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Seattle’s notorious Donut Shop: Runaway haven or sweet-tinged trap?

Guenter Mannhalt behind the counter of his downtown doughnut shop in 1981. Credit: Credit: Natalie Fobes/The Seattle Times

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series on Seattle's infamous Donut House. Was this one-time ground zero for the city's street kids a safe harbor or exploitation central?

In his book Seattle Vice, legendary streetwise columnist Rick Anderson describes the scene at First Ave. and Pike St. back in the day: "For decades, street crazies and druggies occupied the four corners, along with prostitutes, players and partyers." Anderson introduces readers to a guy named Andy Brodie, who perfectly captures the corner that was for decades Skid Road's ground zero: "[H]e saw a buddy in a crowd cross the intersection and he shouted 'Hey asshole,'" says Brody, "everyone in the street turned around."

The Pike scene has deep roots in Seattle crime and vice. The young city was built on the backs of prostitutes who labored away in districts South of Yesler Way or Jackson Street referred to as the Tenderloin, Whitechapel and Blackchapel. These neighborhoods were home to marginal, transient populations, as well as those looking for frontier recreation of the kind you could find in Deadwood, or along San Francisco's Barbary Coast. Business was so good that containing prostitution proved difficult, as enterprising pimps (men and women) were always looking for fresh opportunity.

In 1905, not long before the Pike Place Market opened, The Seattle Times profiled the area around First & Pike. Saloon and club operators had broken out of the southern vice districts and moved uptown. "Dens of Iniquity on Upper First Avenue Far Worse Than Holes in District Set Apart for City's Tenderloin," exclaimed one Times' headline.

"In more than half the saloons north of Pike Street drunken men and women gather every night and engage in conduct that would not be permitted below Jackson Street," the paper huffed. "Minors, both boys and girls, go into the saloons and drink with broken-down, hardened men and woman. Girls, mere children, have been standing at the bar partaking of the intoxicating beverages. … Girls are lured into the curtained boxes to be taught the ways that lead to certain destruction. Beardless youths congregate and mix in the society of painted faced women …"

Such scenes recall some troubled parts of downtown today, from Pioneer Square to Westlake Park, Pine and Pike to Belltown. The seedy elements of the Market neighborhood — seen by tourists and nostalgists as authentic local "color" — sometimes match the mood of the pre-gentrified 1960s, '70s and '80s when Anderson walked the beat for Seattle dailies, documenting the cast of characters who frequented one of the city's most Dickensian of 'hoods, a world of pawn shops, strip joints, peep shows, billiard rooms and onetime sailor bars that served 10-cent beers in tiny juice glasses for the desperate, broke and thirsty. It was urban edge as recorded by artists like Mark Tobey and stream-of-consciousness beat bards Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg.

As befits any Dickensian scene, one business at First & Pike emerged as the hub for Seattle's street kids and runaways. From the mid-'70s to the early 1980s, a time before there was a Starbucks on every corner, the neighborhood hangout, especially for those too young to inhabit the dive bars, was the International Donut House on the southeast corner of First & Pike. The Donut Shop.

The site is occupied today by the Seattle Shirt Company (left). But back in the Donut House heyday, young girls and boys sat for hours in this malt shop of the damned, its big windows perennially fogged. It was a hangout for scared and scary kids, and some even scarier adults.

Jim Theofelis remembers it well. Theofelis is now the executive director of The Mockingbird Society, a non-profit that advocates for foster kids. He has worked with homeless youth for various organizations in Seattle since the '70s when, he says, on any given night you could find 200 or 300 kids hanging around First & Pike. Many were foster kids who had escapes their assigned homes. There were few services or shelters for them. Runaways couldn't be arrested for just running away. Most were on the streets and on their own.

If you want to picture it, see the 1983 documentary Streetwise. An Academy Award nominee, the film chronicles the life of Seattle's street kids. "It wasn't like a designated social service or drop-in center, but a place people could actually afford,” recalls Joe Martin, founder of the Pike Place Market's clinic, who's been working in the neighborhood since the late '70s. “This was back before coffee cost $4. You didn't go in to get a latte. Coffee and donuts, that's what it was."

Shadow, one of the young Streetwise stars, explained to LIFE magazine that young folks didn't want to live in shelters with old men and winos — shelters where under-18s weren't allowed anyway. "I'd rather sit in an all-night coffee shop,” said Shadow. “The government thinks if it makes it hard enough on the streets, we'll go home. But there's no place to go."

Ken Conder is a retired Seattle police officer, who walked the First & Pike beat in the late '70s and early '80s. He remembers how downtown Seattle used to roll up the sidewalks at night. The Donut House, he says, was the only youth hangout south of the U-District that was open late. "You could always find someone there," says Conder. It was a kind of "Cheers" bar for "throwaway" kids.

