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Most of my hip art-world friends have long sneered at Seafair.
Too “Family” with a capital F.
Too unlike anything that would be done in NY/LA/SF.
As if those were somehow bad things.
But nowadays, this city needs all the legacy, all the history, and (yes) all the squareness it can keep out of the gentrifiers’ Rolex-wristed clutches.
We need our own homegrown racing sport, rooted in tinkerers building boats around surplus WWII airplane engines.
We need public education, and spectacles that celebrate it.
We need honest shows of support for even the most basic of community functions.
We need to remember the human groups that first made this place what it is.
We need to publicly honor all the peoples that make up this city and this region.
So don’t knock Seafair.
(Except the Blue Angels. Feel free to bash them. They’re just too damn militaristic.)
I know I’ve been taking however many of you are reading this back to memory lane a lot lately. But indulge me a few more times, please, including this time.
This time, it’s back to a weekend day in June 1981.
I went straight from my UW commencement ceremony, still possessing my cap and gown, and went to a planning meeting in a Wallingford rental house.
Also there were Daina Darzin, Maire Masco, and Dennis White.
We were starting a punk rock zine, to overcome what we all thought was The Rocket’s excessive commercialism. (Yeah, I know.)
The result was called Desperate Times.
It lasted for six tabloid issues, before Darzin effectively ended it by returning to New York, where she’d previously lived.
(And yes, like so many New Yorkers, she absolutely KNEW how everyone ought to think and behave. And if they thought or behaved in a non-New Yorkish way, then that thought or behavior automatically sucked.)
I had at least one piece in each of the six issues. The most affecting, albeit in a very indirect way, was in the first issue. I asked readers to write in mentioning the band they hated the most. (A cheap “comment bait” trick, it would now be called.)
It got a response all right.
That response came from one Mark McLaughlin, then a student at Bellevue Christian High School. He wrote that he loved the simple repetitive music of Philip Glass, and hated Mr. Epp and the Calculations. (“Pure grunge. Pure shit.”)
This, I continue to insist, was the first documented use of that six-letter word to describe a Seattle punk band.
And it was the first print mention of Mr. Epp, McLaughlin’s own band (of course).
One night shortly after that, Masco found McLaughlin on the streets downtown, pasting up flyers for a fictional gig by Mr. Epp, which at the time was mostly a fictional band (named after a favorite math teacher). Masco persuaded McLaughlin to stage real gigs.
For the next three nearly three years, Darren “Mor-X” Morray, Jeff “Jo Smitty” Smith, and Mark “Arm” McLaughlin gigged and recorded under the Mr. Epp name.
Arm, of course, went on to Green River and then to Mudhoney, famously performing on top of the Space Needle for Sub Pop’s 25th anniversary in 2013.
Darzin became a scribe for Billboard and other high falutin’ rags.
White and Masco started the short-lived Pravda Records label (not the Chicago firm of the same name).
White now runs another indie music label, “dadastic! sounds.”
Masco took a long hiatus from “creative” endeavors.
But now she’s back with a book collecting every issue of Desperate Times, from full-size high-quality digital scans.
Some thoughts on looking at these pages nearly 3.5 decades later:
The music discussed, well a large part of it anyway, still stands up.
The writing and the graphic design are of their time and of the milieu. That is to say, they’re brash, un-slick, and occasionally immature. But that was part of the whole aesthetic of the period. This was before “desktop publishing.” The text was created on typewriters. The headlines were created with press-type lettering. It was DIY Or Die, and it expresses the emotional states of its content better than anything in Adobe InDesign ever could.
Masco is selling the book online and at a few select local shops.
Masco’s been living in Tacoma in recent years, with a guy who knows a thing or two about graphic design, and who’s not shy about sharing what he knows.
I’ve written several times in the past about Art Chantry. How he played a critical role in creating my book Loser (itself coming back later this year). How he did most of the grunt work in bringing “punk rock graphics” and poster art beyond the deliberately “amateur” style seen in Desperate Times and toward something that was “professional” but NOT corporate. He took his obsessive research into design schticks high and lowbrow, industrial and “artistic,” and created a whole new visual vocabulary.
