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.)
(Cross-posted with City Living Seattle.)
I first knew Mike Vraney, the legendary Seattle rock promoter and home-video mogul, from the regulars at Time Travelers, a comic book store at Second and Pike that also stocked some of the first “punk rock” records. It was a nexus for the nascent “alternative” music scene in town.
He became one of the promoters (with Jim Lightfoot, Carlo Scandiuzzi, and Terry Morgan) who reopened the Showbox Theater for live rock shows in 1979. (The legendary big-band hall at First and Pike had, by then, become a Jewish bingo parlor.)
For two amazing years he helped to stage dozens of shows, all of them memorable, with both national (the Ramones, XTC, the Police, Devo) and local (the Blackouts, the Beakers, the Fags) acts. For that alone, he shaped my life and what would become known years later as “the Seattle scene.”
From there, he went on to manage such bands as the Dead Kennedys, TSOL, and Seattle’s own The Accused.
Then in 1990 he launched Something Weird Video.
At first, it was a simple operation. Vraney had unearthed a cache of nudie-cutie “loop” film reels at a swap meet. He sold VHS tapes of their contents.
Those tapes sold well enough that he put out tapes of other reels he and friends had collected over the years, and sought out similar “cult” films to release.
Early hardcore pornos; earlier softcore sex films (that had been driven out of the marketplace by hardcore pornos); indie horror and gore flicks; nudist-camp pseudo-documentaries; sci-fi “creature features;” gangster and spy capers; gruesome driver’s-ed classroom films; drive-in intermission promos; old beer commercials—almost no genre was too outré for Something Weird.
In these tapes’ packaging and promotion, Vraney effectively captured and updated the carney-barker showmanship of old sleaze cinema. His video boxes were printed in lurid colors that made them stand out on store shelves. Wherever available, he incorporated the films’ original advertising copy and poster art on his videocassette boxes, along with scads of text placing the films in the context of their original making and release.
Before long, Vraney was buying or leasing the rights to films by such schlockmeister auteurs as Harry Novak, David Friedman, Doris Wishman, Joe Sarno, Michael and Roberta Finley, and Herschell Gordon Lewis. (Vraney took his company’s name and logo from one of Lewis’s no-budget “classics.”)
He brought these films (which had originally only been screened in drive-ins and urban “grindhouse” cinemas) and their makers (who’d been mostly unknown, even to the films’ original viewers) to the attention of new generations of enthusiasts. The pop-rock band 10,000 Maniacs named itself after a film Vraney had reissued, Lewis’s 2,000 Maniacs.
When DVDs first came out, Vraney hit upon a two-pronged business strategy.
For “mainstream” markets (or at least as mainstream as Something Weird got), Vraney signed up with distributor Image Entertainment to place over 100 discs (mostly double features) in major retail chains. These “Special Edition” discs included trailers, shorts, and the films’ original posters and ad art.
He kept full control of the rest of his catalog (which by this time numbered in thousands of titles) for sale on DVD-R, through mail order and through specialty video stores.
As the DVD biz peaked and declined (he once told me he’d known DVD was done for when Tower Records, his biggest customer, folded), Vraney moved into downloads, streaming, and on-demand cable TV. He even set up a stock footage operation, licensing scenes from some of his videos (such as his compilations of old commercials and educational films) for documentaries.
In 2012 he co-produced That’s Sexploitation!, a documentary about the makers of old time nudie, softcore, and stag films. Even as he appeared at some of its festival screenings, he kept private what only family and close friends knew—that he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer.
The end apparently came quickly.
He leaves behind his wife and partner, artist Lisa Petrucci, and two now-adult children he’d had with his first wife Tammy Decroff (who had also died from cancer).
Back in 2003, after the first round of local dot-com crashes, former Seattle Weekly writer Fred Moody wrote a book called Seattle and the Demons of Ambition.
Moody wrote about instances when the city as a whole, or individual Seattleites, obsessively pursued grandiose schemes for power, money, or civic greatness, only to figuratively crash back down to Earth.
Moody didn’t include the Seattle Monorail Project (1996-2005) in his vignettes. But that failed dream of a better, cheaper, more futuristic urban transit system certainly qualifies as a sky-high dream that collapsed amid broken hearts and balance sheets.
And Dick Falkenbury, the sometime cab driver who helped to launch the project, is a major aspect of this tale. While he’d worked in minor roles on local political campaigns in the past, many saw him as the ultimate outsider.
To the local media, and to many of his supporters, Falkenbury was the civilian tinkerer with a great idea—an idea that would cure gridlock, make car-free living more feasible, and never get stuck in traffic, all without major government subsidies.
