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A Return to Cafe Racer

Alley-side View of Cafe Racer Today

I only had an hour for lunch that day, May 30, 2012, and I needed to make it count. I was working at a financial firm in an east-side suburb of Seattle and simultaneously covering the Seattle International Film Festival for my podcast, Cinebanter. Every few days I would make the jaunt to the W Hotel in downtown Seattle to retrieve press screeners, which I would watch back-to-back, review and then return when the next batch was ready for pick up. Because of the hours of operation, I was only able to pick the films up between a short window of time on Saturdays (often when I needed to be in a theater screening films) or during normal business hours on weekdays, so lunchtime was often my only option.

As I was getting ready to go, my boss told me that there had just been a shooting in North Seattle at a cafe; news alerts were saying the gunman was still on the loose. Sadly, I didn’t even flinch at this news because gun violence was nothing new in my city. And I was headed downtown anyway—further south than the location of the shooting.

I went ahead as planned, got my car out of our building’s garage and headed over the floating bridge toward my destination.

Because I’d made this trip multiple times the prior few weeks, I had it down to a science: I’d exit at Union and head left, past the hotel to find quick parking. I always had luck at a lot right across from Town Hall and in the rare times that lot was full, I’d park in the library garage down the hill and try to be fast enough to make the cutoff for the free 20 minutes they granted to patrons returning books.

As I made my way up toward the lot, sirens blared and multiple emergency vehicles cluttered the streets surrounding that block. I thought to myself, “there must be an accident” and went on down to the library, securing one of the last short-term spots.

When I reached the surface of the street, my phone lit up with texts from my boss. “Where are you?” and after a few minutes, “Why aren’t you answering?!” He wanted to know that I was okay.

I quickly texted him back that I was fine and heading into the hotel for my films. “Please be careful! The shooter just stole an SUV in that neighborhood and they haven’t caught him. He killed the owner of the SUV!” Goosebumps. What?

Indeed, he was right. The order of the events went something like this:

Shortly before 11:00 a.m., 40-year-old Ian Stawicki, a regular at Cafe Racer, known for his anger management issues, enters the establishment. Because he’s a troublemaker, he’s asked by management to leave so there won’t be a disruption to the so-far peaceful morning. He doesn’t. He hovers, then without warning opens fire with a .45 caliber handgun (he’s armed with two weapons that day). He kills four patrons and injures a staff member as one man throws a bar stool at him and begins to fight. In these moments, a few others escape to hide in the bathroom and back area of the cafe—they all thankfully survive. 911 calls from that event paint a harrowing picture of fear.

Stawicki then steals a hat from one of his victims and flees the cafe, catching a nearby Metro bus downtown.

He arrives at the parking lot where I often leave my car and confronts a 52-year-old woman, demanding she surrender her Mercedes SUV. She refuses, fights back and he shoots her in the head. Afterward, he takes the SUV, runs over her now-dead body and heads to West Seattle, where a few hours later he would commit suicide when police caught up with him.

I got my films as fast as I could and headed back to the office, terribly shaken. When I arrived, my boss and I watched the live news feed as they tracked the murderer and released footage from the cafe surveillance. The still images showed at first a bustling cafe with folks seated at the bar, enjoying their day as the gunman entered. In the corner to the left of the murderer sat a girl alone, reading her book. In the next frame, the killer is shown hands-on-hips assessing his destruction, barstool overturned.

I studied these photos intensely, thinking mostly of that girl with her book. She had been me so many times at various Seattle cafes (even that very one on a few occasions). I couldn’t help but think it just as easily could have been me.

She was Kimberly Layfield, an actress from Georgia who had recently quit her job as a dental assistant to pursue her dreams full time. Her age, 38. Two years older than me. I wept for her and all the victims, and brimmed with anger that this man who was known to be mentally ill—and had a criminal record of violence—had easy access to the guns he used to ruin so many lives.

Despite the grim history of that day, the cafe did re-open and business was okay, but nearby construction and the changing neighborhood coupled with with the retro-fitting of the building made the debts too large for the owner to continue, so he closed the doors in 2017. A new owner revived the spot and re-opened it in the spring of 2018.

I had a mental block—perhaps fear—of returning to the cafe after the shooting because I was afraid of residual bad energy from the event. Today, I got over it to return and explore their Official Bad Museum of Bad Art.

I was greeted warmly at the bar, where I ordered a salted caramel mocha (delicious, by the way) and then a sandwich for lunch. I planted myself at a table in the window and absorbed my surroundings.

