Thursday, January 21, 2010

Street Epiphany: Vladmir and Estragon in Bellingham

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Waiting for the light to change at the corner of Magnolia and Railroad, I overheard this conversation between two obviously down-and-out older gentleman:
First Guy: "You are not going to believe this, man, the other day I went to one of those psychics and she told me some shit that I just couldn't believe. I mean, how she knew this shit. So, check this out, I wanna make sure, you know, so I go to another psychic and she told me the exact same things. Blew me away, man.

Second Guy: "So what sort of shit did they tell you?"

First Guy: "Check this out: they both said that I was going through some really hard times. And they both said that things were going to get better real soon -"
The light changed. I walked on. Smiling. Seemed like dialogue from a Beckett play. Vladmir and Estragon, waiting for Godot in Bellingham. As I said, both appeared to be homeless: ragtag backpacks, grey dirty clothing. How either of these guys would have enough money to go to not just one psychic, but two, was beyond me. And I am sure there was more to it, but that was enough for me. Made my day.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Griggs Office Supplies: It was gorgeous downtown

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I had been looking around recently for a good place to buy quality paper and various supplies that I need to make books and cards. I stopped into the Rite-Aid on the corner of Magnolia and Cornwall and, after looking over their dismal and overpriced selection, asked several of the employees if they knew of a place nearby where I might buy some good paper, an office supply or stationery store. No one knew of anyplace in the area, but one lady suggested that I try Paper Dreams over in Fairhaven. I stopped into several other businesses with pretty much the same results. (First few looks I got almost made me wonder if most people wanted to inform me of one of two things: 1.) that they didn't sell drug paraphernalia or 2.) that all stores are stationary stores.)

The next day I had occasion to be over in  Fairhaven with my stepfather, Jerry, and found Paper Dreams conveniently located next to Village Books. After looking around a bit, I asked a very nice woman where they kept their paper. She told me that although they had started as a stationery store, they really didn't specialize in paper. She then pointed me to a small section of stationery. Not what I was looking for.

Of course, when I asked most people about buying paper, they would say, just go to Office Depot or Office Max. But the woman at Paper Dreams suggested that I go to Griggs Office Supplies in downtown Bellingham. I told her that was funny because I had just walked around downtown Bellingham yesterday asking in several shops where I could find a stationery store or place to buy paper. No one suggested Griggs. Finally, I told her, I was told to come over here to Paper Dreams. She said that was odd because Griggs has been around for over 100 years.

So yesterday, I biked down to Griggs. It was just around the corner from the little area of heart and soul that defines downtown Bellingham to me. I was amazed that I had asked people who worked two blocks away about stationery stores, etc. and not a soul told me about Griggs.

I walked in to the small but comfortable space and asked where I might find reams of paper and was directed to the back of the store. They had an admirable selection: standard printer paper, color copy paper, photo paper, parchment and cardstock. There was even a decent selection of stationery paper and envelopes in a case near the front. Their price on plain printer paper was the cheapest I had seen in town so far. I asked the lady behind the counter about ordering more paper and she said it would be no problem. While she had the catalog out, I also asked about paper cutters and saddle staplers. She was very helpful and engaging. Within a few minutes, I knew that I really liked Griggs Office Supplies. I bought about as much as I could fit in my backpack. As I was leaving, knowing that I would be back often to buy more, I introduced myself to the woman and was happy to realize that I had been helped by Donel Griggs.

When I got home I looked up Griggs Office Supplies online. I found a couple of articles about the history and various relocations of the store. I discovered that Griggs Stationery and Printing opened in Bellingham in 1906. It has been in the family ever since, persevering through the Depression, numerous relocations and downsizings.

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An article in The Bellingham Herald, In tree-rich area, Griggs’ Stationery took root by Bonnie Hart Southcott contained this charming passage:

According to his granddaughter, Donel Griggs, who now runs the store, he really cared about his customers.