In recent years, Chantry’s been spreading his vast knowledge and sharp opinions about the design profession (actually, he thinks of it as more of a “trade”) on his Facebook feed.
Now he’s collected some 50 of these essays in the book Art Chantry Speaks: A Heretic’s History of 20th Century Graphic Design.
The format of self-contained short essays, on different but related topics, works well with the disparate roots of Chantry’s visual aesthetic and career philosophy.
He finds inspiration in everything from monster-movie magazines to industrial-supply catalogs, from trade magazines to Broadway show posters, from hot-rod customizers to girlie magazines.
Unlike the late Andy Warhol (to whom he dedicates a praise-filled chapter), Chantry appreciates commercial design without feeling the need to dress it up in “fine art” trappings.
Indeed, Chantry openly and repeatedly scoffs at such trappings.
He upends the “official” history of graphic design, which treats it as a top-down profession dominated by Manhattan designers and ad agencies.
Instead, he sees it as a bottom-up, working-stiffs’ trade, originating with sign painters, printers, and other craftspeople. It’s a living tradition, re-created and adapted everywhere. It’s something that’s both populist and commercial at once. It expresses social and individual values, even as it overtly tries to sell stuff (products, politicians, religions, etc).
And, just as American pop/rock music absorbed and mutated everything that came before it, Chantry’s personal aesthetic absorbed and mutated everything he’d learned to love in the various arts of visual/verbal persuasion.
You won’t find any images of Chantry’s own works in Art Chantry Speaks. For that, look up Some People Can’t Surf: The Graphic Design of Art Chantry, written in 2001 by Julie Lasky. There, you’ll see his famous posters for bands, film screenings, and condom-awareness campaigns; his cover art for The Rocket; and his many record covers and band/label logos.
But, just as there are now drinking-age people who weren’t alive when Nirvana last performed, many of the various production techniques Chantry’s essays discuss have become lost to time, from the lead-cast “hot type” of letterpress to the photo-strip “cold type” of manual pasteup pages.
And much printed ephemera itself (magazines, newspapers, cheap paperbacks, recorded music on physical media, etc.) has declined or disappeared in the digital age.
But Chantry’s observations are still important in our current era, when even web page design is considered an obsolete line of work.
Typography, illustration, color theory, and layout are all part of the visual vocabulary of our world. There are reasons why all these arts developed the way they did.
And, just as many young adults have discovered the great music of the 1980s and ’90s Chantry’s idiosyncratic views about these can teach timeless principles about how things look (or ought to look).
Some pseudo-random thoughts about l’Affaire Rachel Dolezal, the just-resigned Spokane NAACP leader who’s claimed at various times to be black, part-black, and Native American, but whose parents claim her to be white (and who have the blonde, blue-eyed childhoood pix to support their claim):
If it weren’t for white people pretending to be black, we’d have no jazz or rock n’ roll or R&B or even hiphop as we know those genres today. American white pop music would still sound like “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” British pop music would still sound like “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes.”
(We also wouldn’t have sorry minstrel-show acts, macho-baby-boomer blues bands, or fratboy rappers either; but you’ve got to take the bad with the good, right?)
There’s a long-running meme of college-educated white women identifying, or trying to identify, with black women of “lower” castes. It ranges from recent works such as The Help, back to the predominantly white-female audiences for Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Walker especially depicted Af-Am womanhood as an ultimate embodiment of a specifically feminine wisdom and righteousness.
Could Dolezal, who had Af-Am adopted siblings, have envied their specific “tribal” identity, collective-struggle heritage, etc.? Not for an outsider like me to say.
It can be said that she should have known “being black” involved more than just looks and “soul,” but (as shown gruesomely in recent news items) a continuing legacy on the receiving end of repression, injustice, and brutality. (As Tavis Smiley asks, “Who’d sign up to be black?”)
Dolezal is the second Spokanian to re-invent herself so thoroughly. The first, of course, is Billy Tipton.
Tipton, a small-time jazz pianist and a bio-female who lived as a (hetero) man until his death in 1989, was essentially (in my opinion) a trans who never had reassignment surgery, but who simply tried to create a being and a life for himself and succeeded completely.
