CoffeeBeer >> Double Shot Buzz >> Victrola

Back Buzz - 9 February, 2019

Victrola Coffee / Exploring Cinnebar

During my visit to Seattle last summer, my friend Rick and I took a bus downtown one morning where I insisted we check out the new Central Library. This was of special interest to me, not only because I work in a large library in Sheffield, but when I lived in Seattle I spent hours in the old Central Library, researching for my own book projects as well as combing through phone books from all around the country to build up our business’s mailing list. This was in the early days of the Internet, when one was more likely to find the detailed information they were seeking in physical reference books rather than in a painfully slow dial-up session on one’s desktop computer. Laptop computers had just come out, but they were still prohibitively expensive. So on a typical research day, after feeding the pterodactyl and taking the iguanodons for a walk, I would catch the old horse-drawn Monorail downtown in order to fill my papyrus notebooks with the information I was seeking -- yes, actually written by hand. And with one of those pen thingies rather than a keypad. How I managed this archaic feat without benefit of a smartassphone constantly correcting my spelling with irrelevant words is beyond me.

As opposed to the library I remember, with its stairways reeking of urine and the clientele an eclectic mix of odd bookworms, elderly folk, and homeless regulars taking advantage of a warm space to spend the day, this new library is an impressive 11-storey cantilevered creation, with bright yellow escalators, a theatre for author readings, a book and card shop with espresso cart, and breathtaking views through the steel spiderweb of glass panes all around. Having opened in 2004, it was designed by Rem Koolhaus, whose surname describes it perfectly. It was at some point, gazing through the all-encompassing glass on the 10th floor down at Fourth Avenue, where pedestrians scurried like ants, with the magnetic attraction of Elliott Bay to the west, that we both realised it was time for a coffee.

I suggested Victrola Coffee, as it conjured up quaint images of 1920s quirkiness and, according to Google, the cafe was just a short walk from the library. But after heading down to the old Macy's building and through the door of the cafe we found ourselves in a very modern, more corporate-feeling setting. We approached the ordering counter, and that's when I spotted, in the room beyond the cafe, what appeared to be a reception desk emblazoned with AMAZON. Ah yes, of course: this is the Seattle of 2020, not 1920.

It turns out there are four Victrola Coffee cafés in Seattle. Two are located in Capitol Hill including the roastery, one is in Beacon Hill, and this downtown location is the newest. To be fair, the fact that it's in the old Macy's building, which was built in 1929 when it started as the Bon Marche, does give it some connection to the Roaring Twenties, even though that was the year of the Stock Market crash, so a bit more Depressing than Roaring by that point. Today, as one of the 33 buildings in Seattle that Amazon currently owns and occupies, the old Macy's building houses offices of the Big A on its top six floors, and the department store itself has shrunk down to just the ground floor and basement and is due to close completely this year.

As we ordered our drinks at the counter I asked the barista where I could get myself some water, seeing as how all these decent coffee cafes usually have some sort of self-serve water station. But the barista, obviously misunderstanding me, gave me the code to the restrooms instead. During the time we were waiting I finally spotted the water station over on the other side of the room, so I poured us two glasses of water. And when our coffees were finally ready, we were given one glass of sparkling water, I guess to share between us. So we certainly had plenty of water.

We sat at a long counter of a table in the middle of the cafe. My macchiato and Rick's cappuccino were both topped with rosettes that quickly turned into Mandelbröt sets and then into buttocks. The coffee was very smooth, not as assertive as we would have preferred, but very good. As we sipped both coffee and water we played with the intensely pink light that glowed upward from a long stripe down the center of the table like a landing strip. This futuristic fun was not very suggestive of a cafe named after a gramophone. But after all, it was Amazon....

The history of Victrola Coffee is one of locally successful growth. Their first Victrola cafe opened in 2000 in Capitol Hill, and three years later they started to roast their own coffee. Then they opened their second cafe in an old 1920s auto row building in Capitol Hill, and this is where their roastery, training facility, and cupping room are located. Two years later their Beacon Hill cafe opened, and then this downtown location.

In stark contrast, after Amazon's invasion of the city in 1997, that company’s massive cancerous growth has been predicted to eventually eat up 13.5 million square feet across 44 buildings in and around Seattle. I just hope that Seattle -- which was named in 1852 for Chief Sealth, the leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes -- doesn’t end up having to change its name to Amazon.

Speaking of growths, benign and toxic, reminds me of an e-mail exchange from last summer with my Bay Area friend:

Last Sunday as I was walking up the hill, I spotted something on the pavement. I thought at first that it was a piece of jewellery or a scrap of packaging; and then I realised it was a moth. I gasped in astonishment, stopped, pulled out my phone, and stooped down to take a photo. A young man was walking up behind me and he stopped to see what I was looking at. He also gasped in astonishment and pulled out his phone to take a photo. When I looked it up I discovered it's a Cinnebar moth, native to Europe and Asia, so it must be a gorgeous invader. Hopefully we'll see more of them. So if the cinnabar moth drinks an Imperial thimble of Zinnebir at a seedy bar on Zanzibar, who lives with the black Indian in the red house? (Trick question; there may be no definitive answer.) Actually, Cinnabar is a toxic mercury sulfide mineral. Modern cinnabar jewelry is actually wood that is stained and covered by layers of lacquer.

I don't know what cinnabar moths use for makeup.

If cinnabar is toxic, why is it a popular name for public places? There is a Cinnabar dive bar in San Francisco. (Maybe I'll go check out the barmoths.) There’s also a Cinnabar Hills Golf Club in San Jose. All part of the cult of toxic mercury? As to cinnabar makeup, this moth's body was the most gorgeously intense black of all blacks, so I wouldn't imagine it would need anything like mascara or eyeliner. I didn't get a close shot of its face and eyes, though, because obviously it was at the end of its life. Perhaps a bit of fresh tar might work as a wrinkle-reducing lifting facial moisturiser? Maybe Nivea C10?