"He would put a coin in his left pocket when he would go to work," she said. "If he helped a customer exceptionally well, or did something nice for them, he would take the coin out of his left pocket and put it in his right pocket. At night, if that coin were still in his left pocket, he'd have to do it twice the next day."

Donel says "Poppy," as Horace was known in the family, established a high level of customer service in the store, and customers came to expect it.

"We still have people come in and say they remember when he got old, he would sit on a stool in front of the store — because he couldn't work the cash register anymore — and he'd give candy to the kids that came in," she said.

Its current location on West Champion may be significantly smaller than previous incarnations, but the spirit of Horace Griggs, exemplified above, is still very present. As I come to know the city better, it is businesses like Griggs that define it in the best way for me. Historic businesses like Griggs, family based businesses, are vital aspects of the character and history of a city.

I was dismayed to read in The Bellingham Business Journal that when Bellis Fair Mall, which averages a staggering 35,000 customers a day, when this mall opened, many downtown businesses closed down.

From the BBJ article, Downtown has rebounded from mall’s initial opening by J. J. Jenson:

The Bon Marche. Nordstrom. J.C. Penney. Woolworth. Sears.

Once upon a time, these stores were all located in downtown Bellingham.

While some newcomers to the area and local youngsters may not be aware of this, many longtime downtown business owners say they won’t soon forget the glory days when these department stores were located in the heart of the city and, combined with numerous independent retailers of various sizes, made for a thriving downtown business district.

“The streets were busy and the sidewalks were bustling with people moving from store to store,” recalls Donel Griggs, whose family business, Griggs Office Supplies, has been located downtown since 1906. “It was gorgeous downtown. When I start thinking about it, I get emotional.”

And then, in 1988, came the arrival of Bellis Fair Mall.
[ ... ] “When the big stores left, the hustle and bustle was gone,” Griggs said. “Everybody else (downtown) either had to go to the mall or scale down, and as you scale down you have to let go of employees. A lot of stores went out of business, or their owners quit or retired.”

Gives me kind of grim smile to read the fairy tale opening, "Once upon a time, these stores..." and then come to that, "And then, in 1988, came the arrival of Bellis Fair Mall." A smile because it reminds me of that point in Bambi where he asking his mother why they have to run and she says it is becuase "man was in the forest."

Coming from Austin where I saw dozens of local businesses close over the last 30 years, effectively draining all the character out of neighborhood after neighborhood, hollowing out the city, infecting it with the virus of corporate sameness, I know all too well that the reality is no fairy tale.

Reading in the Bellingham Business Journal that certain initiatives such as Downtown Bellingham Partnership and Sustainable Connections are attempting to reverse the effects of the migration to the malls through clean-up projects and buy local campaigns gives me a dark foreboding about the future of downtown Bellingham. I think the city needs to do more: to identify and define those local historic businesses that make up the unique character of the city - of which Griggs Office Supplies is a prime example - and help to keep them financially healthy through property tax relief and basic utilities assistance. If Bellis Fair Mall is getting 35,000 customers a day, have the mall pay a percentage to support the local business that were affected by their presence.

Anyway, enough.

As the new guy, my voice doesn't count for much. However, if you are reading this "review" I encourage to support Griggs Office Supplies. Support not in defiance of the malls and "big box" corporate store, although that is always good. Support Griggs because they have an elegant selection, superior customer service and good prices.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Uisce: Tuesday Trivia and the Water of Life

It is a Tuesday and, as I have learned from Roger and Shannon, that means only one thing: Trivia Night. It is like going to church around here. The sermon is on knowledge. The eucharist is beer and pretzels. To not go is to commit the sins of slothfullness and ignorance. And the place of trivial worship is called Uisce. Pronounced ish-kaa.

Being trivially minded, I looked up the word, uisce. It is Irish for whiskey. The word whiskey is actually derived from a mispronunciation of uisce. According to Wikipedia, uisce beathe is "simply an Irish translation of the Latin aqua vitae ('water of life')." As far as difficult to pronounce names for bars go, Uisce has to be the best.