Dolezal attempted a similar life-feat, trying to create a present by rewriting her past. Our age of instant information made that ultimately impossible.
There’s nothing wrong, as Smiley’s above-linked essay notes, with being a white person devoted to helping her less race-privileged fellow humans; people who…
…have the courage, conviction and commitment to unapologetically use their white face—and their white voice, hands, feet, head and heart to make America a nation as good as its promise.
…have the courage, conviction and commitment to unapologetically use their white face—and their white voice, hands, feet, head and heart to make America a nation as good as its promise.
The NAACP has (openly) white local and national officers, past and present. More famously, the late Westinghouse and CBS exec Michael H. Jordan (absolutely no relation to the basketball star) was chairman of the United Negro College Fund for a decade.
In the statement announcing her NAACP resignation, Dolezal stated she won’t stop fighting for justice.
Dolezal has been a student, and occasionally a teacher, of Af-Am culture and history. She assuredly knows, both from book-learning and from those in her life, about what black life is really like.
She could have used this knowledge to work at bridging our racial divides.
If she can transcend the unfortunate image of her own “race drag act,” she still can.
Everybody seems to have an opinion or an angle on the tale:
…Especially if it’s this cartoon map of Washington from the 1930s.
It’s part of an every-state series made by Berta and Elmer Hader. It depicts the histories, industries, topographies, and agricultural products of each part of this Land-O-Contrasts place.
(Found via Vox.com.)
One of the site’s first logos, from some time in the mid 1990s.
Twenty years ago this week, it was an age of dial-up modems, Windows 95, Internet cafés, and the media hype over an alleged “Seattle Sound.”
I hate to use the old cliché “it was a simpler time.”
But in some respects it was.
The ol’ World Wide Web was a child just learning to walk. It seemed so full of possibilities. It hadn’t yet been tamed, corporatized, or commodified.
The “free”/”sharing” ideology of Grateful Dead bootleggers hadn’t yet taken completely over. There was still hope that journalists, musicians, and other “content” people might one day make a buck from this medium. (I know, crazy, right?)
I was in what turned out to be the middle of a seven-year writing stint with the Stranger. The paper itself had little interest in going online at the time, but allowed me to put my own material up on my own site.
I’d already been a regular at the Speakeasy Café in Belltown, essentially Seattle’s first Internet café. I’d been customer #23 on its then-novel home broadband service (which outlived the café, eventually becoming a business-to-business operation owned by something called MegaPath).
The Speakeasy people helped me learn rudimentary HTML and get a site up. I created some simple .JPG graphics, and reformatted (and, in some cases, retyped) columns and zine pieces I’d written over the previous nine years.
I didn’t call it a “web log” or “blog” at the time, but rather an online version of a classic “three-dot” newspaper column format. It originally wasn’t dependent on links to other websites, and it was only updated once or twice a week.
But it was one of the first sites anywhere to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that, curated and compiled from assorted info sources local and worldwide, based on an individual sensibility.
It allowed me to keep writing MISC after the Stranger fired me the first time.
For a while, it got me enough freelance work to live off of, at least until the first dot-com crash in ’01.
And I’ve kept at it ever since, more or less.
There have been times (such as most of last year) when I haven’t really felt like adding to it.
Times when I didn’t even want anyone to think of me as “a writer,” especially if that meant I was expected to gladly work for for-profit companies for free.
(I am not, nor have I ever been, independently wealthy, despite occasional rumors to the contrary.)
Even more than in the past, I’ve been obsessed with finding something, anything, that I could do specifically for money. Not for coolness, and certainly not for that dreaded term “exposure.”
And having the public image of “a writer” meant many people thought I couldn’t do, or wouldn’t want to do, anything else.
But the Seattle corporate world isn’t a fully welcoming place these days for someone who’s neither young nor a programmer.
And reinventing myself at my age (yes, it’s my own birthday today) would be possible, but perhaps more trouble than it would be worth. Especially if that reinvention involved student loan debt.
So I looked into what I could do that would exploit what I’m already known for doing.
