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U-District bar closes doors and salutes the future: microhousing

Photos shared on Knarr Shipwreck Lounge's Facebook page during the day after the bar closed. Credit: facebook.com/knarrbar

The Knarr Shipwreck Lounge announced last call for its final time last Friday, St. Patrick’s Day. Customers ordered shots of Jameson before the bartender definitively threw the bottle into the trash.

For 81 years, the wood-paneled and carpeted Lounge —“the Knarr”— has stood at the very far north end of The Ave, near the imprecise neighborhood borders of Roosevelt, Ravenna and the University District.

In the past decade, other Seattle dive bars — Ed’s Kort Haus, the Rimrock Cafe, the Moon Temple — have been forced to shut down by development pressures and/or declining revenues. But that’s not entirely what happened to the Knarr.

The Knarr’s owner-operators, the Hall family, are going out on their own terms after running the place since 1982. The family has decided to sell the building to a developer who has plans to construct micro-unit housing. The younger Halls, Mike and wife Shelley Clark, are ready to retire and Mike’s parents, the original owners, will now be that much more financially secure.

“For the family, [closing is] bittersweet, of course,” Clark said. “But we’ve been doing this for so long, and running a bar is not an easy thing to do. It was just the right time.”

Running a bar is hard, physical work, and owning a small business is not usually lucrative. In some of the best-run bars and cafes, the owner is a constant presence, tending to stop in even on a day off to do some chore or errand.

“Mike was done,” Clark says. “He would go in at least six days a week. He didn’t work every day, but he was always there.”

In some ways, the closure of the Knarr can be seen as a rare win for members of Seattle’s vanishing working class in a neighborhood that’s rapidly changing. The development boom has forced plenty of people to move out of the city; affordable Seattle apartments become fewer by the day. A developer now plans to build apartments with cheap rent. The Halls themselves are also winners, earning nest eggs through sweat and prudent business decisions. Small business owners don’t always fare so well.

According to Clark, business at the bar has held steady since the recession but revenues hadn’t been growing and the Knarr’s margins were in a long decline. Apparently, the tech executives and engineers who now occupy Roosevelt and Ravenna didn’t have much need for a dive like the Knarr.

But the regulars did, these mostly older, white, working-class people who can remember when Seattle’s younger self was a lot more blue collar; when this North Seattle neighborhood, with its strong schools, didn’t offer million-dollar houses for sale.

At the Knarr, you could find a $3 bottled macrobrew and not some import on tap that would cost you five. The Knarr belonged to working class North Seattle, the way the neighborhood café in France and the public house in England belong to the working folk there.

What made the Knarr special? Said Clark: “We had a really interesting group of customers who have been coming in for so long. We knew everybody, everybody knew us. Everybody had each other’s back for the most part, especially the old crew. Everybody watched out for everybody else.”

On its last night, at its raucous wake on a beer-soaked holiday, the regulars weren’t the only people at the Knarr. Ave street people, a Latinx man wearing Raiders gear and work boots, confused-looking white undergrads in green plastic St. Paddy’s Day hats and a couple of black Rastafarians eating Chinese takeout were all there. It was an unusual mix of people but they were all welcomed at the Knarr even if the Knarr hadn’t always belonged to them.

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