We used to have a Trivia Night on at the bar I managed in Austin, Drungo Ice House. It was usually our busiest night. The same applies to Uisce. I've been going on and off since I arrived in town and the place is always packed.

It's in a long rectangular space with high ceilings. Elegant lighting. Plenty of nice seating. Comfortable chairs, even some church pews with slots on the back for bibles and hymnals. Hardwood floors. Beautiful long bar. An atmospheric faux-fireplace in the middle. Accommodates the crowd nicely.  (Side note: you might want to double check the sign on the door before you go to the bathroom... or learn Gaelic.)

It costs $5 for an Imperial Pint (20 oz) of Harp - my usual - which isn't a bad deal. Haven't tried the whiskey yet, but it seems a given now. We get a complimentary basket of pretzels with hot mustard for the table - one of the seven great foods to eat while drinking beer (pizza, peanuts, popcorn, chips, cheeseburgers and chili being the others).

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The evening is hosted and officiated by James Gillies, the sine qua non of trivia in Bellingham. Starts at 8 p.m. - but get there by 7:30 at the latest to get a table. No more than six to a group. Dollar entry for each person. 50 questions delivered in two sessions. The questions are recondite, entertaining, erudite, witty, challenging and topical. James does of great job in his pacing of questions and officiating of disputes, (i.e. gnocchi or gnocci).

Regardless of whether you win or lose, it's always a good time. But... to Men of Extraordinary Wealth and Beauty: you are going down this week.

Daniel O'Connell - Irish Liberator, Creator of Guinness and Inventor of Electricity

On your way out, be sure stop at the portrait to the left of the door and say a prayer for the soul Daniel O'Connell, the great Irish Liberator, who once wrote: "The altar of liberty totters when it is cemented only with blood." He was an influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

When I went by to take the photographs above (after the review was written), I told the bartender and another patron what I had found out about Daniel O'Connell. The bartender laughed and said that a guy had been in the other day who told him that it was "the creator of Guinness." The guy next to me at the bar added that he was sitting with a group and when a girl asked who it was, the guy next to him replied, with complete authority, that it was "the inventor of electricity" and proceeded into a 5 minute discourse. Only in an Irish bar, right?

An appropriately final note: on the wall opposite the door as you go out are two letters in a glass frame. They appear to be farewell letters composed during the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923.

The one on the left is from J. Burk to his cousin, Kathleen. From what I can tell, he was executed on Jan. 20, 1923 - or the letter "was executed"... don't know. The last sentences read: "Remember me as the wild boy of the family / Good by all / From your dying cousin."

The letter on the right is from a brother, Stephen, to his sister, Julia - also written on Jan. 20, 1923. He begins: "Just a few lines bidding you the last farewell." Then, that he and his friends "will meet our death at the hands of Irishmen." Also adding towards the end, "I would not like to hear ye crying when I am among the dead."

Take a look when you go. They are fascinating and poignant fragments of historical authenticity.


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Facebook: Uisce Trivia Night

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Bellingham Library: Searching for all the drowned stories

I go to the Bellingham Library almost every day. Catch up on all the newspapers and magazines. Read and write for a while. Wander around the stacks celebrating the joys of serendipity. I love walking down the aisles puzzling over the seemingly arcane shifts of the Dewey System. The Bellingham Library is a great little library. Most importantly, it is alive. Always a good number of people there using it. It is, without a doubt, an active center of the community.

