Jul 25th, 2012 by Clark Humphrey

Cafe Racer was first opened by Kurt Geissel and then business partner Staci Dinehart in 2003, originally as the Lucky Dog Espresso.

First with Dinehart and then with longtime manager Ben Dean, Geissel built it into a place that was everything to many people—a coffeehouse, diner, bar, dual art-exhibition space (both permanent and rotating exhibits), eclectic live music venue, and gathering place for both Ravenna/Roosevelt area locals and for several citywide subcultures.

Geissel kept his outside day job all that time, pouring everything the cafe made back into it. It made the front page of the Sunday New York Times arts section for its Sunday all-ages improv-music shows, the “Racer Sessions.”

Some of the other people most responsible for Racer’s rise have included:

  • Marlow Harris and Jo David (longtime arts-scene figures who curate the permanent exhibit of unfortunate amateur painting, the Official Bad Art Museum of Art),
  • Jim Woodring (creator of the acclaimed graphic-novel series Frank; he led drawing classes at the cafe and cofounded its cartoonists’ peer group Friends of the Nib),
  • Andrew Swanson (cofounder of the Racer Sessions),
  • Leonard Meuse (the cafe’s chef, who kept a varied comfort food menu going in a too-small kitchen space), and
  • Drew Keriakedes, aka Shmootzi the Clod (the round-earringed veteran of the local alt-circus and performance art scenes; he booked most of the musical acts at the cafe, and led its Thursday house band God’s Favorite Beefcake).

As you all know, Meuse and Keriakedes were at the cafe the morning of May 30, when a mentally unstable former customer came in and started shooting. He killed Keriakedes and three other people, and shot Meuse. He fled, shot and killed a woman outside Town Hall, took her car, and was finally found by police in West Seattle, where he fatally shot himself.

Geissel has said he was actually making more money with Racer closed, thanks to insurance. But friends and loyal customers pretty much demanded he reopen. After take a couple of weeks off to get his own head together, he and a crew of volunteers cleaned up and repainted the place and installed a new bar.

Reopening day was all hugs and smiles and closure. There seemed to be a collective sense, not of “normalcy” but of triumph. Meuse was working. Woodring was on hand.

So was Geissel, hauling in fresh supplies of hamburger buns and Tater Tots.

He’s said that not reopening would be letting “the bad” win. Bringing Cafe Racer back, he’s also said, was a process fed by “the tremendous love” expressed by everyone who’s frequented it.

(Cross-posted with City Living.)

Jul 25th, 2012 by Clark Humphrey

Target (or rather “City Target”), which had its “soft opening” on Wednesday, is the biggest new retail opening downtown since 1998, when Pacific Place opened and Nordstrom moved into the old Frederick & Nelson building.

It’s the first new downtown “department store” since Nordstrom expanded from shoes into clothes in the 1960s.

It’s the first “general merchandise” store downtown since Woolworth’s national demise, and the first in Seattle’s urban core since Kroger turned its Broadway Market site from a small Fred Meyer into a large QFC.

And it’s the first downtown toy store since the fall of FAO Schwarz.

It’s on a historic half block of Second Avenue between Pike and Union streets. That’s where The Bon Marché (sigh) occupied a series of buildings between 1912 and 1929. That complex was taken over by J.C. Penney, and housed that company’s biggest-in-the-nation store until it closed in 1982.

When the Newmark condo tower was built there in the 1990s, the original concept for the retail space was to have been a concourse of shops; an unofficial “New” annex to the Pike Place “Market.” Instead, a PayLess Drug store and a multiplex cinema came in, both short-lived.

Target announced in 2010 that it was moving into all three floors and 96,000 square feet. It’s taken that long for them to completely retool the space.

The company says it’s also spent a lot of time and money determining what merchandise to put in the place, which is about two-thirds the size of a normal suburban Target. (I’m sure the arrangement will be revised once the first sales figures come in.)

The lower (Union Street) level is groceries (and storage and parking). It’s strong where the nearby Kress IGA is weak (prices of packaged-food items) and weak where Kress is strong (meat and produce selection).

The main (Pike Street) level is women’s casual wear, drugs, sundries, office and school supplies (yes, there are downtown residents with kids).

