Monday, December 28, 2009

Henderson Books: Beautiful, Labyrinthian, A Bibliophile's Dream

Before I started working in bars, I worked in bookstores for almost twenty years. A few bad ones, in that they were corporate manifestations of sameness, but mostly good ones - one or two great. A lot of unique elements go into the making of a great bookstore, but it basically breaks down into signal vs. noise. It is a rare experience to walk into a bookstore these days and find every section is full of strong and true signals -  books that define not only the core of a section, but also delineate its eccentric circumference. This being said, Henderson Books is one of the greatest bookstores that I have ever had the pleasure to discover.

Right after my family moved up here, I remember one of the first conversations I had with my sister was about Henderson's. When you come up for a visit, she said, you have to go to Henderson's first thing. Not go take a walk around the Bay or go to the museum, but go to this bookstore. I won't deny that I doubted her a little. From my perspective in Austin, where during the last ten years over a dozen independent bookstores - including the handful that I had worked for - had all closed their doors. Great independent bookstores were like artifacts from a culture that was all too quickly fading away.

Naturally, the first place I went to when I visited Bellingham was Henderson Books. Immediately I was impressed with the density of books, that there were no fancy fixtures, that every available surface was used for books. No wedding cake display tables. Every shelf was filled with spines, no faceouts. The place was beautiful, labyrinthian, a bibliophile's dream.

I found the literature section and, preparing for disappointment, looked for Borges. To my surprise, a whole shelf: Labyrinths, Ficciones, A Personal Anthology, all three of the recently published Penguin editions of Collected Fiction, Selected Non-Fictions and Poems. They even had a copy of The Narrow Act: Borges' by Ronald Christ. How about David Duncan's The River Why? There with The Brother's K. and River's Teeth. All of Helprin. Next I checked on Stephen Milhauser. They had him. Edwin Mullhouse, Martin Dressler. Hardback firsts of The Knife Thrower and Enchanted Night. Cormac McCarthy. Everything. It was like they were just laughing at me now. I found the Literary Criticism room. Memesis by Eric Auerbach. Most of Bloom - the early good stuff. A copy of Angus Fletcher's Allegory. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature. Paglia. Most of George Steiner. Damn even Frederick Turner's New Classicism. Same room: extensive collections of the Paris Review and the Kenyon Review. Philosphy section: replete with Heidegger, Nietzsche, Whitehead. And all of it more than reasonably priced. I wandered around for a couple hours trying to find a weak section, where the noise of mass culture had drowned out those signal works of core relevance, and found none.

Over the years, it became a joke in my family as to whether or not I was coming up to see them or to make a pilgrimage to Henderson's. In the time since I have moved up here, I have been there nearly every day. I have also been selling some books there and found them to be more than fair. In the few instances where I felt the offer was low, after explaining my issue, they have either tilted the balance in my favor or asked to have some time to do some more research on the book. In short, they care about books and the people that love them.

Glancing at a bookmark in a stack of recent purchases, I noted with amusement that they have been around since 1962, the year that I was born. I take that as a good omen. So long live Henderson's, one of the last of the great bookstores.

Yelp: Reviews

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Fourth Corner: The maniac succeeded in obtaining the weapon

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Been reading up on the history of the area and stumbled upon The Fourth Corner: Highlights from the Early Northwest by Lelah Jackson Edson -  the best and most charming book I've yet to read on local history. What initially brought my attention to the book was the cover: it is composed of clipped newspaper articles. One in particular caught my attention (it is in the above scan):

Desperate Encounter - A temporarily insane man, confined in the old block-house, a few days ago attacked Wm Wolfe, as he entered the building, and made an effort to get possession of that gentleman's revolver. Wolfe grappled with him, and the encounter became desperate. The maniac succeeded in obtaining the weapon, and in the struggle, discharging three shots - one of them shooting Wolfe through the hand, a second bullet grazing his head, and the third wounding him slightly in the neck. The insane man is named Waterhouse. Wolfe is able to be about.

