Death of a clown bar: The fight to save Shorty's

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We emerged from the restaurant, a successful date night almost complete. Around us, Belltown’s usual Friday night crowd was in full effect. The human subgenre known as "bros" roamed the sidewalks, along with their female equivalents, loud as ever. I suggested a nightcap somewhere away from it all.

“Sounds great,” she said. “Just not the clown bar.”

“Definitely not. Not that kind of night. I have another idea.”

We walked down the street, rounding the corner at Second Avenue and heading in the direction of downtown. A distrustful look crossed her face. “Where are we going exactly?”

“You’ll see,” I promised. “New place.”

A few blocks later and there we were, standing before Shorty’s in all its glory. From its open front door, the stale B.O. stench of its hot dog grill wafted onto the street. The cigar-smoking clown logo beckoned from the windows, promising strange clown paintings on nearly every inch of the walls inside. My date sighed, disappointed in me and whatever life choices had brought her into my orbit.

“Fine,” she conceded. “Let’s just sit in the backroom, OK? I don’t feel like getting stabbed.”

This was slander, of course. Yes, a middle-aged woman pulled a knife on us while we sat on Shorty's front porch one evening. But she pulled that knife on everyone there, not just us. It wasn’t personal. Shorty’s security shuffled her off, after her demand for a beer fell through. That was Belltown’s fault. Don’t blame the clown bar.

Such incidents could never dampen my love of Shorty’s, one the best examples of old, weird Seattle still in existence. With pinball machines, the lighting of a nearly bankrupt circus, and the best collection of creepy clown art in driving distance, it’s a citywide treasure.

But as with so many buildings in Seattle, change may be coming. This week, it was announced that Shorty’s and its neighboring businesses may be demolished, to be replaced by a mixed-use apartment building. Following the sale of Mama’s Mexican Kitchen down the street, the owner of the Shorty’s building has reportedly said he's ready to cash out and retire. The owner of the bar wants to keep it rolling.

In response to the news, there’s a new campaign to declare the building next to Shorty’s historic, which could scuttle the entire land deal in question. Shorty's supporters filled a Landmarks Preservation Board meeting Wednesday to support the idea, and received a favorable vote. They plan to show up in force to the next meeting on October 7, and are working to rally more support to the cause. Seattlish has a good write-up here.

With the fight to keep the place alive just starting, I headed over to Seattle’s finest clown-themed drinking establishment to hear what's at stake for regulars.

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I really enjoy the atmosphere of this place, the sort of psychotic-ness. I’ve been coming here 14 years. This place was rough for a number of years. I worked security here. It got rough sometimes. It’s the sort of place that scares people away. It’s not a family establishment.

I once had to break up a fight between ten people. At one time. That was the first week I started working. That was my introduction. But that’s the old Shorty’s, the old Wild West. It doesn’t really happen as much anymore. A lot of people have moved on. Within the last year, it’s really changed. That’s all the tech people.

If places like this go, every artist is eventually going to leave Seattle. Places like this are a breeding ground for creativity. Because it attracts weirdos. Like myself. Like you. La vida loca. They’ll go to Georgetown if this goes, but that’s changing too. We lost the Morgue, which was an underground punk club. They’re turning it into some white-people-doing-an-ethnic-theme bar, like everything. I mean, I work at a tapas bar started by a white dude who worked for Facebook. He was one of their prime accountants. It’s the way of the world now.

You have to keep the dream alive, man. Always persevere, and leave something for the weirdos.

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I’ve been coming here a decade. This has been the bike messenger bar for over a decade. You’d come in here in the afternoons, they’d have dollar beers, and you’d see the entire bar just be lined with messengers, their radios going off.

There has to be a time when you maintain your cultural focus and heritage with certain places, which bring people together and build a sense of community. I’ve had the fortune of living all over the country, I’ve lived in Europe for a while, and I can say you don’t get that very often. It’s a difficult thing to replicate and an impossible thing to replace.

What would be lost is the sense of community. It’s a very frail balance that we’re going through here. As the city changes so fast, people are looking for something to hold onto. If you grab some things they’re comfortable with, that bring them to their proverbial happy place, you take away part of the sanity of a lot of people.

Today, I’ve ridden my bike 30-40 miles. There was a football game, traffic was crazy, I get killed nearly every day riding it. But I get done and sit down and I like to come here and be the nerdy kid who reads the newspaper at a crowded bar. I don’t want to lose that.

Then you’re left with the bar that went beneath the Palladian Hotel, where the Whisky Bar used to be. I’ve been in there once. I walked in, it was a wet day, I’d been riding my bike in the rain, and they looked at me like it was almost the caste system in India, like I shouldn’t be there. I didn’t like that. To quote Pete (the manager at Shorty’s), you can be a regular at Shorty’s, you can be an asshole, but you can’t be both. If you treat others well, you’ re always treated with respect here, no matter who you are.

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Man, this place is awesome. I grew up in New York, so the Coney Island theme, that’s already on a plus. This was the first place I came when I moved to Seattle. I loved the pinball, loved the vibe, it’s a great spot.

A lot of character is lost if this place goes, a lot of Belltown character. Anthony Bourdain came here when he was in Seattle. Last week, I met two girls from Australia here. They said someone told them in their country, “When you’re in Seattle, make sure you go to Shorty’s.” This place is an establishment.

To me, this place has that “I don’t give a f**k" attitude that’s disappearing in this city. We’re becoming too politically correct and shy. Here, everyone is being happy. You just be yourself. If you don’t like it, go. That’s cool.  It’s a great spot, it’d be a shame to lose it. If there’s anything I can do, I’ll do it. I’ll be going to the meeting in October, I can do that.

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There’s so many working class people who go to this block. People who work in the service industry, who don’t work white collar jobs, who aren’t making $60,000 a year. This is their happy place. They come and hang out with friends, and its been that way for way longer than 15 years.

The whole area turns sterile if this is gone. Everything’s vanilla. Oh, it’s another condo building with another Starbucks beneath it? There's nothing wrong with Starbucks – decent coffee – but this city doesn’t need another one. It doesn’t need another cookie cutter building. There’s a shitload of those all over the place.

Little losses like Shorty's – I’d consider it a big loss, though others wouldn’t – but you have enough of them, you lose the entire culture of the city. The people who work here can’t live here. In New York, you have to go live in some crap town and travel to New York City to get to the job that pays your wages, but you can’t live there because you can’t afford anything. That's what's happening here.

Shorty’s, you know exactly what to expect. You know the alcohol selection, and if you like to play pinball, you know they have pinball. Done and done. If you’re the kind of person who drinks your cares away, you drink your cares away. It’s your home away from home.


Supporters of Shorty's are encouraged to appear at the Landmarks Preservation Board meeting on Wednesday, October 7th at 3:30pm. It will be held on the 40th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower, 700 5th Avenue. A Facebook group supporting the cause can be found here:

Credit to the The Kinks for the article title.

*All quotes compiled from longer conversations


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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at