By Monet Harris
Originally published in the December 2014 issue.
For two years, located at 501 E Pine St, Black Coffee Co-op provided a space that encouraged you to stay awhile with a zine and a plush library of independent, leftist, and radical literature, along with a host of live shows and community events. Now temporarily closed and looking for a permanent home, Scott Davis and the rest of the worker- owner collective hope to go forward finding a balance between the needs of their community and the reality of running a business.
Made up of six people in total, Black Coffee is a worker collective defined by its adaptation of a horizontal, non-hierarchical, management structure. No single member has absolute power or control and decisions must be run through with the approval of everyone involved. This same core also staffs the coffeehouse which absorbs the expenses of hiring employees and, in effect, creates an environment where people are enfranchised and engaged in business operations. A worthy model, the plan is to uphold it in the still undecided location albeit with consideration for any work that might be picked up during the break in business.
For a horizontal arrangement this creates a bump in relation to devotion and how much sway should be given to a person who puts more hours into the project versus someone who might need more space for their personal life. Davis says that understanding and empathy among the members keeps it from being a divisive issue, but they still want to go forward in a way that is “sustainable” for part-time involvement.
Set at the west end of bustling Capitol Hill, Pine Street was a unique opportunity for exposure with “…so many different types of people showing up. Income, appearance, career, age,” says Davis. “We wanted to be welcoming to homeless persons or people who need a place to hang out.”
With literature, community postings and zines more potent than anything available in your average magazine rack it created an opportunity for many unsuspecting visitors to learn and immerse themselves in left-wing content they would not have been exposed to otherwise. The diverse mix of people helped Black Coffee stand out in a neighborhood that is already boxed in by white hipster stereotypes and rapidly changing through tech-driven development. People were invited to come utilize the space and did so gladly knowing that they would not be made to feel like they had to buy anything.
Overall happy to provide these services, the collective often found themselves feeling overwhelmed by the volume of people coming through their doors. Beliefs of the cooperative aside, they were still operating within a capitalist system with $6,000 coming due at every month. Having a clientele that patronizes but does not buy presents a problem because while you may be able to pay rent, other bills and ingredients have to be taken care of before the worker owners take their pay from what is left of the money.
Upon learning this, some might be quick to peg the social aspect of the venture as idealistic and unsustainable but Davis asserts that the real estate was the biggest setback. When Black Coffee opened no one anticipated the changes to business or else considerations would have been made, which is, in effect, part of what they are trying to do now in relocating. “Most of our customers who were living in the neighborhood when we moved in were no longer living there by the time we moved out,” he continues. The choice to leave was not just about survival, but looking forward into the next 5 or 10 years and trying to assure that they would still be able to operate in the city’s new landscape. “We made the decision perhaps slightly preemptively that if we see ourselves moving in that medium term window we wanted to move now.”
Capitol Hill ranks alongside the Downtown area and parts of Ballard as the most costly per square foot. “That wasn’t consistently true when [Black Coffee] moved in,” said Davis. But as buildings are gutted on every side and the old Bauhaus location becomes one of the most expensive in the city it is clear that the search for the forever home will have to push out into more feasible locations. Having no shortage of receptive, malleable minds looking to kill time, the U-District is being looked at along with Pioneer Square. Accessibility is important for a project of this kind because we often find that inclusive spaces are hard to find for people who do not know how to navigate a city or are without existing connections. Like the Capitol Hill location, these places are being considered for their proximity to bus lines and a social climate that will, ideally, allow for the coffeehouse to take root and expand in productive ways to service its community.
The integrity and culture created in the space are what separates Black Coffee from the businesses that shutter without a fuss, so it was fitting that its last day should be a celebration and opportunity for its patrons to come together. “Political, party, street, hood, rocker, crust punk, it don’t matter,” says Rashad, an MC and community advocate. “Everybody in there, this is the little pot.”