Growth is skyrocketing in the U-District. This is good for property values, but also means that a lot of longtime business are leaving: Hardwick’s Hardware, the Weaving Works yarn supply, and the original Pagliacci Pizza store are among the recent victims.
New zoning rules, development pressure, and competition have reshaped the commercial landscape. One commercial realtor told us some U-District land recently tripled in value.
Yet some older businesses just keep hanging on. We asked them how they did it.
Each of these three iconic U-District businesses—the Grand Illusion, Big Time Brewery, and Shiga Imports—has stayed put for decades. Each had a different survival strategy.
The Grand Illusion
The Grand Illusion, a tiny independent theater tacked onto a house, opened in 1970. It shows everything from digital art house films to classic movies on 35 millimeter film.
“You know a lot of times, there will be only a handful of people that come to the show," said Sarah Kleehammer, who works there as a volunteer. "Sometimes we get to 68 people. But most of the time, it’s five or 10.”
Survival strategy: Low staff costs. “If you had to pay anybody to be here – it wouldn’t work out. We would have closed our doors long ago," said Kleehammer.
As part of the Grand Illusion's circle of unpaid staff, Sarah Kleehammer does everything from balance the books to making popcorn. She runs the projector, too. It's a labor of love, and the payoff is being part of a community, watching unique films and doing something no one else can do.
Back in the projection room, Kleehammer demonstrated how she turns on the machine.
"It's kind of like waking up the beast," she said as the projector fan whirred. She mounted an old cartoon reel.
On the screen, a mouse contemplated throwing himself off a bridge. “I had a feeling that no one would care whether there was one last mouse in the world or not," he said.
For now, this mouse of a theater continues to survive in a city where other commercial indie theaters (Landmark's Guild 45th and Seven Gables theaters, for example) have closed. The Grand Illusion is also blessed with older landlords who haven't caught the development bug.
Big Time Brewery
The Big Time Brewery's wood-paneled pub has been a haunt for students and professors for almost 30 years.
It also claims to be Seattle’s “original" brew pub. In support of that claim, current owner Rick McGlaughlin filled a pint glass with Coal Creek Porter, which Big Time has brewed since day one. “It’s a beautiful, dark, kind of chocolate-y roasted malt porter that really set the standard for dark beer throughout the city of Seattle,” said McGlaughlin.
McGlaughlin's landlord was aware of the development potential in the neighborhood. So as Big Time's current lease reached its end, McGlaughlin showed off his survival strategy: Deeply prepare for negotiation.
McGlaughlin said at first, his landlord wanted to include what’s called a “demolition clause” in his new lease, which would let the landlord break the lease early if they wanted to knock down the building and put in something taller.
McGlaughlin managed to negotiate it away. "You need to be ready to walk," he said. "And you need to do some research and potentially have another site located where you could redo your business." Still, as part of the deal, McGlaughlin has to pay higher rent.
To do that, McGlaughlin has to make more money. So he invested in more kitchen equipment to expand his limited menu and sell flame-broiled burgers. He just bought a new grill. (McGlaughlin let me hold up the microphone to capture its sizzle, for the radio.)
Will customers bite? Either way, McGlaughlin's on the hook for rent until the end of his 10-year lease.
Packed to the ceiling with tea sets, futons, and Hello Kitty paraphernalia, Shiga Imports has been operating out of its U-District location since just before the 1962 World's Fair.
Shiga's strategy: Invest in land. Shiga Imports survived over half a century of change in the U-District because the late Andy Shiga bought the building decades ago.
The family scraped together money for the purchase by using family members as staff. As a boy, Alfred Shiga was expected to assemble wok lids. "We’ve always been fiscally conservative," explained Alfred, who helps run the business today. "Having that thrift and being able to purchase the building in the past was an important part of our success,” he said.
Credit also goes to the family matriarch, Toshimo Shiga, who worked behind the register for 50 years. “Every single day," she said. Only recently did she cut back to five days a week.
Shiga Imports doesn’t have to worry about demolition clauses, or someone selling the land out from under them. As long as the store continues to find new import trends to capitalize on, its future is bright.
Nevertheless, Toshimo is skeptical that her grandchildren will want to take over the family business.
“I don’t think they’d like to work here, in a gift store," she said.
Alfred, whose 9-year-old daughter practiced on the cash register just yesterday, is more confident. "We've all gone off and done different things, and we've all come back," he said. His daughter leans against him, but shyly refuses to speculate on her future when I offer her the microphone.
So there you have it: Three businesses that have survived due to a combination of low staff costs, tough negotiations, and good timing. Other businesses with these same characteristics have failed, so it’s no guarantee. But it’s nice to know that sometimes, things work out, at least for a while.