He was like Campbell Scott’s character in the Seattle-filmed movie Singles, whose drive for a city-crossing “supertrain” was promptly dismissed by the mayor. Except that Falkenbury’s idea, while snickered at by almost everyone in power, was loved by the people.
With the aid of local rich kid Grant Cogswell and a few plucky volunteers, plus some clever ideas for low-cost signature gathering and campaigning, the Monorail Initiative got onto the ballot—and passed.
Cogswell went on to a failed City Council run, as documented in Phil Campbell’s book Zioncheck for President and Stephen Gyllenhaal’s movie Grassroots. (Later, Cogswell declared Seattle to be unworthy of him and moved to Mexico City.)
Now, Falkenbury’s written, and self-published, his account of the Monorail dream’s life and death.
The book’s title, Rise Above It All, was one of the initiative’s slogans.
Just as the elevated trains were meant to run above snarled streets, the Monorail Project was meant to run above, and apart from, the city bureaucracy and the “infrastructure lobby” of contractors and construction unions.
That things didn’t turn out that way wasn’t just the fault of Falkenbury’s outsider status. But that was a factor. He made enemies. He nurtured grudges, even with allies. Without the skills or clout to manage the ongoing operation of planning and building a transit system, he was forced to watch it taken over by the “experts.”
What came out the other end of that process was, in many ways, just another bloated civic construction proposal, complete with an unworkable financing plan. After four consecutive “yes” votes, city voters finally killed the monorail on a fifth ballot.
But would the system Falkenbury originally envisioned, or something like it. have worked?
Would it have carried 20 million riders or more per year, in auto-piloted trains, on tracks supported just 20 feet above the ground on narrow pillars, with fewer than 100 employees, financed almost completely by fare-box proceeds and station concessions?
In his book, Falkenbury insists it could have, and still could.
But he doesn’t make a convincing case.
For one thing, he could have really used an editor.
He regularly misspells the names of even major players in his story, such as City Councilmember Nick Licata.
He makes the sort of wrong-real-word errors that Microsoft Word’s spell checker can’t find, such as when he mentions “rewarding a contract” instead of “awarding” it.
He rambles on about his personal distaste for several people, including ostensible allies such as Peter Sherwin (whose second monorail initiative kept the dream alive after the city council first tried to kill it).
And he defends the monorail plan as he’d originally envisioned it, without providing a lot of specific evidence that the engineers and planners and politicians were all wrong and he was right.
But he still could be.
If Falkenbury had been a more effective schmoozer and networker; if he’d gotten more politicians on his side; if he’d sold his plan as a supplement, not a competitor, to the tri-county Sound Transit organization; if he’d convinced ST to at least consider switching from light-rail to monorail technologies; if he’d been able to keep a tighter eye on the planning and money people, or had more allies who could; then, just maybe, we might have been riding in the sky from Crown Hill to the West Seattle Junction by now.
In early October, crews began tossing abandoned personal belongings out of the former Palladian Apartments at Second and Virginia, across from the Moore Theatre/Hotel.
Everything that the building’s former tenants chose not to take with them, along with all of the building’s interior walls and fixtures, was originally sent down the building’s not-always-reliable single elevator, then later by chutes attached on the building’s south side. It all got tossed into truck-sized Dumpsters parked outside.
Among the toss-outs: CRT TV sets. Cheap Ikea shelving. Old clothes in varying degrees of rattiness. Pots and pans. The detrius of more than 60 human lives, detrius left behind and destined for either recycling or dumping.
In 1909-10 (shortly after the the Moore, and a little late for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition tourist business), attorney/businessman Scott Calhoun built the Calhoun Hotel for $175,000. Its block had recently been lowered as part of the massive Denny Regrade project. (The intersection of Second and Virginia is the highest remaining point in what had been the Denny Hill neighborhood.)
Like the nearby Moore, Commodore, St. Regis, and New Washington hotels (the latter two are now nonprofit housing), the Calhoun was the product of a frontier city trying to prove it had come of age.
Its facade incorporated elements of Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts architecture.
Its 152 guest rooms were small by modern standards, but its lobby, mezzanine, and dining room were posh.
There was even a “rathskeller” beer tavern in the basement (which became a Prohibition-era “speakeasy”).
Over the decades, the Calhoun (like its neighbor hotels) got steadily less posh. It essentially became a single-room occupancy residence.
Developers turned it into the Palladian (after a style of window dressing on its exterior) in 1984. The lobby was walled off into two storefront spaces, a building office, and an alcove/mailroom for the residents upstairs.
The storefronts first housed a bookstore and coffeehouse. Later tenants included the Poor Italian Restaurant and Corner Bar; then the Buenos Aires Grill and the Whisky Bar.