Blog ads don’t earn a lot any more, unless you’ve got a really high readership in a national “market niche.”
And asking people to contribute money to a personal, occasional blog wasn’t much of a proposition.
But, perhaps, an information service that would contribute to people’s lives might be something people would want to support.
In 2007-8, I was involved with a group trying to start a local news site.
The project fell through for several reasons.
But the initial notion, of a single handy source for the day’s Seattle-area headlines, stayed with me.
There have been several attempts, but nothing that came close to the type of service I’d like to see.
So I’ve made my own.
It’s MISCmedia MAIL, and it starts today.
Each weekday morning, your email box will be filled with a brief, breezy summary of what’s going on around here.
It’s everything you’ve learned to love about this site, only in a much more useful form.
You can sign up for it at the handy box in the upper-left corner of this page.
Over the next few weeks and months I’ll be looking into ways to monetize it.
But for now, I’m working on building its audience.
Won’t you join us?
pike place market foundation
When KIRO-TV posted architectural drawings for a “new entrance” to the Pike Place Market in early March, a lot of social-media commenters were outraged. Why, they asked, would anyone rip out such an historic Seattle landmark?
“Why the hell are Seattle (and Tacoma) so hell bent on destroying their history and character?” one commenter wrote. “It is the most short sighted move imaginable.”
“I wish they’d just leave it alone” wrote another commenter. “Tourists can go see modern shopping malls in any town, but our Market is unique. Leave it alone!”
These commenters were at least partly mistaken.
The drawings KIRO showed on TV and posted on its social-media feeds didn’t depict a replacement to the current Market complex but an addition to it.
The Market everyone knows and loves, to the tune of 10 million visits a year, is staying put.
The new buildings will go to the west of the current Market buildings, between Western Avenue and the doomed Alaskan Way Viaduct. A surface parking lot is there now. (The last structure on that site, the Municipal Market Building, was demolished in 1974 following a fire.)
Besides new retail and commercial spaces, the project will also include a community center, 40 low-income-senior apartments, a 300-car parking garage (replacing parking spaces that will be lost when the viaduct’s removed), and a new pedestrian promenade, leading down to the new waterfront project that will eventually replace the viaduct.
Indeed, state money from the waterfront project is contributing $6 million of the estimated $74 million tab for the “MarketFront” expansion. City bonds will supply the biggest chunk of the project’s budget, $34 million.
The Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority, the Market’s management agency, also hopes to raise $6 million through “philanthropy.”
The affiliated Pike Place Market Foundation is selling little doodads with donors’ names on them, to be permanently built into the MarketFront structures. There are black metal discs called “Market Charms” for $180, to be installed along a chain-link fence. And there are bronze pig hoofprints (referencing Rachel, the Market’s beloved bronze piggy bank) for $5,000, to be placed along the Western Avenue sidewalk. Both are considerably higher-priced than the $35 donors paid for inscribed floor tiles during the Market renovations in 1985.
The foundation and the PDA believe Seattle now has enough people who have, and are willing to donate, that kind of money.
And the PDA and its architects also apparently believe the new addition should also look like something that fits in with this new-money Seattle.
The PDA held the usual public meetings and “input” sessions about the MarketFront buildings’ design and uses. The PDA says the public comments at these sessions helped to influence the MarketFront design, which now incorporates hard woods and other special cladding materials to add a little more “old Northwest” flavor, but in a slick retro-modern way.
And, unlike some of the first renderings for the waterfront project, the MarketFront drawings depict a few nonwhite people among the imagined sunny-day strollers.
But the overall look of the architects’ drawings still reflects a modern, “tasteful” look, with clean straight lines, light neutral colors, and open uncluttered spaces.
The original Market, of course, doesn’t look a thing like that.
It’s beautifully, lovably cluttered.
It contrasts World War I-era structures with buildings of 1970s-1980s vintage, which all somehow fit together.
It’s got weird angles, varying ceiling heights, and ramps and stairs and concourses of different widths.
It’s got garish signage, loud noises, boisterous crowds, and great smells.
It’s both utilitarian and archaic, businesslike and freewheeling. It’s a total sensual experience.
