His love of fish led him five years ago to make the change and work as a manager at Conway Tropical Fish. While at that store, he was approached by people who suggested he start up his own business.
"I sat on that for about a year or so and decided that was a decent idea," said McElroy, 30.
He opened Aquarium Co-op at 9661 Firdale Ave. in March. The roughly 900-square-foot specialty freshwater fish store aims to promote quality bred fish and plants while saving resources through local, group buying.
"It's not a legal co-op in that there's only one owner, but in the mentality of bulk foods," McElroy said. "A lot of my products are starting to be locally sourced. It's a great way to interact with customers because they can make something, trade it in for fish and see other people buy their product instead of me just outsourcing it."
One customer is a meat cutter who uses a band saw to cut organic coconuts that are made into caves for fish, McElroy said. The finished product he sells is locally made, and he is able to give store credit to someone who enjoys fish, he added.
The Aquarium Co-op is also about caring for and breeding locally raised fish, said McElroy, who lives in Everett.
"There's a big movement in the hobby for fish that are either extinct or critically endangered in the wild and it's up to hobbyists to take care of them and basically breed them to make more and distribute them," he said. "The goal is I want it to be raised by someone who enjoyed it as a pet and truly loved it as opposed to purely for profit."
A member of the Greater Seattle Aquarium Society, McElroy said a challenge has been getting younger generations interested in the hobby. He runs a program at his store that encourages children to care for and raise fish. Those participating in the program get their own fish to care for and breed.
"If they can make more, I let them bring that fish in and trade it for any other fish in the store," he said.
The least expensive fish in his shop costs $1, while the most expensive currently costs $60, McElroy said. The only fish in the store that isn't for sale is a 20-inch Mbu puffer fish that he's owned for four years. The fish, named Hank, swims in a 340-gallon tank near the front of the store and routinely impresses visitors by using his tough beak to devour every part of a shellfish.
"He'll eat the shell and all. It's like potato chips to him," McElroy said. "I call him my son."
His customers are willing to pay a little more for local products, McElroy added. In turn, that lets him pay breeders enough that they can continue to provide fish.
"As a hobbyist I was always willing to pay more for something local because it does so much better in our water, and it's great to call someone up and say, 'Hey I could use more of your fish,'" he said.
Seattle resident Richard Parke, 80, first met McElroy when he was working at Conway Tropical Fish. He has visited the Aquarium Co-op several times since it opened and has bought fish food, shrimp and a pair of goby fish.
"I go there even if I'm not going to buy anything," Parke said. "I think you could probably go there every day and see something that wasn't there the day before. It's a very special and lovely shop."
Aquarium Co-op at 9661 Firdale Ave. in Edmonds is open every day except Thursday. For store hours and more information, go to www.aquariumcoop.com or call 206-533-2281.