to carry our mission forward on a solid foundation. At least one of our new Board members will be focusing on equity and inclusion, and we’re restructuring our volunteer program so everyone feels more supported.

Speaking of equity and inclusion, you’ve been an outspoken supporter of many of the conversations happening in our community around Black Lives Matter.

Marit: Black Lives Matter.

It’s true and it’s good to say, but action is also required. As a business owner and community member, I am working to make the organizations I am part of anti-racist. An anti-racist organization works to help members look at their own privilege and racism, takes time to analyze the way we work, and how our systems uphold institutionalized racism, and pushes both our vendors and peers, as well as our end users and customers, to do the uncomfortable work that needs to be done in terms of dismantling internalized and institutionalized racism. It is deep-rooted, it is ubiquitous, and it is deadly. Compassion, vulnerability and love are required to move though this dark time into a brighter, more inclusive and equitable future.

All of this is hard work. What are the biggest challenges that you face as personally an entrepreneur and business owner right now?

Marit: Right now my biggest challenge is steadying this ship [at The Bremerton Letterpress Company]. I have some ideas about where I want my business to go and how I’m going to focus in 2021, but I’d like to get more systems automated, production schedules mapped out a little more in advance, and get more targeted in my marketing—including growing my email list!

Looking ahead, I think I need to do some unblocking work when it comes to where I want things to be in, say, give years. The pandemic and the pivoting I’ve done have thrown a lot of my previous plans and assumptions out the window, so as things settle down in 2021, I know one of my challenges will be rebuilding the long term visions I once had. 

And finally, I appreciate the support I have from friends and community members in terms of prioritizing self-care. I’m really good at reminding other people about it, but when it comes to my own routines, and workload, and the way I think about my calendar, I know I have a lot of work to do. I want to build more “margin” into my work week, stop undervaluing rest, and find ways to include things like hydration and meditation and free writing as non-optional business tools. 

You’re a member here at Vibe Coworks, too. Why did you decide to join, in the midst of the pandemic no less?

Marit: A dear friend of mine, Rachel Bearbower of Small Shop Strategies was (is!) a Founding40 member at Vibe. Through her, I met Vibe cofounder, Alanna Imbach, and could see the amazing community support that members of this coworking space were able to take part in as the pandemic started happening.

I was in a tailspin, still recovering from my traumatic journey into new motherhood, and about to lose my storefront. Becoming a member of Vibe and being able to see what other business owners were up to, what folks were doing for self-care, how different business pivots could work… it all became a sort of lifeline for me.

Now that things aren’t as scary and unknown, I’m still finding SO much value in the connections that come along with being a Vibe member. It’s strange that I’m not in the physical building very much, but I can still say that Vibe is a physical space that I can anchor my business work to, even if it’s only in my heart and in my mind.

What are you most grateful for right now?

Marit: I’m most grateful for my daughter Silje and all the ways she has changed me and taught me how to slow down. For my husband, Reier and his love, stability and encouragement, which has helped me step outside of the boxes that I found myself in growing up. And for my family, and the friends who have been a life line during this pandemic. 

I’m also grateful for the way people are learning to talk about mental health and our needs as human beings with bodies that must be cared for. Living in a society based on capitalism, we are taught early on that work and wealth and image all come before our bodies and minds and spirits. I see more and more support for the idea that we can (and must) find a way to make our lives more balanced and sustainable. This extends to the way we show up on the planet. I’m also grateful for Layla Saad’s concept of being a ‘good ancestor.’ I want this to be valued as much as anything else.

For those looking to shop local, you offer some pretty great gift ideas. Tell us about those.

A subscription to Snail Mail Society makes a great gift! It’s perfect for people who like to write letters and send cards. It’s a package of blank cards, with stamps included. And gift subscriptions come with a special note included, so you can let them know exactly what you think they’ll love about it.

Wayzgoose prints also make great gifts. All images of the 2020 prints are on Instagram (#wk2020rafffle) and are available for purchase through email or DM. We also have prints from previous years on our website:

Final words of wisdom?

Marit: Find mentors and study them, watch them, roll up your sleeves and help them. There’s a lot to learn in stepping into the work and lives of others.

Find collaborators and listen to them—making space for others and supporting them where they are is an act of love and revolution.

Find people who want to support you, and share yourself with them. Vulnerability is everything. I wish I would have learned to say “I don’t know” earlier in life, to be open instead of having to pretend that I knew what I was talking about all the time.