The structure of the room is exactly the same (I think even the original barstools remain), but there is a softness to the atmosphere that has erased the pain. From the artwork on the walls to the hum and dim of those working quietly at single tables, the artsy, quirky vibe I remember pre-shooting is palpable.

Though my eyes admittedly zeroed in on the spot where Kimberly read her book (there is no longer a table there) and the killer stood over his carnage, I shook the images from my brain and concentrated on the delicious grilled cheese (made with Macrina sourdough) in front of me.

After my meal, I traveled to the OBAMA room to explore the hilarious collection of art and snapped a few photos, which I promptly posted to Instagram. Folks gathered upstairs were laughing and talking and enjoying the day. Everything was as it should be.

Now, the cafe has an Indiegogo campaign to ensure the future of the establishment for years to come. I hope they make their goal, because I plan to return for many more pleasant afternoons like the one I had today.

Bookstores for Browsing (and Buying)

Powell's Bookstore shelf

Staff guidance at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne

I travel a lot—both for business and leisure—and though I always pack plenty of reading material, I’ve noticed that doesn’t stop me from seeking out great bookstores wherever I land.

There have been times when the task wasn’t so easy. Once I was in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina with hours to spare before my flight home and I’d already finished every book I’d brought along on the trip. Not wanting to pay premium prices at the airport, I walked up and down the main streets looking for a bookstore, but had no luck. I ducked into a visitor information center and the host told me they unfortunately didn’t have any more bookstores in the area. She recommended I go to a drugstore for a magazine. I thanked her and kept walking. Soon, I found the public library. I entered and asked the librarian if it was indeed true there were no shops in the immediate vicinity. She regretfully confirmed there wasn’t, but when I told her of my predicament, directed me to their used library book sale where I scored two 50 cent paperbacks for my journey. Still, I was rattled that a major metropolitan area doesn’t have the demand to keep a bookshop in business.

Coming from Seattle, where independent bookstores like Elliot Bay Book Company and Third Place Books thrive, I’m spoiled with many places to explore. The following are five of my favorite U.S. bookshops outside of my own city.

  1. City Lights (San Francisco)
    I first discovered this gem during a girls’ night (seriously) with a few local friends back in 2011. The plan was for us to have cocktails at the nearby Tosca, but we needed to kill some time while we waited for a table. Ascending the stairs to a small nook on the upper level, I thought my friend was right behind me and asked her if she’d read a book that I was pointing to. When I turned around, she wasn’t there, but I had chills up and down my spine. A few minutes later when she made her way up, I joked that the place must be haunted and a local interjected that indeed there are rumors it is. Regardless of the spirits present (or not), the selection is eclectic and vast, just as you’d expect in this city known for its progressive slant.
  2. Left Bank Books (St. Louis)
    As a college student in Columbia, Missouri in the ’90s, I frequently made trips to St. Louis for Ted Drewes frozen custard. On one of those journeys, I took a friend along who was a St. Louis native, and she introduced me to this treasure trove. With a focus on community and a knowledgeable staff that encourages you to linger, I find it hard to leave whenever I visit.
  3. Compass Books SFO (San Francisco)
    I know, I know. San Fran is already on the list—I just can’t help it if they have an embarrassment of literary riches. And this one is in an airport. Yes, you heard me. The “West’s Oldest Independent Bookseller” is my first stop every time I land in Terminal 2 at SFO. In addition to the usual bestsellers, they have fantastic bargain shelves and unique gifts/greeting cards you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
  4. Tattered Cover (Denver)
    Following the U2 tour in May of 2011, my boss and I went out to breakfast at a place we’d seen featured on the Food Network. Full from a delicious meal and with hours to spare before the next concert, we decided it would be best to walk off our pancakes and explore the area. By chance, we landed in this mammoth-yet-somehow-amazingly-cozy independent bookstore. It’s the sort of place where the smell of coffee wafts from the café as you browse and lively conversations among bookworms are abundant. I wanted to move in immediately.
  5. Powells City of Books (Portland)
    I’m proud to say that my hometown boasts what I think is the greatest indie bookstore in America (and is actually the world’s largest). This iconic shop where I spent hours scouring used racks as a teenager, looking for (and finding) my next Beatles fix, has the vibe of a classic record store and a selection that could never disappoint. I’ve never once left without making a purchase.

Other stores I planned to include until I learned they recently closed were: Granada Books in Santa Barbara and 2nd Edition in Raleigh. May they rest in peace.

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