The phrasing itself evokes the historical period: "grappled with him", "Wolfe is able to be about". Ever since I read this I have been wondering what the rest of that story is. That Waterhouse was described as "temporarily insane", that he was in possession of a revolver... all highly intriguing.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Black Drop: If the shot's not perfect, we throw it out.

Double Latte from The Black Drop

Ever since I first visited Bellingham - about 4 years ago - I've been going to The Black Drop Coffeehouse. I think the first time I went was only by happenstance - in that it was just down the street from one the the great book pilgrimage sites in North America: Henderson's Books.

We take the coffee so damn seriously that we routinely dedicate a great deal of time and effort towards Barista Competitions, locally and internationally. Owner Alexarc Mastema is a certified NWRBC, USBC, and CBC barista judge who specializes in the technical nuances of perfect espresso extraction. It is to these standards that he trains our staff. Alexarc's partner, Teri Bryant is the Northwest Regional Representative for the Barista Guild of America, a revolutionary trade guild organizing to promote the interests of the erroneously considered "entry level" position of barista.
- From The Black Drop Website

The Black Drop has created ("made" seems too pedestrian a verb for what they do) some of the finest cups of coffee that I have ever had the pleasure to drink. These days the barristas don't seem quite as hardcore as they once were - and this is a good thing. You used to feel that with all the intensity that went into the creation of your cup of coffee that it was a crime to even drink it.

It is more relaxed now, at least to my reckoning, more confident in the simple fact that they have the best coffee in town. And like any good coffeehouse, they cultivate an atmosphere of community with stacks of local newsletters, papers, magazines, flyers, cards and other sub-cultural ephemera.

I have read and heard a few complaints about the slow service at the Black Drop. This is not Starbucks or McDonalds. This is not a fast food, high volume, turn the tables every 15 minutes kind of place. If you are looking for a fast double latte made by a corporate robot who apathetically pushes buttons on a machine to give a demographically mediocre luke warm non-offensive caffeine based drink, do not go to the Black Drop. However, if you want someone to recognize you after you have only been there a few times, ask how you are, take time to prepare by hand and heart a one-of-a-kind cup of coffee just for you, then by all means go to the Black Drop and indulge yourself.

An old newsletter sums it all up:

1. Every drink is ground to order and the coarseness is adjusted accordingly.
2. If the shot's not perfect, we throw it out.
3. You won't find "sea foam" bubbles in your latte, just velvety steamed milk.
4. We never, EVER "park" the steaming pitcher on the drip tray. (WE PAY ATTENTION!)
5. Our equipment is spotlessly clean - that means there's never any rancid coffee oil residue in your drink.
6. If the beans ain't fresh enough, we toss 'em out!
7. We never "shock" the espresso (unless you ask us to!) by pouring shots directly over ice. We minimize the bitterness by cooling your iced drinks gradually.
8.Whenever possible, we pull shots directly into the serving cup so that all that yummy crema goes into your drink, not coating the inside of a shot glass!
9. Our beans are roasted fresh to order every week.
10. We are committed to continuing education and involvement in organizations such as the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the Barista Guild of America, and Coffee Kids.

Double Latte from The Black Drop

This coffee falls into your stomach, and straightway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army of the battlefield, and the battle takes place. Things remembered arrive at full gallop, ensuing to the wind. The light cavalry of comparisons deliver a magnificent deploying charge, the artillery of logic hurry up with their train and ammunition, the shafts of with start up like sharpshooters. Similes arise, the paper is covered with ink; for the struggle commences and is concluded with torrents of black water, just as a battle with powder.
- Honore de Balzac, "The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee"

The Black Drop
Google: directions, reviews, related links
Yelp: reviews

Update: As further testimony to the integrity, the care, and simple beauty of the Black Drop, here is an excerpt from the recent press release about the sale of the cafe to three longtime employees:

December 27, 2009, Bellingham, WA – The owners of the Black Drop Coffeehouse in downtown Bellingham got an amazing gift on Christmas Eve at midnight when they sold their beloved coffeehouse to three of their long term employees, making the shop effectively an employee owned co-operative. Teri Bryant and Alexarc Mastema, founders of the Black Drop, wanted to pursue other interests, while assuring the spirit of the place they so painstakingly built would retain the quality and essence they worked so hard to create. The creative answer to the problem was to offer the shop to three of their long time employees, who would purchase the shop as a co-operative effort.
The new owners, Jonathan Lawson, Stephanie Oppelaar, and Katy Blizzard have all been the consistent faces behind the counter for years, and support the same vision of artisan coffee, lovingly crafted and prepared. Jonathan has been an employee for over seven years, Stephanie for over five, and Katy for over three, giving the new ownership team over 15 years combined experience specifically at the Black Drop. The diverse talents of each of the new owner/partners bring a fresh breath of life with a new attitude and a new twist to the same great coffee people have come to expect from the Black Drop.

Three Gyms in Bellingham: Where to Wear Your Batman Costume

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One of the first things that I wanted to get settled when I arrived in Bellingham was to find a good gym. I figured that one of the best ways to get over the various temporal and spatial shocks of moving was to quickly establish a few healthy rituals - the mortification of the flesh being one of the most important.

Several years ago, I got a week pass to the Bellingham Athletic Club (BAC) and found it to be an excellent facility:  central location and a selection of top of the line cardio equipment, weight machines and free weights. The locker room was clean and offered the three basic requirements: steam, sauna and whirlpool. I also enjoyed the little bottles of mouthwash and Vitalis, the small containers of Q-tips. Felt like I was at a country club more than a gym.  They even let me stow my bike in the hallway. All in all, a good experience. I sang the praises of the place when I returned to Austin.

When I returned for a visit the following year, I looked forward to returning to the Athletic Club. It just so happened that right after I arrived there was a big snowstorm. Nevertheless, I trudged several miles through the snow to get a good workout at the BAC. I approached the front desk and asked to buy a week's pass. The girl informed they didn't offer week passes. I told her that I had purchased one the year before. She said, unh-unh. So I asked if I could just pay for a day pass. Nope. I asked to speak to the manager. She said that the manager was running late because of the snow. At this point, I was near begging. I told her again that I had been here the previous year, that I loved the place, that I had walked several miles in the snow to workout here... could I just pay for a single workout? Nope. And with that, I walked out.

So... back to the present day: sadly, BAC is not high on my list of gyms to get a membership at in Bellingham.

I realize how unfair it is to let one bad employee change my attitude towards a place. I should add that I probably couldn't afford the membership rates at this point of my tenure here in Washington.

A quick Google search reveals that BAC has won the reader's choice for best gym for the last three years. I insert the following quote with only a modicum of irony:
A perennial reader favorite, Bellingham Athletic Club has won Readers' Choice Best Fitness Center three times. Owner and general manager Cathy Buckley attributes the club's popularity partly to her fantastic staff. "If you're here more than a week and we don't know your name, that's a surprise," she says. BAC also invests time in keeping its workout equipment updated, she adds.

Google: reviews, directions, related links

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So I called Bellingham Fitness (BF) and spoke with a guy named Scott, who said that he was the owner. I told him that I wanted a basic workout plan, would like to come down to the gym to check it out. He told me they had no contract and that there was a basic monthly fee of $35. Sounded good to me. Told him I would be coming by in the afternoon.

When I arrived, a nice but fast talking Evan showed me around. I had been a member of 24 Hour Fitness in Austin and this place was pretty much along the same lines: rows of cardio machines, full range of Cybex, Nautilus, tons of free weights, mirrors all around. The locker room was satisfactory and they had the obligatory sauna, steam and whirlpool.

