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Seattle says goodbye to beloved Cafe Racer

(KIRO 7)

For 14 years it was a favorite hangout in the University District. A place many thought of as a second home.

It was also the site of one of the most tragic events in Seattle history.

Wednesday night was the final last call at Cafe Racer, and hundreds of Seattleites were there to say their goodbyes.

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There was an overflow crowd at the light green coffee shop and bar on Roosevelt just hours before it closed its doors for good.

Just inside the front door was Ron Daley, playing his guitar and singing as he’d done so many times in jam sessions over the last decade.

“I have memories of Drew and Joe when they played here, and I played with them from time to time. So, I just wanted to come down and sing a little bit tonight.”

Drew Keriakedes and Joe Albanese — known better by their stage and nicknames, Shmootzi the Clod and Meshuguna Joe — were regular performers at Cafe Racer until a mentally ill man, who often got kicked out of the cafe, got kicked out again late one morning in May of 2012, pulled a gun, and opened fire. Five people in the cafe were shot. Four died, including Drew and Joe. The shooter fled and ended up shooting and killing another woman at 8th and Seneca about a half an hour later in a carjacking.

Once police realized the two shootings were related, there was a massive manhunt across the city. The shooter was finally spotted in West Seattle around that afternoon and took his own life.

The shootings rocked Seattle.

Some Cafe Racer regulars said they stopped coming after the shooting but felt they needed to stop by one last time.

Daley says it was too special of a place for musicians like him not to be a regular.

“It’s an artists hang out. It’s not all artists that hang out here, it’s a lot of weirdos … everybody feels at home in here. That’s what I’ve always liked about it.”

While most patrons remember the tragic shooting well and admit it was on their minds Wednesday night, for the most part, they were there to remember the good times. Some people said they met their significant others at Racer; one learned her friend was having twins and got to see the ultrasound at the bar, while others met roommates or just life-long friends.

Griffin Boyd had been coming for the Racer Sessions for years — hosting a Sunday night jam session where all are welcome.

“It’s really sad to see Racer go. I mean it’s been such an integral part of the Seattle DIY music community,” Boyd said. “It’s one of the more special art spaces in Seattle.”

Devon Riley says Cafe Racer gave him insight into what the Seattle art music scene was.

“It was immediately this very welcoming community. It was really cool. I was scared of improvising the first time I came here and after every Racer session there is just improv. I got up on stage and was like there is no way I can match these guys and there was no vibe of this is a competition. It was just like, hey, welcome aboard.”

John Harrison also loved coming to the Racer sessions, which served as an improvisational showcase for local musicians to show what they’ve been working on, followed by a big, open jam session. He says everyone was welcome on stage, whether they were just learning an instrument or had been playing for years.

Kitchen manager Royce Aydel says Racer always had something for anybody.

“It’s the only place you can go that has opera one night, and then it has a harpsichord the next night and then it has punk rock and then it has a science-fiction reading.”

Beyond the music and the jam sessions, it was also a community. Aydel says, “We’re a family. If there is something wrong we take care of each other. If there is something right then we enjoy it together.”

Harrison says there’s a huge community of regulars who thought of Cafe Racer as their second home, “and it’s really sad when that kind of thing has to go away.”

But owner Kurt Geissel says he had no choice. A mix of family and financial issues made it impossible for him to keep the doors open, so he put the Racer up for a sale a year ago to see if he got any bites. He did, but none that went through. So this week he decided it was time to close.

As for what he’d like people to remember about Cafe Racer, Geissel says, “Just the love, the joy. How it helped change their lives or how it inspired them to do things. That’s what you want to do with your life is leave a mark on community, family, whatever. Cafe Racer has done that and I don’t take all the credit for it, I do not because every person that walks through the door has contributed to it.”

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Giessel still hopes someone will buy it and continue with the Cafe Racer community.

But, as of Thursday, the doors of Cafe Racer are closed.

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