Guenter Mannhalt ran the place. His brother Herbert had a deli next door. Informally, Mannhalt provided services that some kids needed. Justin Reed Early was a street kid of that era who was part of the “Streetwise” crowd. He was living on the streets in the neighborhood by the time he was 10, arrested for prostitution at 11. Abuse, drugs, child trafficking. He somehow survived it all. In his memoir, Street Child, Early talks about what the Donut House meant to him:

"Gunther [sic], the owner, took a liking to some of us and sometimes let me sleep in the basement where he kept a couple of Army cots for the kids with nowhere else to go. … He had true kindness toward the kids and let us clean tables, do dishes, sweep and mop the floors in order to earn food. The police would come through the Donut Shop every so often and give Gunther [sic] a hard time. They believed that he was involved in illegal 'extracurricular' activities, which was exciting to me and gave him a famous credibility among street kids." Pike Place Market clinic founder Joe Martin remembers Mannhalt selling the works of a young Indian carver who made beautiful miniature totem poles.

Mannhalt knew some of his customers were rough and up to no good. "I can control people in here," he told Rick Anderson in 1979. "I can't control minds and words out there. Around the corner here is where the boys go to be picked up by the businessmen and have sex. So the boys come in here and have coffee; I don't care. That's their business. Mine is selling doughnuts."

Guenter's location and clientele generated rumors about drug dealing, prostitution, thievery, the Donut House as the center of some bad stuff. There was trouble there sometimes: stabbings, robberies, fights. Martin remembers visiting the shop from time to time and finding Mannhalt friendly and approachable. "I didn't suspect anything untoward," Martin says. Still, the question on some people's minds was this: Was the donut shop an oasis in a world of hard luck kids, or was it something more sinister?

Cops like Conder suspected sinister. They pushed their higher-ups in the SPD to investigate. But it was the police in Whatcom County who first blew up the notion of the Donut House as an honest haven in a rough neighborhood.

In the fall of 1980, during an extensive drug trafficking investigation, Whatcom authorities nabbed several Donut House employees. Those arrests led to a raid on the business, which Seattle police said they'd been investigating for six months. Officers found a hoard of stolen goods in the basement: cash, furs, jewelry — some $100,000 worth — along with some drugs and weapons. Reporter Carlton Smith described what they found as "a treasure trove of assorted goods that tended to make Ali Baba's 40 thieves look like petty pilferers."

Police sourced some of the haul to a string of local club and restaurant robberies, and other assorted unsolved burglaries and thefts. Some of the young men arrested fingered Mannhalt, claiming the Donut Shop owner had organized them into a robbery ring, arranged for guns and getaway cars and claimed a cut of all proceeds for himself. Robbery targets included restaurants familiar to any longtime Seattleite: FX McRory's, Jake O'Shaughessy's, Hungry Turtle, Casa Lupita, Royal Fork and The Old Spaghetti Factory. Far from being a mere purveyor of donuts, Mannhalt was called a criminal "ringleader," a "mastermind" or, in a nod to Dickens, a modern-day "Fagin." (That "Oliver Twist"  villain who turned street urchins into a gang of thieves.)

Mannhalt protested his innocence. It turned out this wasn't his first run-in with the law. In the late 1960s, Mannhalt and Herbert had run Bluma's, a family grocery and delicatessen in the Central District near Garfield High. The two brothers were arrested for selling beer to minors, and Herbert for marijuana possession. There were other arrests too. A police raid found a stash of narcotics at Bluma's.

The idea that the brothers were dealing drugs so near a school enraged the community and inflamed already high racial tensions. Bluma's was firebombed in early 1968. Later that year some 50 people, led by the Black Panthers, occupied the store, accused the white Mannhalts of exploiting black youths and demanded they get out of the CD.

The Urban League asked the city to revoke Bluma's business license. In 1968, both brothers pleaded guilty to grand larceny charges. They were sent to prison, and their store was shuttered. Five years later, they were out and back in business at First & Pike.

Given his rap sheet, the evidence found at the Donut House and the testimony of regulars, employees and co-conspirators, Mannhalt’s claims of innocence seemed suspect. He insisted he had nothing to do with any robbery ring, and that much of the loot in the Donut Shop’s basement was collateral for loans he had made to street kids. Mannhalt put up a long legal fight, and beat some of the charges against him. But in 1981, after a publicized trial, he was convicted of a dozen robbery-related charges and sent to prison. He fought for and received a second trial, but in 1990 he was convicted again on nine of 12 counts.

Mannhalt never did go back to jail. He received a 10-year suspended sentence and credit for time already served — more than seven years.

The Donut House shut down after his first conviction. But its closure was not the end of the story. Without their customary gathering place, Seattle’s street kids dispersed to other parts of the city, which made serving them even harder. In a strange way, the demise of the Donut Shop would come to be seen as a mixed blessing.

Tomorrow's installment: Details about the goings on inside the Donut House.

Seattle Shirt Company photo by Allyce Andrew.

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