All about the Iconic and Historic B & I in Tacoma

B&I Tacoma
The entrance to the historic B&I hearkens back to the shopping center's circus past. Kristin Kendle

The Tacoma B&I is one of the city’s icons—yet it's a bit of an unsung hero of the past that today gets little attention from most passersby. And there is a reason for that. This formerly popular local attraction is kind of run down these days, and maybe a little odd to some with its often-quiet halls and eclectic mix of stores and shops. Still, this structure is a piece of Tacoma’s history and is still worth a visit due to its quirky interior. If you enjoy thrifting, the B&I might offer a satisfying shopping experience that's much more unique than heading to the mall.

History of the B&I

The B&I originally opened up as a hardware store in 1946 by owners E.L. Irwin and M.L. Bradshaw. Over time, the store added more and more non-hardware items—in 1948, a carousel; in 1953, an elephant named Sammy; and then some chimps named Cathy and Murphy.

Back during a time when all of Tacoma competed for the best Christmas light displays, E.L. Irwin was even award the best display one year for a 35-foot carousel atop of the B&I with six reindeer riding on it, as well as a 12-foot chimney complete with Santa.

With the many animals and attractions here, it became known as the B&I Circus Store and was known far and wide for its festive atmosphere. By the 1960s, the store began to bring in regular celebrity appearances, including Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Burt Ward from the “Batman” TV show, and boxer Joe Louis.

Ultimately, during this era, it was Ivan the gorilla who made the store most famous. Ivan was brought to the B&I in 1964 as an infant and lived in an enclosure built specifically for him for 28 years. After not having other gorilla contact for his entire life, he got the attention of animal activists and was moved to Zoo Atlanta. Tacoma natives may still remember visiting Ivan.

Today, the history of the building is featured on the walls of a few areas of the B&I, including all around Ivan’s now empty enclosure. While the B&I no longer draws shoppers and families in droves, it is still worth a visit—to check out this historical spot in person and give a little nod to a past often forgotten as people of Tacoma drive by on South Tacoma Way without so much as glance at this once quite glorious attraction.

The B&I Today

Located in South Tacoma, the B&I houses mostly corridors dotted with storefronts and restaurants. You might find the B&I sparse and mostly empty, or it might be filled with shoppers, depending on the day. Stores are largely run by shopkeepers just getting their starts in the business scene, but you’ll find stores that have been here for years as well. You’ll find all kinds of interesting wares here—wigs, dresses, sports memorabilia, art, and more. The selection is unique and you will find absolutely no chain stores here.

There is even a pet store here, the likes of which you’re unlikely to see in other locations. Puppies, kittens, bunnies, reptiles, birds and more all live here.

As you wander the hallways, you will find pieces of the B&I’s history left here and there to commemorate and honor the past; these are worth stopping to read or take a look at as what the B&I is today is so completely different than how it started out.

One of the most popular aspects of the B&I is its arcade—something you don’t always find everywhere anymore. This one is large and filled with nostalgic video games and arcade fare. If you appreciated arcades in the 1980s, this one is worth a visit.

There are also a number of restaurants; again, no chains, only independently run businesses. Food ranges from authentic Mexican fare to Indian and American.