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Cafe Racer: Seattle's Famously Quirky Dive
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Easily one of Seattle’s all-time quirkiest and best-loved neighborhood dives, the Café Racer Espresso (5828 Roosevelt Way NE), has since 2005 offered up good coffee, simple food, cheep beer, and fun music to an eclectic clientele comprising an ongoing parade of outsider artists, actors, writers, motor-scooter enthusiasts, neo-vaudevillians, musicians, hippies, steampunks, stray dogs -- all sorts of social misfits -- and even a few "normal" college students and neighbors. Among the joint’s attractions are its irreverent and nonconformist vibe; its motley collection of mismatched chairs, tables, and couches all strewn between a maze of oddly shaped rooms; and a mind-boggling museum of “bad art." Overseen by owner Kurt Geissel (b. 1959), the cozy venue epitomizes that theoretical physical space sociologists refer to as a “Third Place.” As such, it is a comfortable, inexpensive, and very inviting spot where everyone is welcome, conversation is spirited, live music is energizing, and creative sparks fly. Alas, bullets also flew on May 29, 2012, when a gunman murdered several regulars and wounded a staffer. But, like a beautiful phoenix rising from the ashes, the Café Racer community first stood together to mourn, and then to rebuild their little bohemian oasis, which reopened on July 20, 2012.
In 2004 Staci Dinehart, the owner of a less-than-blazingly successful coffee shop in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood, mentioned to a friend, Kurt Geissel, that she thought she could do better in a different location. Geissel -- who held down a longtime job as a technician working on bio-safety equipment at the University of Washington -- was also a video artist who had been inspired years prior by the Two Bells Tavern (2313 4th Avenue) in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, a friendly place with local art on the walls that reveled in good conversation, music, and food. It was also the site where he first exhibited his art. It wasn’t long before Geissel heard through a family friend that a small retail spot on Roosevelt Way was available.
The shambling old building had two storefronts -- the northernmost of which (5828 Roosevelt Way NE) had housed the Home Health Services firm in the 1940s, Hood Stores Ltd. in the 1950s, offices for the Puget Consumer Co-Op (PCC) in the 1980s, and in the 1990s was the home of Michael Lindsey and Bif Brigman’s Laguna Vintage Pottery shop. Later the Peace Action of Washington activist organization opened their Peace Café in the southern portion (5826 Roosevelt Way NE) -- which had been the site of Jim Oden Realty in the 1950s. Then Brigman returned with an art gallery, but the southern portion was again available.
Dinehart (and her business partner/husband, Kevin Hansen) liked the latter space and envisioned opening a little coffee shop/café there. They invited Geissel -- who had no restaurant experience at all (except for a brief spell of dishwashing at a Lynnwood spot at age 18, after which he swore "I was never going to do it again") -- to loan them some capital, or buy-in for 30 percent of the business. And thus, the Lucky Dog Espresso came into being. They served coffee, sandwiches, and beer and attracted an eclectic clientele (and their lucky canine companions) with a vibe of openness, wall decor featuring unusual original art, mismatched furniture and china, and occasional live music -- such as their debut band, the Splashdowns.
But by May 2005, Rinehart and Hansen were ready to move on, and they handed the reins over to Geissel, who -- along with his team -- built up a dynamic little outpost of outsider culture at the otherwise rather bleak northern end of the University District. "The Lucky Dog was unique," Geissel recalls, "in that we always involved the community: we always had music, [and] the people that I hired were artists. They were like: not necessarily restaurant people, but they had connections in the community and it just grew out of that" (Blecha interview).
Come As You Are
By the autumn of 2005, Geissel had completed incorporating under a brand new name. "I took a while ... I was looking for a solid name and I didn’t want to rush into it" (Blecha interview). A longtime member of Seattle’s motor-scooter scene, he finally brainstormed the right moniker: Café Racer. "I wanted it to be kinda like a double entendre which, you know, can mean two things. Like: 'Is it a café? Is it motorcycles?.'" In fact, the reference was to the specific two-wheelin’ black leather-clad "Café Racer" subculture in England in which the participants have, since the 1950s, been defined by their frequenting cafés -- most famously London’s Ace Café -- before roaring off on wild runs to other locales for additional hanging out.