The upstairs contained 69 apartments (all studios and 1-brs; some with Space Needle views) and an art studio. It was affordable housing without public subsidies, except a city tax credit for preserving existing affordable housing stock.
However, there were hidden costs within those relatively low rents. The units and hallways were bland looking. Stairwells were poorly maintained. The elevator often stalled.
And it had noise issues, particularly the units that faced the alley entrance to a men’s homeless shelter. This alley became a 24-hour hangout for street people, including drug dealers and users.
In 2011, the city granted historic-landmark designation to the building and its exterior.
The following year, the Buenos Aires Grill’s owners signed a lease on the Whisky Bar’s space. The Whisky Bar’s owners took out all the furnishings and fixtures, which the Buenos Aires people almost completely duplicated to create the new Corner Bar. (A new Whisky Bar moved one block up the street, opening in October 2012.)
Then this past March, notices appeared in the mailroom and the ground-floor office door, asking tenants to personally meet with landlord David Cohanim. They learned that Cohanim, whose family had owned the building for more than a decade, was turning it into a boutique hotel.
City relocation assistance checks arrived in mid-May. Even before that, residents had begun to seek new homes, pack up, and move out. They scattered to places near and far—to commercial and non-profit apartments, to senior buildings, to rooms in relatives’ homes.
The Buenos Aires and the Corner Bar closed by the end of May.
The last resident officially moved out of the Palladian on Aug. 17.
Once the residents’ abandoned trash is removed, workers will take out the appliances, plumbing fixtures, cabinetry, and anything else that can be sold or recycled.
Then, the building’s roof will be knocked open. A crane will drop a small bulldozer onto the top floor. With that machine, crews will knock out the entire interior of each floor, top to bottom; flooring, wiring, and all.
It will take at least a year for what’s tentatively being called the new Calhoun Hotel to open. (Its operation may be contracted out to an established management company, which may want to stick its own name onto the place.)
The last Palladian residents will each get one free night in the hotel.
It’s Saturday Oct. 19. It’s Independent Video Store Day, an industrywide promotion similar to Record Store Day.
Scarecrow Video in the University District is packed with customers, there for special sales offers and cult-movie screenings.
Some of these are once-loyal customers who haven’t been inside Scarecrow, or any brick-and-mortar video store, in a long time.
The store needs them back, and on more than just one day a year.
Scarecrow Video is in trouble.
Not from the owners of the “Wizard of Oz” trademarks. That was quietly settled long ago, with the scarecrow in the store’s logo replaced by the silhouette of a flying crow.
And not from landlords. Store owner Carl Tostevin bought the building (formerly a stereo shop, and then a large Radio Shack) a while back.
No, what could kill the store that boasts of having “the world’s largest collection of films” are the same trends that killed Rain City Video, Hollywood Video, and even the once-mighty Blockbuster.
In the mid 1980s, during the first heyday of home video, attorney Fred Hopkins and record collector John Black had a little used record store, Backtrack, on the 25th Ave. NE strip north of University Village. Hopkins brought in a few dozen VHS tapes of ’50s horror and other cheesy B movies, for rent and for sale.
One day, regular customer George Latsois came in with some tapes of foreign and “art” films. Hopkins and Black agreed to stock them on Backtrack’s rental shelves on Latsois’s behalf. They rented well enough to encourage Latsois to start his own store.
Scarecrow Video began its standalone existence in an old commercial building south of Green Lake. Latsois quickly expanded to a second, then a third, adjacent storefront. He put everything he made and more into increasing his stock. Scarecrow, he decided, would be a destination store attracting customers from around the city and even the ‘burbs.
Latsois and a growing staff of film fanatics outgrew the Green Lake space. They moved to a bigger, and higher profile, location on Roosevelt Way, just off of the NE 50th Street freeway exit.
The U District was one of the city’s traditional film hubs. The Seven Gables and Metro cinames, and the Cinema Books store, were just down the street; the Neptune, Varsity, and Grand Illusion theaters were on or near nearby University Way; the UW itself had acclaimed film-studies programs and screening series. Scarecrow immediately became a major part, then an anchor, of this activity.
It was at Scarecrow that I first saw a DVD being played (the first Michael Keaton Batman). Within 10 years, the DVD format would render VHS (and the niche Laserdisc format) completely obsolete. Scarecrow, though, would hold on to hundreds of VHS titles that still haven’t come out on DVD.
Latsois kept expanding his selection. He tried to balance interesting but unprofitable titles with films in popular or niche-market genres (sexploitaiton, anime, old Hollywood classics). Scarecrow’s collection, already the biggest in Seattle, became one of the, and then THE, biggest in America.