MarketFront might eventually become like that after it’s been “lived in” for a few years.
But that, if MarketFront is built according to the current design drawings, could take quite some time.
The PDA and the City want to start MarketFront construction this year, so it (and its parking garage) can be completed before the viaduct is removed. An official groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for late June.
But with the well-publicized delays in building the tunnel that would replace the viaduct, there’s a little more time before the elevated highway comes down.
There’s time to redo the MarketFront plans. Time to make the buildings and concourses messier, less McMansion-like, more cacophonous.
Time to give it something at least vaguely approaching that Pike Place funk.
(Cross-posted with City Living Seattle.)
letterman with seattle comix legend lynda barry, 1988
Either the first or the second most famous ex-Mariners co-owner (before or after Danny Kaye) ends late night TV’s longest run (almost 33 and a half years, between two networks) tonight.
Besides having been an investor in the Ms during the baseball team’s disastrous George Argyros era, he often had locally-connected guests over the years, including Foo Fighters as the official last guests on the last show, and Eddie Vedder on Monday’s third-to-last show. (Also: Lynda Barry (above), Soundgarden, Bill Nye, Joel McHale, Kyle MacLachlan, Artis the Spoonman, Sean Nelson’s band Harvey Danger, and especially the late Seattle-born comedian George Miller.)
Some commentators have pointed out that his NBC Late Night series (and especially his short-lived NBC morning show, which never aired in Seattle) were landmarks in conceptual humor (as masterminded by original head writer Merrill Markoe).
Some of these same critics complain that his act on CBS has morphed into a real version of his onetime grumpy-old-guy character, the one with the catch phrase “Get off my lawn.'”
It had been clear for some time that Letterman had accomplished all on TV that he ever would; but that he was determined to stick around until his onetime pal Jay Leno left (for good) first. Once that finally happened, Letterman announced his own retirement. That was followed in short order by the ends of Chelsea Lately, The Colbert Report (a post-“idiot”-character version of Colbert takes over from Letterman on CBS this fall), The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, and soon The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
(All this has happened while, in the eyes of some industry watchers, online streaming is allegedly “killing traditional TV.”)
It was also clear that Letterman had ceased even pretending to care about the showbiz-hype rituals that are the state religion of late-night talk; leaving a sincere (if borderline-pandering) appreciation for a certain few celebrity pals and longtime frequent guests. These people have populated the Late Show guest roster during this almost year-long “farewell tour,” an exercise in mawkishness that just kept getting mawkish-er as the finale approached.
And the whole hip-irony shtick he’d popularized back then has become one of the native tongues of marketing and advertising, in all its air-quotes smarm.
As of Thursday, the longest-serving hosts still in late night will be (1) Conan O’Brien (who’d originally replaced Letterman at NBC) and (2) Jimmy Kimmel.
Letterman’s leaving the public stage means I’ll now probably never get to ask him what, if anything, he remembered about Frances Farmer. He and the ill-fated Seattle-born film actress were each on Indianapolis local TV, albeit at different times.
I do know a guy who’d studied drama with Letterman (and future Three’s Company star Joyce DeWitt) at Indy’s Ball State U. This guy had remembered Farmer’s TV show, but alas not much about it; only that she’d been a low-rent Loretta Young introducing creaky old movies in the afternoons.
jack smith/ap via komo
This week marks 35 years since Mount St. Helens gave Wash. state the world’s biggest vomit launch.
It blasted some 1,500 feet of itself into the skies.
It killed 57 people, but that could have been a lot worse if it hadn’t happened on a Sunday morning (when loggers weren’t working nearby timber stands).
I remember it as an exciting time—and as a great news story.
I was on the UW Daily staff at the time. We had a photographer who had a pilot’s license. On his own initiative, he rented a single-engine plane and flew it as close to the eruption-in-progress as authorities would let him.
The UW also had seismology and geophysics experts. The main seismograph readings of the eruption were recorded in a room on the campus hastily dubbed the “Volcano Crisis Center.”
You can read about the spectacle, and view stunning pix of the mountain before, during, and after, at KING, KOMO, the Tacoma News Tribune, USA Today, UW Libraries, and the outside-blogger portion of Forbes.com.
