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It was the beginning of 1971, not a particularly upbeat time for the nation or the Northwest: The U.S. still had nearly 300,000 troops in Vietnam and was bombing supply routes in Laos and Cambodia. In the year just ended, National Guardsmen had shot down college students at Kent State, Washington state game wardens and troopers had attacked Indians “fishing in” along the Puyallup River with tear gas and clubs, the Beatles had announced their breakup, and Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin had died of drug overdoses.
Despite the general sense of things falling apart, some of us were starting new ventures: I had two young kids. And three friends of mine (Gordon Bowker, Zev Siegel, and Jerry Baldwin) had decided to launch a gourmet coffee store at the Pike Place Market. It had a catchy name: Starbucks.
It was a big gamble. Seattle may not have been the cultural dustbin of distant memory, but it was something of a culinary dustbin. It wasn’t exactly a big coffee town. But then, virtually no place in America was. You could get espresso in San Francisco’s North Beach, in New York’s Greenwich Village or Little Italy, but most of the country was still drinking whatever the local supermarket sold in big vacuum-sealed cans. Seattle’s trademark Scandinavians may have boosted the city’s quantity of coffee consumption, but they didn’t do much for the quality; they bought the same supermarket brands everyone else did. Under the circumstances, one could hardly be sure that many Seattle residents would pay the going price for a pound of good coffee, much less for a fancy German coffee maker.
Besides, times in Seattle were really bad. Boeing had laid off two-thirds of its work force since the start of 1969. In January, statewide unemployment had hit 15 percent. A couple of months later, people driving south on 99 could read the famous billboard, “Will the last person leaving Seattle – Turn out the lights.”
By the late 1960s, the Pike Place Market itself had become run-down, a hangout for a large low-income population, not quite in keeping with the civic vision of the recent Seattle World’s Fair. First Avenue south of the market was still lined with taverns and pawn shops and flophouse hotels. I bought vegetables at Pike Place from an Italian farmer called “young Tony,” who was in his 70s, and chatted with his pal, “old Tony,” who was in his 80s and lived in a cheap hotel nearby.
I sometimes ate at a cafe on the east side of Pike Place run by an aging woman with thin red hair named Irene. A counter and a row of old stools took up most of the space. Irene made Swedish pancakes for breakfast. They were the real thing, served with lingonberries and whipped cream. At lunch, Irene served roast beef sandwiches; each morning, she put a sirloin tip roast in the oven and cooked it slowly, at 275 degrees, until noon, when she cut thick slices and served them on bread, accompanied by home-canned vegetables she grew herself in a big garden south of town. In the spring, when the young plants in her garden were vulnerable to slugs, she’d go home after a long day on her feet, pick up a flashlight and an old kitchen knife, and go out in the dark to kill the slugs, one by one.
City government wanted to replace the old market with a large urban renewal project that would keep a cleaned-up market fragment for cosmetic effect but destroy the look and character of the place. When the (unreformed) City Council held hearings on the plan, a design expert testified that people should be able to walk from the lobby of a luxury hotel to a collection of reconstituted market shops without ever knowing one had passed from one to the other. The old immigrant ladies in black dresses who visited DeLaurenti’s to buy salted codfish would presumably not be part of the decor. Led by U.W. architecture professor Victor Steinbrueck, who was single-minded to the point of obsession on this issue, Seattle’s citizens dug in their heels. But at the beginning of 1971, the market’s future was still in doubt. Citizens didn’t pass the initiative that saved it until November.
The opening date for my three friends’ coffee store turned out to be approximate. Whenever I shopped at the market, I walked by the space in a long-since-demolished four-story corner building a couple of blocks north of Irene’s to see if my friends were in business yet. Early one morning in March, I and my daughter, Sarah, who was not yet two years old, stopped by and found that they had just opened their doors.
The location was at the corner of Virginia and Pike Place, where this first-ever Starbucks was in business until January of 1977, when it moved to its current “original” store one block south. The current store in the Market is actually the sixth one, since there were stores in University Village, Capitol Hill, Edmonds, and Bellevue, along with the original-original, before the present Market Starbucks opened. And the stores in those days were quite different than now. They sold only coffee beans (roasted at first at Peet’s in Berkeley) and coffee makers, not cups of coffee (and certainly not lattes), though they would pour you a free cup in the first year.
I walked in, looked around at a long, white, high-ceilinged room with glass cabinets along one side, and bought a pound of Sumatra coffee beans. I paid with a check. The next guy in, also a friend of the owners, brought a chilled bottle of white wine. He uncorked the bottle. We all stood around, drank wine and talked. I gave Sarah a sip of my wine. She started running manically around the store. The rest of us stood there and watched her.
Who knew it was an historic occasion? But it turned out to be. That was Starbucks’ grand opening.