But beyond all that: "I really liked," says Geissel, "what they stood for: just hanging around and racing between cafés. You know the café racers concept, at least for me, is like 'come as you are' -- just bring your bike. And if it’s chopped up, it’s chopped up; if it’s new, it’s new. It doesn’t really matter. And that’s kind of the way café racers are" (Blecha interview).
The scooter crowd took an instant interest in the venue and soon started meeting there, and Geissel even tried to casually encourage that activity "but it’s not really a scooter bar. You can have a dream and try to make it that way, but if you do it ends up being stagnant. This place is always evolving. It changes all the time. And I think that’s what people like about it. A lot of places you go into are built to look funky but if you go in there in six months, it’s gonna look exactly the same. Whereas here, god only knows what it’ll look like in six months or whatever. That’s why it’s really comfortable for people: its not stagnant" (Blecha interview).
Building a Community
Café Racer quickly attracted a broad array of people who began making it their second home -- or more precisely their very own "Third Place" -- that theoretical physical space which Ray Oldenburg (b. 1932) and subsequent urban sociologists have rhapsodized as an accessible spot that serves as an anchor for individuals' community life, as distinct from their "First Place" (home) and "Second Place" (jobsite). Those people comprised an ongoing parade of oddball artists, actors, writers, motor-scooter enthusiasts, neo-vaudevillians, musicians, hippies, steampunks -- all sorts of social misfits, and even a few "normal" college students, parents with children, and regular neighbors. Indeed, the café has proven to be a truly remarkable "nucleus of a vast, intricate network of artists, and has always been synonymous with inclusivity and compassion" (Swanson).
Beyond such individuals, numerous informal social clubs and subcultural interest groups also began holding meetings there. Included (over the years) were: an Arts and Crafts crew; computer programmers called the Ruby Group; the Café Racer soccer team; the Vespa Club of Seattle (VCOS); the Bureau of Drawers crew who offer regular "doodle-fests;" the "Burning Wheel Games" group; and perhaps most notably, Seattle's famed graphic-novelist, Jim Woodring (b. 1952), who began leading drawing classes in a back room and helped found an associated cartooning group, the "Friends of the Nib" at the Café.
"I think that what is unique about this place," says Geissel, "is that so many different groups of people feel at home here. And I love that. Like a gamer group can be in here playing some elaborate board game -- right next to a professor meeting with his students, next to somebody who’s playing a guitar. Culturally, we’ve been so successful. I can’t even believe the diversity and the recognition that this place has gotten -- 'cause if you look at it day-to-day its like, well, there’s nothing really goin’ on here, but when you look at it altogether you realize that it really does have an impact on people and their lives" (Blecha interview).
God’s Favorite Corned Beef Hash
Even the food menu and beverage list -- and style of customer service -- at Café Racer are rather different than one will find most anywhere else. The motley staff of 15 is perfectly friendly, if occasionally slow due to being distracted by their multiple ongoing conversations with various other patrons elsewhere in the venue. But plenty of folks view this atmosphere as a decided plus: one Yelp review by "Gordie H." notes that "the owners run the joint and they really could care less whether you like them, the food, or the restaurant. That will keep me as a customer." Another, by Joshua O., stoutly defends the Café, saying, "Part of the charm of this place is the amateur bartenders and mediocre cooks ... . If you like a bar that feels like a friend's living room, this is the place."
In truth, the quite likeable owner and his capable cooks do care about their patrons' satisfaction, although their corporate motto, "We ain’t happy till you ain’t happy," could conceivably confuse those without a sense of humor. But all silliness aside, the Café does have a commitment to a certain philosophy as expressed on the menu itself: "We take pride in the fact that we are a friendly place. We welcome everyone with a good attitude and an open mind. If you want your food in 30 seconds, go to McDonalds, if you don’t want anybody to talk to you, go to Starbucks" (menu).
To be sure, conversation is highly regarded at the Café -- as are some of the more notorious choices on that menu as overseen by chef Leonard Meuse. Among them are their "Spinichoke"(spinach and artichoke) dip, a tribute item called "The Woodring," an "Italian Style Tofu" hot-dog, and the hefty "Incredible Wonder Wiener" -- a Polish hot-dog augmented with bacon-strips, green chilies, cream cheese, and "mayotard." And then there is the treasured weekend brunch menu that has established the joint as a destination spot for many, especially for what is perhaps Seattle’s most divine corned beef hash plate. In sum -- as the Seattle Weekly once noted -- "You can't be everything to everyone, but Café Racer comes pretty close, uniting the three neighborhoods it straddles [Roosevelt, Ravenna, the University District] with good coffee, killer dogs, a full bar, and no judgment as to when or what you eat or drink."
Bad Art Museum
In 2008 the Café’s neighbor to the northern portion of the building (a bizarrely combined tax accountant/thrift shop) vacated and Geissel jumped at the chance to expand his business. In discussing the options with various friends, he and one of Seattle’s most omnipresent artsy couples -- nightlife maven and Seattle Twist blogger Marlow Harris and fashion photographer/graphic designer Jo David -- mentioned their private collection of, well, really bad art. And thus the concept of a "bad art" museum emerged -- along with a timely-if-absurdist name: the Original Bad Art Museum of Art (OBAMA).
With the Café’s several new rooms to fill, curators Harris and David would spotlight the unfortunate "art" produced by unwitting amateurs and crass commercial offenders alike: paint-by-number still-lifes, sad clowns, disturbing black velvet paintings, maudlin homages to deceased pets, Jesus Christ rendered with marshmallow peeps, and countless human subjects with unintentionally distorted physical features. All in all, it is perhaps the craziest possible décor that any bar could ever hope to offer its beered-up and disbelieving clientele. In explaining how new art objects are added to OBAMA’s Permanent Collection, David also reveals the rigorous curatorial philosophy underpinning the institution: "People surprise us all the time by dropping in at Café Racer and donating bad art. Many times when I show up there, Kurt [Geissel] will say: 'Oh, there’s some new stuff that people dropped by. It’s back in the office.' So I go in and take a look at it. And, if it’s bad enough, I’ll pull something else down that’s not so bad -- or not bad enough -- and replace it with the worse piece. Our goal is to constantly lower the bar of artistic aesthetics for the pleasure and benefit of mankind."
No wonder that on November 14, 2008, KING-TV’s Evening Magazine show humorously described the OBAMA exhibits as "A sight for sore eyes." As Geissel recalls with glee: "We opened in the fall of ’08 and later had a big party when Barrack Obama was elected president. And people loved it. Art draws people out. It brings people together. Strangers" (Blecha interview).
Gypsy-Carnival-Opera Music, etc
Initially Geissel (and early employee Ross Brashear) booked the musical entertainment for the Café -- including Lonesome Shack, an exciting delta blues-style guitarist who drew crowds by playing regularly on Tuesdays. In 2010 a cluster of University of Washington music department students began holding experimental/improvisational jazz jams at the Café on Sundays -- events that eventually took shape as the Racer Sessions, and even a couple of Racer Session Fests. Along the way, the idea for a new record label,Table & Chairs, was sparked there. And such activities began to attract attention: even The New York Times sensed that something good was happening, noting the room’s vibrancy on the front page of its Sunday arts section.
But it would be the performances of its house-band, God’s Favorite Beefcake, on Thursday nights, that really locked-in Café Racer’s musical identity. God’s Favorite Beefcake was a musical spinoff of Seattle’s alt-performance art troupe, the Circus Contraption -- mainstays on what has been described as the town’s "eccentric folk-vaudeville scene" (Kool). Having seen the Circus perform their self-described "quirky-jerky loony-croony gypsy carnival opera music" around town a few times, Geissel became a big fan (circuscontraption.com). Then, after hearing them again at Seattle’s Moisture Fest, he approached the Circus’ ringleader/sword-swallower/guitarist/singer Drew Keriakedes (1963-2012) aka "Shmootzi the Clod." "I went up to him and said, 'You should play at the Café. That’d be really cool.' And: he moved in [laughter]" (Blecha interview).
Coincidentally, Keriakedes and his wife lived right up the street from the Café, and as he was also an unemployed-but-experienced band booker, Geissel enlisted him to take over scheduling musical acts each week. "So we started doing more and more music," says Geissel, "pretty much as an 'open mike.' [And] musicians just started hanging out and so it just sorta evolved into that. And we had some good shows. It was a good time. But then he started booking all these crappy bands and it was like: 'Oh my god! Can you please listen to these bands before you book them? So finally it was like: 'Drew! You’re fired!' [laughter]. He was like 'Arrgh, I hate this job anyway! [laughter]” (Blecha interview).