After the tour, Evan sat me down and promptly brought out a contract. I thought you guys didn't have any contracts, I said. Well, this is just to cover the automatic withdrawal from your account and covers us on insurance liabilities. OK. Then, after a bit of song and dance, he told me he would make a special deal with me to not pay the usual $200 initiation fee, but that I still had a $50 membership fee plus first and last month's dues paid in full. Monthly fees were around $38. I said that's not really what I was told on the phone. Evan replied that it was, but it was just that I didn't understand about the membership fee and the first and last month's dues. Told him I'd think about it. Gave no banking info and signed off so that I could get the free trial. I was told I had three days to inform them about cancelation. Fine.

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So I was allowed to workout and I found the facilities to be very good. The wet area around the whirlpool was a little creepy in that it's behind mirrored glass looking out to the gym. A bunch of old guys were sitting around in chairs checking out the women. Not unusual. But the mirrored glass kind of threw me. But that was minor. I figured that I'd probably join.

Once home, I reevaluated my finances and decided that I couldn't join at this time - maybe next month. So I called BF, thanked them and told them that I couldn't join right now. The girl told me that I had to come in to the gym to cancel. There's no way to just do this over the phone? I didn't even give any banking information and, actually, was calling just to be nice. Sorry, you have to come in. The next day, I walked down to the gym and told them that I wanted to cancel. Had to sign another contractual type form and was told to hang on to it "just in case". In case of what, I asked. You never know, I was told. So much for no contracts at Bellingham Fitness.

An excerpt from the Yelp review:

While I was waiting for the front desk, two guys started arguing loudly nearby - one apparently a manager and the other apparently a disgruntled former instructor there, feeling he was owed some money. I couldn't believe that they continued having such a loud argument about it right in the entryway, and almost let the testosterone chase me out, but I really wanted to try out the whole tanning business.
The rest of my experiences with the staff were fine, and I did end up using up the punch card, but I won't be going back, and I certainly wouldn't want to work out in the giant warehouse-like room full of exercise equipment. Ick. What a negative-feeling place to be.

Google: directions, reviews, related links

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After telling my gym stories to my sister that night, she said, you should try the YMCA. I've heard that it has great facilities and that it's pretty cheap. And, she added, they are practically in the center of downtown in an old building.

The next day I dropped in. Immediately, I could sense this was the place for me. It was authentic, warm, full of life, kids running around, teens on the climbing wall, toddlers being watched over in a playroom, mothers with daughters swimming in the pool. I walked up to the business desk and asked how much it cost to become a member. $33 dollars a month. No membership fees. No first and last month. No hard sell. No sell at all. Just a simple, honest experience. Funny that such events seems rare these days. You can pay by the day, the week, the month or the year. I paid for a month and also paid for a towel service: $4 a month. They took my picture and gave me a little bar code key to get into the facilities and locker rooms.

Went upstairs and found the locker room to be substantial. Strangely refreshing to see an even mix of men of all ages. Maybe a few more old timers - which I took as a good sign. The gym itself was more modest than the BAC or BF, but it had everything one could need. It is on the third floor, so as you are running on the treadmills, you can look out over downtown Bellingham. There are also stacks of hand towels for everyone - which was nice. Beside the weight room is a full sized basketball court. In short, a great place with a great old school, authentic, feel.

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Just to be complete, here's an amusing review from Yelp about the Y:

I come here everytime I'm home because the Y rocks.
It's cheap, being very affordable for us students and they have EVERYTHING!
You want to lift weights, do a lil cardio to get that heart rate going? They have it! If you like to swim, they have a huge swimming pool! They have a bball court, racketball court (fun to go into those rooms and go crazy). Are into rockclimbing? Check it out, they have it! You can't go wrong at the Y and the people are SO nice! My mom used to drop me off at the day care center here, and I hated it when I was kid, like I totally kept to myself and just wore my batman costume, even though they didn't like when I did-but I didn't care, and forgive them, because they are the YMCA, and they would forgive me too if they were in my position.

Google: direction, reviews, related links

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