“I live for the applause, applause, applause” Lady Gaga confesses through pumping speakers as 7-foot-tall Dolly, née Derik Kleinhesselink, works the room in black stilettos and a pink wig. After her number, she takes the mic and the mood shifts as she begins to address the reason we haven’t been able to enjoy a live show like this in so long.
“Your life was ripped away from you,” she told the room. “It was awful, it was traumatic, but it was an opportunity to make change.”
The last year was devastating for the hospitality industry statewide. According to a survey by the Washington Hospitality Association, 2,369 bars and restaurants across the state closed permanently over the first six months of the pandemic, 1,023 of those in King County alone.
Seattle’s queer bar scene has been precarious in recent years and 2020 struck the final blow to several long-standing LGBTQ haunts including Re-bar and R Place, which lost its lease and is still in search of a new location.
Others, though, were able to reopen or have plans to open soon, effectively extending Pride month festivities into July.
Business owners are cautiously buoyed by Gov. Jay Inslee's announcement that Washington state will completely reopen by June 30, although some wish they would have had more definite information earlier for planning purposes and worry about future rollbacks.
State officials, including the governor, promised to reopen earlier, if 70% of Washingtonians age 16 and older got at least one coronavirus shot. This week, the one-shot vaccination rate hovered near 68%. Health officials appeared optimistic that the expected June 30 reopening will not be rolled back.
A little over a year ago, two gay bars, The Lumber Yard and Swallow Bar, faced each other across 16th Avenue SW, in a neighborhood that seemed to be gaining traction in the West Seattle LGBTQ community as a more convenient and laid-back alternative to the Capitol Hill nightlife scene. But the pandemic hit hard and took Swallow with it. They closed in March 2020 and were unable to reopen. Lumber Yard was able to hold on, but barely.
After three months closed, Nathan Adams, who opened Lumber Yard in early 2018 with his husband, Michale Farrar, was able to reopen in June. But business was down by two-thirds compared to the previous year.
“It was like we had just opened again, but in a neighborhood that didn’t know we were here,” Adams said.
Bar regular Ryan Davis, left, talks with Theo Martin at The Lumber Yard, June 19, 2021, during the bar's first drag show since before the pandemic started. The Lumber Yard has been open at limited capacity since June 2020, but is just beginning to host events this week as the majority of their clientele is now vaccinated. Seattle gay bars have been in a precarious state for years, and several ended up closing for good in 2020 including Lumber Yard's former neighbor Swallow Bar. Several others are opening back up this month or in July, just in time to celebrate Pride. Davis moved into the neighborhood in early 2020 and says the bar helped keep him sane over the darkest days of the last year.
Left: Cans and bottles of cider and beer that were left in The Crescent Lounge for the past 16 months during the bar's pandemic-induced closure line the floor, June 19, 2021. These and thousands more dollars’ worth of liquor will have to be thrown out and replaced before the bar's reopening on July 2. Right: A mask rests on a table near a glass of wine at The Lumber Yard Bar in White Center, June 17, 2021.
With a maximum of only 30 patrons allowed in the 200-person capacity space, Adams and a single cook manned the bar by themselves for the majority of 2020. Like many small businesses, they had to improvise and experiment to keep afloat, paring down their menu to a daily special, limiting liquor restocking orders, offering takeout and table service instead of a line at the bar. They scrimped and saved and applied for PPP loans, which allowed them to rebuild an outdoor patio space. Lumber Yard also came to rely on the loyal community grown over their first two years in White Center.
“The only way we survived, truly, was because of the community we built with our regulars. They made a point to come in and see us. And they made a point to reach out and see if there was anything they could do for us,” Adams said.
White Center bar and restaurant owners made the rounds, ordering meals from each other’s kitchens to help everyone stay in business. The softball team Lumber Yard sponsored in previous years started a GoFundMe and raised money for the bar.
“It was probably one of the sweetest things that happened during this whole thing,” Adams said.
Ryan Davis was one of those regulars and he came to rely on the bar as much as it was relying on him. Davis, 34, moved to White Center after a difficult breakup just before the pandemic set in. As a self-described “newly single introvert,” he quickly found The Lumber Yard, a safe haven he could frequent to get out of the house and have some human interaction.
For two months, Davis went to the bar three or four evenings a week, sat alone at a table outside (too nervous to talk to anyone), drank a few cocktails and then went home. Finally, fellow regular Richard Moore noticed and struck up a conversation. The gregarious Moore quickly befriended Davis and introduced him to a wider social circle.
Drag queen Dolly Madison hugs an audience member as she performs during "Dolly and the DJ," the first drag show hosted by The Lumber Yard Bar since early 2020 when they were forced to close due to the pandemic, June 19, 2021. The White Center bar was able to open at limited capacity a year ago, and co-owner Nathan Adams says they were able to stay in business thanks to their community of loyal regulars and securing PPP loans. Seattle gay bars have been in a precarious state for years, and several ended up closing for good 2020 including Lumber Yard's former neighbor Swallow Bar.
“I was able to develop some really good friendships to help me through this new chapter of my life,” Davis said.
