Press: Blue law meanies ruin a business that was an institution

As Speakeasy considered its options given the requirements of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, the community lamented the possibility of its closure.

Blue law meanies ruin a business that was an institution

by Doug Nufer, the Free Press

Anyone walking into the Speakeasy Cafe a few years ago might have seen the end. It was simply too unusual to survive, too good to be true. The place would have been packed, yet the crowd seemed oddly dispersed: not just because there were kids and older people. Some came for the band in the front room and others for the poetry reading in back; some sat at computer screens and others might be discussing the latest “improvement” to hit this downtown Seattle neighborhood. Some drank coffee or beer, hardly anyone ate, and everyone seemed focused on something and yet open to whatever might come along.

Speakeasy’s worst liquor violation may have been taking a name for itself that thumbs its nose at prohibition, but the cafe’s business problems run deeper than that

At the end of January, Gretchen and Mike Apgar, two of the Speakeasy co-owners, announced the Belltown cafe would be closing May 31. Although the company’s Internet server business is booming, it can’t continue to support the cafe, which lost about $60,000 this past year and $40,000 the year before that. There’s a chance some tenant will come in and run the cafe while the Speakeasy devotes all its efforts to the Web side of the operation, which currently comprises about 80 percent of the business.

One problem facing anyone who would continue to run the cafe as a home to featured performances (and to patrons who just want to hear some music while they eat) is the 211 Club pool hall upstairs, which has often complained about noise. Consequently, the landlord will insist on a ban of live music when the Speakeasy lease is up for renewal at the end of 1999.

Most of all, however, Mike blames the Washington State Liquor Control Board (LCB) for the cafe’s losses. He estimates the cafe lost 25-50 percent of its business when the LCB forced the cafe to exclude minors after 9:00 PM on nights when it has live music.

There Is No Law
State liquor laws are bizarre, nit-pickingly explicit, conveniently vague, and often so contradictory as to be inexplicit, particularly when booze mixes with music and minors. Some full service restaurants can provide a live band for patrons guzzling hard liquor while people under the age of 21 sit in attendance, if there’s a second entrance for the bar area of the restaurant. Cafes in rural areas are subject to a different application of liquor board policy than are cafes in cities. Seattle city attorney Mark Sidran has been notorious for encouraging the LCB to patrol nightclubs in search of violations. Liquor agents have broad discretionary powers, and included in these powers is the assumption that the LCB can declare an area off-limits for any reason. The LCB and its agents make decisions on a case by case basis. There is no law that explicitly bans minors from places with live music and alcohol after 9 p.m.

In the case of the Speakeasy, the LCB apparently changed its policy from time to time, allowing and then banning minors in part or all of the cafe. For about two and a half years, the Speakeasy operated under the assumption that their application to have live music and minors was approved; then, in January, 1997, a liquor agent brought a “corrected letter” to clarify which days the cafe could have music and what kind of music was allowed (an earlier letter was incorrect). An agent later sent a memo to amend the corrected letter, after which more corrected letters were sent. The Speakeasy, meanwhile, appealed the various rulings, and the LCB duly processed and even provisionally seemed to approve most of the appeals.

Part of the confusion comes from the layout of the Speakeasy, which has music in the front room and music, poetry readings, theater, and film programs in the back room space. Although the Speakeasy has used the back room as a theater for years, more recent improvements possibly did not conform to WAC 314.16.180, which requires licensees to notify the LCB if they “make any alterations in the physical set-up or arrangement of the premises.” In the most recent round of appeals, the LCB either mistook the cafe’s request to have music in the front for a request to have music in the back, or they were just getting around to responding to an older appeal.

The Speakeasy appealed to the LCB in September, 1998. The LCB approval, albeit backwards, came in February. Part of the process involves sending the application to the Liquor Desk of the Seattle Police Department, whereupon the police contact the cafe’s neighbors to determine if the cafe constitutes a nuisance. The police then report to the LCB, who acts on the request. To people trying to run a business, the glacially slow process is maddening.

Ain’t Nobody’s Business
A model liquor licensee, the Speakeasy has never been cited for serving minors. In a neighborhood distinguished by some of the finest seedy dives and purveyors of rotgut in the state of Washington, it is the last place anyone would go to get loaded. It’s also, unfortunately, more known for its lapses in food service than for its food, more used as an office by people too poor to have a computer at home and as a meeting place for thrifty arts and political organizations than as a trough for yuppies, a Mecca for rich tourists, or any other sort of dollar-vacuuming entertainment complex. The Speakeasy’s worst liquor violation may have been taking a name for itself that thumbs its nose at prohibition, but the cafe’s business problems clearly run deeper than that.