76th and aurora, 1953; seattle municipal archive
Seems every week, something important from this once fair little seaport city is taken away from us in the name of density, development, or “disruption.”
Cool old bars and restaurants and shops, yes. But also a men’s pro basketball team, a daily newspaper, a radio host, a live theater space.
And the new things that replace the old things tend to be costlier, louder, hoity-toity-er. Dive bars get turned into upscale bistros; cheap apartments become luxury condos.
For someone who came of age loving the old Seattle, for all its faults and limitations, today’s city seems more and more like an alien land.
The Soul of Seattle is a hard thing to define, and different people have defined it differently. But this is how I define it.
Seattle’s soul is not loud or pushy. It doesn’t scream at you to order you to love it.
It’s quiet and confident; yes, to the point of dangerously smug self-satisfaction.
Yet it’s also funny in a self-deprecating way. Seattle’s sense of quirky humor can be seen in Ivar Haglund, J.P. Patches, John Keister, the Young Fresh Fellows’ songs, the comic art of Jim Woodring and The Oatmeal.
It believes in beauty, in many forms. The delicate curves and perfect proportions of the Space Needle; the slippery warmth of a bag of Dick’s fries; the modest elegance of a Craftsman bungalow.
It believes in old fashioned showmanship. The fringe theaters of the ’70s and ’80s; the burlesque troupes of the ’90s; the alternative circus acts of the 2000s.
It believes in old fashioned fun. Boat races; cream cheese on hot dogs; tiki parties; comics conventions.
Yet it also believes in schmoozing and in deal making. Boeing got on such good terms ith the airlines of the world that Lockheed never sustained. Microsoft made deals to put MS-DOS and Office on almost every desktop computer.
And it believes in civic progress, however it’s defined. It created monuments to its own “arrival” (the Smith Tower, the Olympic Hotel, the Century 21 Exposition). It built public spaces more beautiful than they had to be (the UW campus, the Volunteer Park Conservatory). It leveled hills, filled in tide flats, raised streets, lowered Lake Washington, and put up parks everywhere from freeway airspace to an old naval base.
There are several places around town where this Soul of Seattle still lives and even thrives.
Here are just a few of them:
(Cross posted with City Living Seattle.)
The publication that first coined the phrase “Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman” (initially referring to women’s spending power, as a lure to advertisers) is calling it quits.
The Ladies’ Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper, as it was known back in 1886, was founded by Philadelphia newspaper publisher Cyrus Curtis, and originally edited by his wife Louisa Knapp Curtis. It was run for three decades by the Curtises’ son-in-law Edward Bok, one of the inventors of the modern magazine industry. (Some old timers might have heard of the Curtis/Bok family’s other big magazine, The Saturday Evening Post.)
The Journal was a pioneer in the business model of cheap subscriptions subsidized by advertising, and thrived on it for many years. At the end it still had more than 3.2 million buyers (down from 6.8 million in 1968); but ad revenue had collapsed, as it has for so many print ventures. The name will now appear on occasional “newsstand special” editions, essentially to keep the trademark alive.
(The above image links to a review of a 1900 article in which the Journal predicted American life in the far-off year 2000. The article was a lot closer to what really happened than you might think.)
As Sears’ Seattle store dies (see this blog’s previous entry), another company here in town has led a revival of shopping from home, with a “catalog” running to millions of auto-customized web pages.
But Amazon’s original business, and its most controversial presence, remains in books.
As George Packer recently noted in the New Yorker, Amazon has disrupted, and often infuriated, the champions of traditional publishing, also known as “Book Culture.”
Some of these folks gathered in Seattle in late February/early March for the annual convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).
AWP’s main public event was a giant book fair on the convention’s final day, featuring hundreds of publishers big and small, for- and non-profit. It’s the one time a year, in a different city each year, when poetry is a business!
And Amazon was there, as a convention co-sponsor and as a vendor, with a book fair table advertising its self-publishing services.
One of the small literary publishers at the fair had a raffle for one of Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader devices. They promoted the raffle with a punching-bag toy, festooned with a photo of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos’ face.