Upstairs (connected by the same shopping-car escalator mechanism seen at the Northgate Target), there’s men’s and kids’ wear, casual home furnishings, DVDs, toys, and electronics.

And throughout on day one, downtown workers and residents strolled and checked prices and met up with one another.

City Target helps fulfill a longtime wish of civic leaders to better connect Pike Place to the retail core.

And it fulfills a slogan mounted on the store’s T-shirt and tourist-merchandise section: CITY LOVE.

P.S.: I’ve mentioned it before, but the dysfunctional-family aspect of the Target company is always fun to relate.

Target was originally an outgrowth of (the now-Macyfied, alas) Dayton’s department store in Minneapolis. (Thus, the chain’s current “City” push is a return to roots of a sort.)

A scion of that family, Mark Dayton, is a prominent progressive Democrat. In 2011 he became governor of the great state of Minnesota.

Target’s current management spent a whole bunch of PAC money supporting Gov. Dayton’s losing (and virulently anti-gay) Republican opponent.

(Cross-posted with City Living.)

Jul 7th, 2012 by Clark Humphrey

Amid all the continuing flap about historic Seattle buildings threatened with doom, there’s one building a lot of people here would like to get rid of, as soon as possible.

It’s a lovely building for what it is. It’s perhaps the architectural ideal of its type of structure.

It’s just in the way of something a lot of people want.

It’s a long, low, large, rustic, wooden industrial building, with an arced roof and bare support beams. A delightfully rundown-looking front office emits that vital “we don’t waste our customers’ money” look.

It’s called United Warehouses. (Not to be confused with the old United Furniture Warehouse, of once-ubiquitous musical TV commercials.)

Since its opening in 1954, the structure has provided short- and long-term storage for the makers and distributors of all sorts of stuff. In recent decades, United Warehouses’ CEO Tom Herche has expanded the operation into six facilities throughout the Northwest region, plus trucking and freight-forwarding services.

The place has a new landlord. And as you might have heard, he’s got big plans for the property. Storing supplies of gardening tools and energy drinks isn’t among them.

Christopher Hansen, a local boy who made good (if you call hedge funds a “good” thing), acquired it and a couple of adjacent parcels, as a site for the big new basketball and hockey arena he wants to build.

As Hansen proved at the fan rally he staged on June 14, he’s got a lot of support among the local populace. There were thousands of never-give-up lifelong Sonics fans, who’d just love to again shout such old team slogans as “Not In Our House!” Hockey fans too, who’ve supported minor league teams and now want the NHL here.

The warehouse building stays put and in use until the arena’s ready to go up, which Hansen insists won’t be until at least one of those teams is a sure thing.

A moved NBA basketball franchise would probably be the first to arrive, because any “new Sonics” could hold court temporarily at KeyArena. That place is still a perfectly fine place for basketball (except to the league’s moneybags), but lousy for hockey.

Even then, the soonest you’ll get to see a game at the ___ Arena (Hansen will undoubtedly sell the naming rights) will be 2017.

Heck, the building hasn’t even been designed yet. I personally hope the new complex incorporates a gently arced roof design as a nod to what came before it.

And the city and county councils want their say on a complex plan to kick in $200 million in bonds to pay part of the arena’s construction, with the funds to be paid back by tax revenue the arena will generate. So far, City Councilmember Richard Conlin appears to be the most hard-to-convince, but this situation fluctuates nearly daily.

Then there’s the little matter of neighborhood traffic, as publicly moaned about by the Port of Seattle and others.

This has to be fixed anyway, as is known to anyone who’s tried to get to downtown from the south end on a Mariners game day. In that regard the arena plan is an opportunity, not a problem. And it’s best to plan and execute that road revamping in the immediate future, during or just after the viaduct replacement mess.

There’s another aspect to all this maneuvering. While it hasn’t been publicized much, the community has already benefitted from Hansen’s dealmaking.

Tom Herche’s privately-held company got nearly $22 million for the United Warehouses property. The proceeds will, in part, help Herche and his wife Mary maintain their lifelong personal commitments to local causes.