For one thing, the Internet cafe concept isn’t quite the cash cow some trade magazines speculated it would become. Such businesses are suffering, nationwide. The Speakeasy’s strong political and artistic consciousness is practically unheard of elsewhere. In San Francisco, for instance, the cyber cafes are awful, if perhaps more viable. Rather than offer black and white VDTs and fifteen minutes of free time as the Speakeasy does, these virtual palaces south of Market Street feature big-screen Macs in full color, with a meter running.

Another, deeper “problem” may be that nobody ever conceived of the Speakeasy Cafe as a business. Years ago it began as a gleam in the eye of a group of visionaries who shared a loft in the industrial district. Even–or, especially–after spending countless hours of labor plus $100,000 on remodeling a warehouse for the main space, and many thousands more to turn a parking garage into a theater, the owners aren’t inclined to settle for a compromised version of what they achieved.

“I would rather quit than make something I wouldn’t be proud of, or make it a shadow of its former self,” says back room curator David Russell.

“The Speakeasy has been really glorious,” says Gretchen Apgar. “From the beginning, we wanted to mix people,” she adds, referring to their mission.

They wanted to bring people from different backgrounds into one place, to bring together artists from different disciplines, and to introduce people who might have been technophobes to technology.

In addition to having visual artists, performers of all sorts, writers, musicians, and film people, in various ongoing programs, reading series, film presentations, and concerts, the Speakeasy has clearly favored avant-garde work, stuff that aims to be difficult and daring.

Hit the Road, Jack
“The Speakeasy provided an optimal performance space for Other Sounds, hosted the series website gratis, provided advertising, and spared us the financial burdens that otherwise have prevented us from presenting uncompromising music in such an amenable setting,” says Dennis Rea, a director of the Other Sounds Music Series. “The Speakeasy has been a godsend for our series, and its closing is nothing short of a disaster for creative music in Seattle.”

“Four years ago I was frustrated by the lack of alternative venues for film and video in Seattle,” says Joel Bachar of Independent Exposure. “Two days later, the Speakeasy opened.” From there, Bachar has gone on to present films by local, national, and international artists, and he’s exported programs to Thailand, Tokyo, San Francisco, Sydney, and Serbia.

While the Richard Hugo House literary arts center might adopt some of the orphans (both the Subtext and Eleventh Hour reading series, for starters), Bachar’s net assessment of venues hasn’t changed much. Almost as soon as the new Wiggly World cinema arts center opened on Capitol Hill, it filled up with its own regular film programs as well as one-shot events. Even if some theater were to welcome the other arts series, no place stands ready to accept as many varied programs as the Speakeasy has hosted. Russell, who helps curate the Three Knocks and a Whistle shows, points out how one of the charms of the Speakeasy has been its knack for drawing audiences for the back room theater from “regular people” who just happen to be in the cafe when a performance is starting, and then decide to attend.

Recently Bachar and Gretchen Apgar were tapped for whatever input they might offer to Mayor Schell’s Task Force on the Arts, a group supposedly set up to find more ways to get arts funding to groups that deserve support. Questions of “quality” have the task force dead in the water, as proponents of conventional standards refuse to recognize the viability–let alone the vitality–of art that must defy conventional standards. Meanwhile, the complications of liquor policy, lease, and business are killing a Seattle institution that did more for the arts than the city has ever done.

It Ain’t Over til It’s Over

While the fat lady sings, minors run for cover, and the upstairs neighbors complain, the Speakeasy Cafe has reconsidered its decision to close. As of press time, they will close just for the month of June. After a slight remodel, they would reopen. Tentative plans include doing away with food service, which was the biggest drain on finances. The Internet desk, whose costs did cover services, would continue to operate, and performances would be able to continue to run in the front area and in the back room. Live music, however, is still an endangered species of entertainment, although it could continue until the lease is up.

Gretchen Apgar says they tried to find a new operator for the cafe. When nothing worked out, they chose to “reinvent themselves” rather than quit. The response to the announcement of closing was overwhelmingly supportive of what they could continue to do, so supportive, they had to go on.

Tricia Currier of the Washington State Liquor Control Board has been courteous and helpful in sending information to my Speakeasy e-mail address. The Free Press has its website on the Speakeasy network and the Speakeasy advertises in the Free Press. Also, I have produced literary readings in the back room.


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