But Latsois’s get-big-fast model caught up with the store’s finances. He was forced to seek buyers. He found them in 1998, in Microsoft managers (and loyal store customers) Tostevin and John Dauphiny.
Latsois died in 2003 in his native Greece; a wake at Scarecrow was attended by loyal customers dating from back in the Backtrack days.
With the backing of Tostevin and Dauphiny (who kept their Microsoft day jobs and didn’t take salaries from the store), Scarecrow continued to grow. To 23,000 titles, then to 80,000, then to almost 120,000.
Every available foot of space in the former stereo shop was turned into shelves. The main room’s collections of “auteur” directors became a labyrinth of tall shelves, separated by increasingly narrow passages. At Scarecrow, shopping for films was as much of an adventure as watching them.
Then came Netflix’s DVD by mail service. Then came streaming and on-demand services. Independent retailers like Scarecrow, which can’t afford the expensive rights (or the technical infrastructure) to stream movies, were cut off from that side of the buisness.
DVD rentals and sales tumbled. The big movie studios cut back their DVD release schedules. Video stores everywhere (independents, chains, big and small) began to disappear.
Tostevin (who bought out Dauphiny’s share) kept Scarecrow open, with a staff of 30. They added a coffee bar (“VHSpresso”), a screening room, and cross-promotions with art cinemas and neighborhood small businesses. They pushed the sales side of the business, and offered different rental specials each day of the week. It hasn’t been enough.
On Oct. 17, two days before Independent Video Store Day, Tostevin posted notice on the store’s website:
“Our rental numbers have declined roughly 40% over the past 6 years. This isn’t a huge surprise—obviously technology has been moving this direction for some time—but the decline has been more dramatic than we had anticipated.… Scarecrow has never been about making money, but it has to support itself. It’s no longer doing that, and hasn’t for a while.”
Scarecrow general manager Jeffrey Shannon told KOMO-TV that if revenues don’t pick up by year’s end, he and Tostavin might pursue a nonprofit, subscription-based model or other options. Completely closing, and disbanding the collection, remains one of those options.
In his website post, Tostevin didn’t ask for donations, just for his former regulars to “come back in” and buy and/or rent stuff; particularly during the upcoming holiday season.
One of the things you could buy is a Scarecrow T-shirt bearing the cartoon image of an anthropomorphic DVD disc and VHS cassette, smiling beneath the slogan VIVA PHYSICAL MEDIA.
To get over with the obvious: I was in first grade when the announcement came over the Liberty Elementary School PA system. The President had been shot. School was canceled. We got on the school buses, in the orderly fashion we had been frequently instructed to take.
My father came home shortly thereafter. His Federal office had also been shuttered.
The next four days were spent at the black and white TV, with nonstop tragedy. The non-network stations might have kept with regular programming (I don’t recall), but we didn’t watch it.
The network morning shows and the news sites and the magazines are full of reassessments of the Kennedy legacy.
As usual, almost all of the pontificators talk about Kennedy as the face of youth, Kennedy as the bold public speaker, Kennedy as the inspiration to young lives.
But what is the Kennedy legacy, really?
Granted, he turned out to only have 34 months in office.
But still, there should be more than just a rugged face, a carefully crafted public image, some sex stories, some rumors, and some conspiracy theories?
He certainly got the ball rolling toward that whole Vietnam debacle.
He stalled on many of the day’s simmering civil-rights issues until almost the end of his shortened term (knowing that a Dixiecrat/GOP coalition in Congress would likely stall any meaningful race legislation), eventually leaving them to the next guy.
He totally blew the Bay of Pigs fiasco, but made up for it during the Cuban missile crisis.
He started an investigation of organized crime, but was hampered by his own alleged family connections to same.
In the end, it might just have been that the American “ship of state” was (and certainly now is) too bulky to effectively re-maneuver or re-steer toward progress (it’s easy, however, to careen that “ship” toward the rocky shoals of disaster).
Perhaps speeches and a public image are all a President can employ for good.
getty images via huffington post
My first thought: How could such a still-vital part of our musical heritage, one of the original proto-punks, be gone from us so soon?
My second thought: How did the writer of “Heroin” (almost a love song to the drug), then later of “The Power of Positive Drinking,” live this long?
My third thought: Back to the first thought.
I mourn the Comet Tavern for what it had been. The un-upscaled hippie hangout; the dive that remained a dive when most of the other dives in town cleaned up their acts. I don’t mourn what it had become—a hangout ruled by an oft-violent aggro gang called Hate City. (A good friend, a petite female, was once roughed up by bouncers there, badly.) Could any new owners make it an inviting place again?
We went on holiday to Spain and had a problem with the taxi drivers as they were all Spanish.