Still, God’s Favorite Beefcake kept their regular Thursday gig, entertaining growing crowds with an assemblage of unlikely instruments including a musical saw, spoons, harmonica, fiddle, trombone, accordion, clarinet, Keriakedes’s guitar, and Joe 'Vito' Albanese’s (1960-2012) upright bass. A natural-born frontman, Keriakedes presided over their shows, and with his eccentric attire, long pointy beard, tattoos, piercings -- and audacious ribald humor -- held their audiences in the palm of his hand. The music itself was a mash-up of old-timey folk, bawdy blues, and otherwise uncategorizable ditties -- including some wonderfully tender original compositions by Keriakedes. Not much less idiosyncratic was their regular opening band, the Nu Klezmer Army, which also featured Albanese. And hundreds of other bands and solo acts would also play the Café over the years.
Morning of Mourning
Then, Seattle was shocked to its core when in the late morning of Wednesday, May 30, 2012, a disturbed customer named Ian L. Stawicki (1972-2012) -- who had been ejected from the Café on Friday the 25th for disruptive behavior -- returned and opened fire on the handful of people hanging out. Meuse, working as barista, was seriously wounded, and four others -- Café regulars Kimberly Layfield and Donald Largen, along with Keriakedes and Albanese -- were fatally shot. Stawicki fled, continuing his rampage southward to the First Hill neighborhood where he killed a woman, Gloria Leonidas, and hours later committed suicide in West Seattle.
By evening a memorial shrine of flowers, candles, and mementos began piling up outside the Café, and the healing process got underway with several nights of informal gatherings of people in the alley next to the Café -- talking, crying, dancing, singing, drinking, and playing music. It was a scene described as a "defiant celebration in the face of tragedy" (Brissey). Within days, a memorial/fundraising website -- Café Racer Love -- was launched and it noted that the name itself "embodies so much -- the grief that streamed down the faces of the dancing revelers in the middle of the street, the joy that floated above in white paper lanterns, the bawdy and hilarious bravery in Drew’s jokes, the comfort in Don’s unwavering honesty, the sweetness in Joe’s everyday grace and wit, the diamonds in Kim’s smile, the way tugging on Len’s chin-braid is nigh irresistible" (Café Racer Love).
In the weeks and months that followed many fundraising events for the victims’ families were held all across town at venues including the Comet Tavern (922 E Pike Street), Clever Dunne’s (1501 E Olive Way), the Good Shepherd Center (4649 Sunnyside Avenue N), Trap Studios (6033 Beach Drive SW), Central Ave Pub (1404 S Central Avenue, Kent), the Tractor Tavern (5213 Ballard Avenue NW), Connor Byrne (5140 Ballard Avenue NW), and the Neptune Theatre (1303 NE 45th Street). Meanwhile, "Victims of the Café Racer Shooting Memorial Fund" was set up at local Chase banks.
Viva Café Racer
There were initial concerns that Café Racer might never reopen. The regular clientele, the staff, and the owner were overcome with grief. Their sense of community, of safety, of cooperation and peace, had been shattered. "The night before the shootings," Geissel tearfully recalled, "I stayed up all night getting the [new] floor ready, prepping it and laying it down -- and Don helped and so did Joe and Drew. They all helped because they are part of the place ... and I was exhausted and just sitting there and there was like 10 different groups of people -- there was just so many different people [helping out] and I was ... just loving it ..."(Blecha interview).
After the incident that same love was felt by many who encouraged Geissel to tough it out, and finally on July 18th he issued a press release that announced that Café Racer would reopen on Friday July 20th. Over the previous weeks the venue was spruced up with new paint, new bar stools, a new counter -- yet another new floor -- an updated OBAMA exhibit, and a new wall plaque (donated by Layfield’s family) which reads: "The song has ended, but the melody lingers on." Indeed, the café’s original aura of innocence was gone, but it wouldn’t be forgotten. After a couple days of soft openings, a Grand Reopening event was held on July 20th -- with a full house once again enjoying food, drink, music, companionship -- and even some laughter.