In front of the libary are a series of 11 poems on plaques for the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest. Every year they are replaced by new winners. I stop and read over them often. I want more: huge metal books chained to the walls with heavy pages carved over with words. Anyway, here are a few of my favorites from the current series. ( Click on the image for a larger version. )

A Reefnetter's Paean to the Sea by Tyree Callahan

This is good poetry. Best one of the bunch. Rings true. Each word containing worlds resonating off of each other - look at how the awkward word "keen" stumbles on "affection," then is saved by "keeling." And that one word: "Reefnetter" just stands there front and center, singing by itself. I remember when I first read this poem, being a little tired, not really listening to the words, then coming upon the lines:
What great solemn fields of broken water
have I plowed for you;
I am a petal upon a raging sea.
Beautiful juxtaposition of imagery from solemn to raging. Haiku intensity of theme. Sort of thing that makes you forget that you are standing outside in the cold and rain reading a poem on a plaque.

Awe by Oksana Hanson

The images layer on top of each other: departing sun, soft grass, the moon. The usual poetic litany, nothing outstanding, until the phrase: "I wouldn't have noticed." It suddenly puts the poet/ reader in a strange place, somewhere outside of the poem itself. What follows is very nice.

I was simply being.
No rushing thoughts occupying my mind.
I was a bystander in the ticking of time.
There I sat,
consumed by only
the beauty,
on an island of beautiful nonsense,
unruffled by the imperfections of the outside world.

Lovely phrase, "bystander in the ticking of time" and then the rhythm slows down, lines shorten. Elliptical moments of evocation slip into the sense of it all.

the beauty,

That's beautiful, sublimely so. Those lines lingered in my memory for a long time.

It is worth adding that Oksana Hanson was in the eighth grade when she wrote this poem.

Diminishing Returns by Kate Berne Miller

I didn't want to like this poem. The structural and thematic conceits put me off, ebb and flow. I could sense the shift coming after the first sentence. A kitten swimming in a shark tank. But the broken images won me over: "beach glass in the mud," "erasing delicate tracing of snails," "steel blue waves/  snatch away names." The last sentence redeemed everything:

On these days my
mother peers into the distance, longing
for landmarks, searching for all
the drowned stories.

 I think about that often as I walk by the plaque. "Searching for all the drowned stories."

2008 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest Winners
Winners of the 2009 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest 

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Grand Avenue Alehouse: Four Words: Ice Cold Olympia Beer

Located directly across the street from Henderson's Books and just down the street from the Black Drop and Michael's Books, it pretty much a given that I would wander into the Grand Avenue Alehouse. A handprinted sign in the window said they had $2 pitchers of PBR. I had heard that the place could get kind of rowdy and loud. I guess that depending on your mood, that could be good or bad.

The first time I went there, there were just a handful of people sitting at the bar. Nice high ceilings. Good selection of beer. Full bar. Some pool tables in back. I asked if there were any specials and the bartender told me they had cans of Olympia for $3. I said sure. She gave me an ice cold 16 oz. can.

Back in Austin, everyone that knows better drinks Lone Star. I love Lone Star. It's a great lager beer. Kind of beer you can drink all day. I'd never had Olympia. And I'll be damned - and there are people in Austin that will damn me for this - if it wasn't as good, maybe even better, than my beloved Lone Star. Beautiful. It was so good that I drank it down in about five minutes and was up at the bar for another that I could take some time with and savor.

The next time I stopped in, it was more crowded. Early Friday evening.  Took me a little longer to get my can of Olympia. Tougher to find a seat. A group of guys at the table next to me were drinking pitchers and getting loud about "banging tail". I tried to tune them out. A lot of people were ordering food and that took up  a lot of the bartender's time - or so it seemed to me. There was another girl who was serving food, but she was moving slow. I didn't mind the wait so much. But the crowd was getting more obnoxious. What can you do? Friday night.

I've been back a few times, making it a point to go in the afternoon when there are not a lot of people. Walking back down Grand Avenue after a good day at the library,  it's a nice dark place to have a couple of cheap cans of Olympia before heading home.

 Google: Hours, Direction, Reviews, Etc.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Horseshoe Cafe: Soul of the City

I often wonder what the soul of a city is? What makes a place unique, defines its character, gives it its essence? For the moment, exclude the all of the natural aspects.

