The Cap Hill vintage shop reinventing Seattle's music scene

A Seattle storefront caters an exceptionally eclectic space for local artists. Noisy bar scene not included.

On Friday, February 21, Seattle DIY pop rock extraordinaires Dude York had their record release show at a little venue on Capitol Hill called Cairo.

Well, calling it a venue isn’t strictly accurate. Most venues don’t require their audience to pass through a room full of denim jackets, scenester jewelry, local zines and hipster greeting cards to get close to the band.

Concertgoers gather outside Cairo. Photo: Allyce Andrew.

 

I showed up early that night to speak with James Scheall, who started doing a lot of Cairo's booking in November of last year. During our interview, the singer of an opening band called Darto came through with a load of sound equipment. Scheall stopped for a moment, telling him cheerfully, “Bands get 10 percent off on vintage and silkscreen.”

So, what is this place that occupies so much of Sheall’s time and energy? Why are all these people wading through eclectic kitsch to see bands play a performance space smaller than most people’s living rooms? The answer is a little lengthy, but Emily Cripe, singer for local electronic act Youryoungbody, summarized it well:

“They’re three different things: an art space, a venue and a store,” she said. “I love when people connect different things that a community loves and put them into one.”

A collection of Cairo's carefully-curated jewelry. Photo: Allyce Andrew.

Cripe was at the Dude York show too. Not to perform, although Youryoungbody played with several other bands at the venue in January as part of Expo 91, Cairo's sixth annual local art/music showcase. The night of the Dude York show, she was just chilling with her friends.

Many do what Cripe does, performing at Cairo one night and showing up just to watch music the next. I’m positive I saw some members of local band Chastity Belt in the audience at that concert.

The ecclecticism of the place is enamoring; its DNA a seat-of-the-pants mish-mash of youngish artistic expression across mediums. That versatility has earned it a faithful following. If you see music there more than twice, you’ll start recognizing people.

Fans crowd into Cairo's music space. Photo: Allyce Andrew.

“Over time [the space] has served as a gallery, music venue, silk screening studio, online retail warehouse, artist-in-residency, festival host, and all-around central nervous system for what we do as Cairo,” said Joel Leshefka, who co-owns Cairo, its Ballard sister store Prism, and yet another venue/store hybrid called Topaz in Tuscan, Ariz.

“It’s three physical spaces, online stores, wholesale and a record business,” he explains of the multi-city operation.

This hybridization goes deeper than the art and products Cairo offers. Net profits from records, clothes, knickknacks and online sales go to the owners, making the Cairo/Prism/Topaz trio a for-profit business. But all the profits from music go to the bands.

We’re not talking the occasional jam session here. We’re talking well-attended shows with local and touring acts on a near-weekly basis, and the owners don’t see any green from that.

“We run for-profit businesses that have nonprofit style components,” Leshefka said. “I'm personally not interested in the bureaucracy that seems to come with the non-profit world.”

So the following Cairo has amassed is not at all by accident. It’s the result of conscious cultivation of an open live-music space without much regard for profit motive, except for whatever vintage stuff sells during the shows.

Sunfoot guitarist xx performs at Cairo. Photo: Allyce Andrew.


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