"It’s comin’ back," admitted Geissel about his beloved establishment. "Its hard to explain … but the thing that I love the most about this place is that: it is all so diverse, and people are coming together that would probably never come together. For instance: one time Jim Woodring’s group was all here, and it’s all different kinds of cartoonists. And he said: 'We’re going to do a show here and it’s all gonna be pen and ink.' And half the people freaked out because they’d never done anything like that. They were always like pencils or chalk or whatever medium they used. And it forced them to do something outside their comfort zone. And that -- what’s so cool about this place is people meet, and they do something creative" (Blecha interview).
“I don’t know ..." Geissel continued, "I think it’s indescribable what it is. I just always wanted a place where everybody could meet and get along, and be who they are. Non-judgmental that’s who we are. I think that pretty much sums it up ... . The other night, when we first reopened, there was this woman singing and another playing the accordion. And they were doing it just for each other. Just because they needed to create it. Art for art's sake. And we need more of that in the world. I mean: it’s not just all about money. And I think this place kinda shows it. I think people feel that that’s what we’re trying to do here."
Author interview with Kurt Geissel at Café Racer August 22, 2012, recordings in Peter Blecha's possession; Ace Café website accessed September 13, 2012 (http://www.ace-cafe-london.com/History.aspx); OBAMA website accessed June 10, 2012 (http://officialbadartmuseumofart.com/); Jo David email correspondence with Peter Blecha, September 14, 2012, copy in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle Washington; Gordie H., Café Racer customer review, Yelp.com website accessed June 15, 2012 (http://www.yelp.com/biz/cafe-racer-espresso-seattle); Joshua O., Café Racer customer review, Yelp.com website accessed on June 15, 2012 (http://www.yelp.com/biz/cafe-racer-espresso-seattle); "Contraption cacophony," Circus Contraption website accessed on August 24, 2012 (http://www.circuscontraption.com/music.html); Paul de Barros, "Racer Sessions Fest Busts Out Again," The Seattle Times, January 13 2012 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Jennifer Sullivan and Jonathan Martin, "A Lifetime of Rage, a Shocking Final Act," The Seattle Times, June 11, 2012 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Andrew J. Swanson, "Cafe Racer: Creativity and Diversity Will Endure in Roosevelt's Living Room," The Seattle Times, June 7, 2012 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Grant Brissey, "Last Week at Cafe Racer: The Neighborhood Comes to Grips with What's Happened," June 5, 2012 The Stranger website accessed June 6, 2012 (http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/last-week-at-cafe-racer/Content?oid=13860921); Zoe Kool, "God's Favorite Beefcake Shall Not Be Moved," The Bomber Jacket website accessed on June 26, 2012 (http://thebomberjacket.com/2012/06/26/gods-favorite-beefcake-shall-not-be-moved-2/); Kurt Geissel, press release, July 18, 2012, copy in author's possession; Jennifer Sullivan, "Cafe Racer Stages Resolute Reopening on Another Tragic Day," The Seattle Times, (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Café Racer Love website accessed on July 5, 2012 (http://www.caferacerlove.org/3/category/in%20memoriam/1.html).
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Sign, Cafe Racer, Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle, September 23, 2012
HistoryLink.org Photo by Peter Blecha
Cafe Racer, 5828 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle, n.d.
Photo by Jo David
Sidewall art, Cafe Racer, 5828 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle, September 23, 2012
HistoryLink.org Photo by Peter Blecha
Interior, Cafe Racer, 5828 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle, n.d.
Photo by Jo David
Kurt Geissel, Cafe Racer, Seattle, November 15, 2008
Photo by Jo David
Bar, Cafe Racer, 5828 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle, n.d.
Photo by Jo David
Marlow Harris, Jo David, OBAMA grand opening, Seattle, November 15, 2008
Photo by Jo David
Drew Keriakedes (1963-2012), Seattle
Photo by Jo David
Nu-Klezmer Army, Cafe Racer, 5828 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle, n.d.
Photo by Jo David
Cafe Racer memorial and fundraiser, Seattle, June 2012
Courtesy Cafe Racer
Cafe Racer, 5828 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle, September 23, 2012
HistoryLink.org Photo by Peter Blecha
Sidewalk sign, Cafe Racer, 5828 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle, September 23, 2102
HistoryLink.org Photo by Peter Blecha