More recently, Mayor Murray sent a formal proposal to UNESCO’s “Creative Cities” program, to become an officially, internationally recognized “City of Literature.”
The city’s formal application included a long original essay by Blueprints of the Afterlife novelist Ryan Boudinot.
The essay lists programs (to be supported partly by local public and private funding) Seattle would implement should it get the UNESCO nod. One of these programs would involve the city buying Hugo House’s building on Capitol Hill as a permanent “literary arts center” (that would also continue to house Hugo House’s programs).
Boudinot’s essay also gushes, in adoring detail, about Seattle and the Northwest’s cultural heritage(s) and its contributions in literature and publishing (especially Fantagraphics’ graphic novels) as well as in music and the visual arts.
And nowhere in the essay’s 7,000-plus words are the words “Amazon” or “Bezos” ever mentioned.
Here is a story about the world’s largest “shop from home” company, and the time it started an experimental business operation in Seattle that grew and grew.
The company was Sears, Roebuck and Co. (“Cheapest Supply House on Earth”, “Our Trade Reaches Around the World”).
The time was 1925.
The experiment was to expand from its famous “Big Book” mail order catalogs into what are now called “brick and mortar” retail stores. Urbanization and automobiles (two trends that now seem contradictory) had come to threaten Sears’ biggest market—rural families who wanted prices and selections they couldn’t get in small-town stores.
Because this was a new direction for a company that had grown huge on its existing business model, Sears management chose to save money by placing its first two retail stores in buildings it already owned—its catalog warehouses in Chicago (the company’s headquarters) and Seattle. (The Chicago flagship store closed a few decades back, leaving the Seattle store as the company’s oldest.)
The Sears Seattle warehouse building had been built a little over a decade before, in 1912. The Industrial District (later christened “Sodo” by local boosters) had just been created a few years before, from tide flats filled in with dirt from the city’s massive regrading projects. It was built for the company by the Union Pacific Railroad, whose freight tracks hugged its back side. It was built from solid old growth local timber, with handsome brick cladding and a clock tower (still the neighborhood’s tallest structure, other than container-dock cranes) on top.
It also happened to be two miles south of the city’s traditional retail core. This meant the store would rely less on foot traffic and more on folks driving expressly to go there. That meant it was a forbearer of suburban malls and big-box stores, trends Sears would ride on nationally in the post-WWII decades.
The store housed a subset of the catalog’s almost-everything selection (but not cars, or entire houses in kit form, or non-perishable groceries, three of the catalog’s once-popular sections). It had “soft goods” (clothes and linens). It had “hard goods” (appliances, hardware, auto parts, furniture). For a while, there was even a farm supply department.
In 1951, the new Alaskan Way Viaduct meant Sears was just off of the main highway through the city. A little over a decade later, I-5 would pass nearby.
Generations grew up with our own local version of the store advertised as “Where America Shops,” a chunk of middle class materialistic heaven surrounded by warehouse and small factories.
Perhaps the escalators were narrow and rickety, and the ceilings shorter, compared to newer stores in the malls; but Seattle’s Sears had its own charms. The popcorn machine and the candy counter. The cool pastel colored walls in the women’s department. The Saturday morning cartoons or Sunday afternoon sports games on the wall of TVs.
Meanwhile, the warehouse part of the building grew over the years to 2.2 million square feet, making it Seattle’s largest building by volume.
But the Sears catalogs were phased out in the mid 1980s. The building was put up for sale in 1990. It was first retitled SoDo Center, then Starbucks Center when the coffee giant moved its head offices into it.
The Sears retail store remained but shrank. Part of its space was taken up by by an Office Max. Home Depot opened a huge store across South Lander Street, competing with many of Sears’ “hard goods” departments.
The company wasn’t doing too well nationally by this time either. Walmart had overtaken both Sears and Kmart to become the nation’s top retailer. The 2004 merger of Sears and Kmart failed to revive either chain’s fortunes.
Thus, the end of the Sodo Sears store became inevitable.
Only 79 employees remained with the store when its closure was announced in February, 13 of them in the “Auto Center” department.
The store had become forgotten before it was gone.
