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.
"We want [touring bands] to be paid well, get a place to sleep for the night, and an audience that is there to see them, not talk loudly at the bar over drinks,” Leshefka said. “We also want them to play with bands locally that they like.”
What’s really interesting though, is not Cairo’s multiple artistic facets, but how those facets work together and inform each other.
“A lot of these bands fit the vintage/thrift image, so that’s mirrored in the people who show up to these events,” Cripe said. “That’s Marketing 101 right?”
Go to one of these shows and look at the clothing lining the walls. Then look at the audience’s clothes, and those of the performers. Often, the styles are eerily complimentary. Leshefka and his co-owner Aimee Butterworth are veteran “pickers” of clothing items, and their carefully-curated selection mirrors the look adopted by many in the Seattle DIY music scene.
Cairo's carefully-curated vintage-thrift image. Photo: Allyce Andrew.
“There’s this fantastic cross-section between grunge and sort of electronic club kid style,” said Scheall of the store’s selection. “You have fuzzy pink coats and black sheer ankle-length dresses, but on the other hand we have flannels and cotton sweatshirts with silkscreen images by local artists.”
Scheall’s comments reveal the sort of feedback loop that Cairo creates between the sound and appearance of this culture. Notice how he describes the fashion in musical terms.
“When you talk about music movements, the visual aspect of those movements come to mind,” he said. “When you think of punk, you think of leather jackets. When you think of grunge, you think of flannels and ripped pants. With a place like Cairo you’re tying those two things together.”
Cairo has created something unusual, special, (and possibly emulateable?) since it opened in 2008. I asked Leshefka where the idea came from. He said it arose partially from his prior work at The Vera Project, but mostly from “not having any business sense at all… and allowing things to unfold slowly and organically.”
Butterworth’s answer credited her days working for the previous incarnation of another Seattle vintage shop, Atlas Clothing.
“I dabbled in combining vintage clothing, art and music in the days of the old Atlas store,” she said. “I introduced regular art and music shows to the vintage store. At that time, it was a place where you could buy vintage clothing, accessories, go to an artwalk and go see a music show on the weekend — similar to many elements we have at Cairo now.”
Atlas Clothing is still around today (it’s in Fremont now) and still occasionally hosts shows, at least until very recently, when an improv comedy troupe rented out their performance space.
Lily Kay, who’s been booking the Atlas shows lately, sees her store as entirely different from Cairo, ostensible similarities aside. She’s roped cool local acts like Heatwarmer and Chastity Belt into performing there, but this place is business-oriented; the shows are mostly a mechanism to generate foot traffic.
“The mission statement isn’t community based,” she said. “We are first and foremost a store. Atlas Space is a separate entity.”
This isn’t to say that Atlas isn’t awesome — the quarter-century-old red leather jacket from 1984 I bought there for $25 last year made me a firm believer. But it’s not like Cairo. There are tons of great stores that host music on occasion. Cairo, though a combination of happenstance and meticulousness, has fabricated a musical microclimate.
“All of our spaces are based around the idea of curating, selecting the finest, hand-picked jams and bringing them to the community,” Butterworth said. “Whether this is vintage, handmade local jewelry, art, local and national bands — everything is purposefully selected.”
Part art gallery, part vintage shop, part concert venue. Photo: Allyce Andrew.
In movies romanticizing young life, there’s often a hangout of some sort. In “Dazed and Confused,” “Wayne’s World” and “American Graffiti” for instance, the quintessential drive-in exists as a nerve center for social interactions. These diners were places you could go without calling first, knowing people would show up.
For some Seattlites, Cairo is that diner. Its flavor isn’t for everyone, but the fact that it exists is important, because it means others can too.
Crosscut's arts coverage is made possible through the generous support of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.