Davis sees The Lumber Yard as a lifeline that kept him sane through the darkest days of the past year. He likens the bar’s trajectory – closing down and then slowly opening up to more and more people – to his own journey.
“I’m emotionally invested in the success of the bar because of how much it helped me,” he said.
While Lumber Yard survived, it’s possible that the loss of its neighbor was just a matter of bad timing. The nautical-themed Swallow Bar opened in June 2019, a year and change after Lumber Yard, and less than a year before the state lockdown closed its doors. It can be difficult for any bar to establish a community of steady regulars that quickly.
“The first year a bar is open is always the toughest, and just as we were really getting our sea legs, COVID came along and shipwrecked everything,” co-owner Marcus Wilson told The Stranger earlier this year.
The loss of Swallow, whose former space was filled in December by Boombox Bar, made Adams and the local community even more adamant about saving the remaining queer bar.
“For the gay community, our bars are our history, our bars are our safe space,” Adams said. “The attitude became we’re not closing our doors, we’re staying open, we’re going to make this happen I don’t care what we have to do.”
Rainbow flags hang above 16th Avenue SW in White Center, a block where two gay bars used to sit across from each other, June 17, 2020. The Lumber Yard survived the pandemic, Swallow Bar closed in March 2020 and was unable to reopen. White Center has been gaining traction in recent years as a diverse and queer-friendly neighborhood and an alternative to the Capitol Hill nightlife scene.
Heading into Pride weekend, the queer bars that managed to survive and their patrons have all the more reason to celebrate. And, from drag shows to tea dances to just opening their doors to the community again, many have big plans for the next month.
After a back patio remodel and an easement deal made with the city for their East Madison RapidRide bus project, Pony bar reopened this Wednesday. Owner Mark Stoner assures that even though the patio lost a bit of square footage “it's still big enough for plenty of summer crowds!”
Capitol Hill dance spot Neighbours is still a work in progress after it was vandalized – almost every surface tagged with graffiti, trash and needles left throughout the building and anything of value stolen – several times over the past year. It’s currently getting new floors put in throughout the building and manager Roxy Doll, who has spearheaded the repair effort, is determined to reopen by mid-July.
Wildrose, one of an estimated 21 lesbian bars left in the country, was on the brink of closure when their patrons were able to raise $80,000 to keep the historic bar afloat. Other mainstays like The Cuff Complex, Seattle Eagle, Queer/Bar, Diesel and C C Attle’s were able to hang on as well and are open and ready to party over Pride weekend and beyond.
And 16 months after COVID shuttered its doors, The Crescent Lounge, Seattle’s oldest and queer-friendliest dive bar, will be back to serving drinks, karaoke and good times on July 2.
Colton Kenyon, a staff member at The Crescent Lounge, touches up a mural on the back outside wall of the bar after it had been marred by graffiti in recent months, June 19, 2021. The bar owners commissioned local artist Larsie Mae Freebird (@lmfreebird) to design and paint the mural, a tribute to the LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter communities that reads "love without fear is freedom," while they were closed over the past year. The bar is finally reopening on July 2.
Graffiti covers the walls of Neighbours Underground, the basement bar of Neighbours nightclub, June 22, 2021. The popular queer Capitol Hill spot has been closed for over a year and was severely vandalized. Almost every surface was tagged with graffiti, trash, needles and human feces left throughout the building and anything of value, including the club's lighting and sound equipment, was stolen. It’s currently getting new floors put in throughout the building and manager Roxy Doll, who has spearheaded the repair effort, is determined to open back up by mid-July.
The Crescent kept busy over 2020, using the time to replace the bar’s ancient coolers and concrete floor. Led by manager Marc Anderson, staff and patrons came together to start a homeless meal program and the bar commissioned local artist Larsie Mae Freebird (@lmfreebird) to paint a large, rainbow-swathed mural on the back side of the building.
Anderson is excited about their grand reopening and explained that they want to make it a comfortable and safe space for everyone. The Crescent will be handing out free masks to anyone who wants one opening weekend and the bar has even purchased a UV disinfection system to sanitize the mics between singers.
“We’ve been really fortunate to have a community-based bar,” Anderson said, “I feel very blessed to be able to open.”
Back at Lumber Yard, Dolly Madison is just finishing up her show.
“It feels good to be home. The whole last year has felt so wrong and this feels so right,” she said.
And Nathan Adams is full of optimism and hope for the next year.
“Any bar that was able to make it through this and are able to get their doors back open, they are going to succeed,” he said. “The sense that I am getting from our community and our regulars is that everyone is ready to party.”
Lumber Yard regular Richard Moore, center, makes the rounds during "Dolly and the DJ," the bar's first drag show since before the pandemic started. The Lumber Yard has been open at limited capacity since June 2020, but is just beginning to host events this week as the majority of their clientele is now vaccinated and Washington state businesses will be able to open at full capacity starting June 30.
The bar is reflected in convex mirrors as patrons come and go inside the Loading Dock at The Lumber Yard Bar, June 19, 2021. The White Center gay bar, which has been open at limited capacity for the past year, hosted its first drag show since before the pandemic on Saturday night, hosted by drag queen Dolly Madison.