In the six weeks or so since I posted any news briefs, the news has just kept on a-comin’.
Among the highlights: The hedge-fund guys who bought and sold Chrysler, then bought (and re-merged) the two previously spun-apart regional halves of Albertsons, are now going to buy Safeway.
Both chains have been bought and sold in leveraged buyout schemes previously; both have barely recovered from those debacles. Both chains have also acquired other regional chains over the decades, and lost and re-gained some of the stores operating under their original “store banners.” Even the “core” Safeway-branded operation was originally a merger of several chains, arranged by Merrill Lynch in the 1920s.
It happens that Safeway and Albertsons both have roots in Idaho (the original Albertsons is still open in Boise!). Both circuits grew and thrived in the inland and coastal West, areas A&P (the grocery biz’s former 300-lb. gorilla) mostly never got around to entering. These are also territories that Walmart only got around to entering in the last decade or two. That makes them relatively stable fiscally, compared to southern and eastern grocery circuits operating in Walmart’s core regions.
Both chains, of course, control lots of real estate, which may be the real reason they’re attractive to the hedge-fund folks. Safeway in particular has actively co-developed multi-story, “mixed use” projects on many of its store sites, including several projects in Seattle and Bellevue.
The soon-to-be-combined chains’ management claims no stores will close as a result of the merger. But many could be sold off, especially in metro areas where both chains are strong. And some warehouses and front-office jobs could also go away.
One thing I predict won’t go away: the persistent, and false, urban legend that either or both chains are really “owned by the Mormons.” They never were.
NY10014 at flickr
Since most of my most loyal readers will have other things to do on Sunday afternoon, here’s some relatively timeless randomosity for whenever you log back in:
If you know the answers to some or all of these questions, then you stand a fighting chance at MOHAI Trivia.
This monthly “pub trivia” competition began in April 2012, as a way to help promote the Museum of History and Industry’s pending reopening in south Lake Union. It began at the Wurst Place restaurant/tavern on Westlake, near the old Naval Reserve armory where MOHAI moved that December.
It’s now has also branched out to other bars around town, where volunteer quizmasters offer “MOHAI rounds” as part of those locations’ weekly trivia contests.
But the monthly flagship event is still held at the Wurst Place (except during summer breaks).
And, since its inception, it has been dominated by one team of obscure-knowledge buffs.
Which happens to be the team I’m on.
The Decatur Cannonballs were organized by Jeff Long, a rare book dealer and a longtime Seattle history maven. The other members, all founts of obscure knowledge, are Long’s longtime friends Chris Middleton, Brian Doan, Bill Sandell, and Randall Fehr.
The team is named after a U.S. Navy “sloop of war” whose artillery fire helped end the Battle of Seattle, a one-day uprising by local native Americans against the new white settlement in 1856.
(On nights when some members were unable to attend, the remaining team members have used the alternate name Denny Hillbillies, after the hill that was leveled to create today’s Belltown.)
The Cannonballs won all of the first 11 MOHAI Trivia events. Sometimes they won handily; sometimes by a mere half point. Once, a tiebreaker question was needed to put them on top.
They aced “name the local building” photo questions, questions based on audio clips from movies filmed in Seattle, the origins of local place names, old political scandals, local celebrities, historic events, and sports teams. They beat as many as ten other teams on any given night.
Finally, in November of this year, a team arose to challenge the Cannonballs.
And two categories were found that stumped the Cannonballs. They were local hip hop and local Olympic athletes—both vital aspect of our recent cultural scene but both topics about which these 50ish Caucasian dudes were relatively ignorant.
That night the Cannonballs finally lost.
The previously undefeated champs took it all in stride.
After all, constant triumph without at least a few setbacks just isn’t the Seattle way.
Then the Cannonballs promptly won again in December.
MOHAI Trivia at the Wurst Place (510 Westlake Ave. N.) occurs the first Tuesday evening of every month, including Jan. 7. Neighborhood MOHAI Trivia events will resume in the new year following a holiday hiatus; check MOHAI.org for dates and locations.
(ANSWERS: Henry Yesler; zero; University Village; Ben Haggerty.)