The Herches are major supporters of Childhaven, the Healing Center (a grief support community), Rebuilding Together Seattle (providing home repair for low-income homeowners), the National MS Society’s regional chapter, and the Rotary Boys & Girls Club (they host a fundraising picnic for it at the warehouse every August).

Whether or not any puck ever drops or any free throw ever rises at the United Warehouses site, Seattle has already come out a winner.

(Cross-posted with City Living.)

Jun 6th, 2012 by Clark Humphrey

The scene: A clear, warm-enough Memorial Day evening in Fremont. Among those in attendance are families, old timers, and members of the Fremont retail community past and present. Some were close friends; others hadn’t seen one another in years.

There are also a middle-aged male clown, a male bagpiper, a female cellist, and several ladies dressed as “mourners” in black dresses complete with veils, ready to sob loudly on cue. (NOTE: This took place two days prior to the Cafe Racer shootings.)

It is a funeral/wake, a memorial to an institution that had already been all about the remembrance of things past.

Fremont’s “funky” reputation was already established by 1978, when David Marzullo opened Deluxe Junk. “Funky,” at that time, meant low incomes, low profiles, low foot traffic, low rents—and lowlife.

A Seattle Times feature story published around that time described Fremont as a blighted land of empty storefronts, as well as “littered vacant lots, weathered plywood with torn flyers flapping in the wind, peeling paint and a giant disposal-service complex.” Among its 12,000 residents were retirees, street people, and “a number of artists and remnants of the hippie culture.”

When Deluxe Junk opened, it was one of 10 antique, curio, and “vintage trash” stores in the then-rundown neighborhood. The only thing Fremont had more of at the time was taverns.

After a fire made the store’s first location uninhabitable, Marzullo moved into a former funeral parlor on the ground floor of the Doric Temple, a Masonic lodge right on the arterial cusp of Fremont Place, between Fremont Avenue and North 36th Street. (In later years, the block would become home to the kitschy Lenin statue.)

Some of the vintage sellers in the ’70s had dreams that were bigger than their business acumen.

But Marzullo had a knack for the trade.

He priced his goods low enough to move but high enough to pay the bills.

He built a base of customers not only from around Seattle but around the nation and beyond. (In the 1980s, Marzullo was one of the first local dealers to sell American vintage wear and furnishings to dealers in Japan.)

He developed a great sense of what his customers liked.

He maintained a broad inventory range. He stocked vintage fashions, badges, advertising signs, costume jewelry, magazines, board games, kitchen appliances, and household trinkets.

But perhaps Deluxe Junk’s most important speciality was home furnishings from the early to mid 20th century. That’s also the era when most of Seattle’s single-family homes were built. This was the furniture that most truly “belonged” in these homes.

Over the years, the surrounding neighborhood became gentrified. Industrial buildings gave way to tech-company offices. Storefront taverns gave way to brewpubs, soccer bars, and live-music clubs. “Cheap chic” shops gave way to fashionable boutiques.

Deluxe Junk persevered, long enough to itself become a relic of “a simpler time;” even as the collectibles business went online and global (and, in many ways, more mercenary).

In April, a lease dispute developed between the store and the Doric Temple’s leadership.

Supportes of the store claimed Doric leaders wanted to kick Deluxe Junk out, in favor of more potentially lucrative tenants.

The lodge insisted it was willing to negotiate a new lease, as long as Marzullo paid up several months’ worth of back rent.

(UPDATE 6/18/12: Marzullo publicly denied the claim that he’d owed back rent to his landlords.)

After several days of highly public disagreement, Marzullo announced he’d reached a settlement. Without going into details, he said the store would close and he would retire.

And the store would close three weeks before the Solstice Parade and Fremont Fair, Fremont’s busiest days of the year.

Deluxe Junk’s loyal customers and friends took full advantage of a massive closing sale. An online-auction seller bought the store’s whole inventory of 1950s Christmas decor.

Still, there was a lot of cool stuff left in the store’s main room on the evening of the wake.

Some of that was sold on the spot to friends of the store, who were seeking one last remembrance of Deluxe Junk—and of the Fremont that had been.

(Cross-posted with City Living.)

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