I walk a lot around downtown Bellingham and see buildings, businesses and people. I am trying to "get to know" this place, understand it's character. Being a new arrival, I find it necessary to get my bearings. As far as buildings go, the beautiful Mt. Baker theater helps me orient beyond my Grand Avenue haunts, the Old City Hall guides me down to the Bay, and the Herald Building - with its red sign of impending announcement - steers me across town. At the center, for me, is the Horseshoe Cafe.

Amongst the many places that I have been told to go to, the Horseshoe was one of the more consistently mentioned. Always added to this was that it has been here for over 100 years. In fact, since 1886 - over 120 years - which is, indeed, impressive. Must be doing something right. Before I even stepped inside, I could tell that I was going to like the place. The beautiful old-school neon sign out front. The cowboys in the sunset mural behind that. Through the window, classic diner look: formica tables, booths, high ceilings, an collection of signs and such on the walls, straight out of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks at the Diner. Open 24 hours. Beautiful.

First time I was there, I had a cheeseburger with hashbrowns, cup of coffee. Classic diner fare. Straight up solid food. Cheap, hot and good. The way it should be. Coffee was fresh ground, fresh brewed and strong. It passed the cream test: when poured in, the cream swirled around, separating into in a myriad of white milky strands, a galaxy in a coffee mug. I liked it that they emphasized that they were serious about coffee on the menu. Heart and soul of any real diner. Cheeseburger was solid. Hashbrowns were the stand-out, "from real potatoes, cut fresh every day." I could've eaten just a plate of those.

In a separate area to the right of the door is the Ranch Room, my favorite bar in town. Behind the bar is a great cowboy mural by Fred Oldfield. Various other western related ephemera hang on the dark walls. I like the elbow pad railing along the bar and the barstools that curve around your back. I'm usually in there for a few cheap cans of Ranier after working out at the Y. Place feels like home to me because it reminds me of the Hole in the Wall in Austin: unpretentious, authentic, not trying at all to be anything other than a warm place for people to get together, drink, talk, watch the game and have a good time.

Horseshoe Website:
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Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl's clothes off.
- Raymond Chandler
Here's to a long life and a merry one
A quick death and an easy one
A pretty girl and an honest one
A cold beer and another one!
           - Irish Saying

Michael's Books: One of a Kind Rare Books Room

In what I would like to believe is some sort of happy non-competitive agreement, Henderson Books is usually closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and Michael's Books is open. So these are generally the days where I head across the street to Michael's.

When I first arrived to town, I saw Michael's as the gangly younger sister to Henderson's - trying hard, but always a little awkward, caught in the shadow of the other's brilliance. But I have come to see that this is not true.

Michael's may not immediately impress you with spined-out, stacks of books on the floor, maximum density book-lover beauty. But don't let that prejudice you: things are spread out a bit more here. You have to look around. It's a beautiful maze: rooms in back of rooms. In this way the place reminds me of Larry McMurtry's Blue Pig (now known as Booked Up) in Archer City, Texas.

Their selection seems to be geared more to the common reader - more best sellers, past and present.  Not as erudite as Henderson's. If you think Henderson is snobby or a little stuffy at times, then head on over to Michael's. They probably will have you covered. Still, in that way that all good bookstores do, they will surprise you. Example: I was perusing the Greek History section the other day and found a beautiful Zone Book, The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the Classical City by Nicole Loraux. In the case right next to it: several volumes of Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life (Civilization and Capitalism : 15th-18th Century). Very nice. All reasonably priced.

I was just recently made aware of their excellent Rare Books Room - just behind the counter to the right - with a fine selection of firsts and a truly outstanding collection of local history books. Also, be sure to look in the glass counter in front for a nice collection of the Beats and a selection of weird and transgressive literature. If are low on cash, Michael's always places several boxes of free books out on the sidewalks. And, to top it off, they always have free cider.

Michael's Website: