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Boulevard gallery: View from a coffee cup

Hand-painted coffee bags, paintings, and a mural are new installations in the U District’s Boulevard Grocery, allowing local artists to show their work. Photo by Features

Coffee is a global story. You can trace its path from Indonesia to Guatemala, Brazil to Ethiopia. In Seattle, coffee is simultaneously a very local story. In Sean Lee’s case, the story begins in Hawaii and ends in Seattle, for now.

Hawaii, the island of Oahu: Lee recalls the strong smell of coffee in Honolulu, coming from the city’s roasters.

“I’ve always … maybe not drank coffee in Hawaii, but I’ve always been around it,” Lee said. “For whatever reason, it was just always something very romantic to me. I kind of like the whole ritual process of drinking it, preparing it.”

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Brandon Baker and Dave Bloomfield, friends who share a studio in the Greenwood Distrct, watch their artwork being put up inside the coffee shop.

Lee started Seven Coffee Roasters, his roasting company, in Seattle about six years ago after working at Hotwire and Caffe Appassionato, where he learned the production side of the coffee industry. He bought the Boulevard Grocery, located on Northeast Ravenna Boulevard and 21st Avenue Northeast in the U District, and renovated it with Jeff, the store’s manager, whose last name has been left out by request. The remodeled grocery and cafe opened less than two months ago.

Seattle, the U District: When you walk into the grocery, the fragrance is a combination mixing the vintage feel of one of Seattle’s oldest grocery stores and the newness of one of Seattle’s youngest cafes, a smell like coffee brewing in an antique shop.

Lee and his team have preserved a minimalist coffee bar inside the grocery, including just the most “straightforward,” as Lee said, espresso beverages with a limited selection of added flavors.

“[Boulevard Grocery is] not necessarily a Seven Roasters cafe,” Lee said. “It’s been here almost a hundred years. [We] definitely didn’t want to ruin any kind of vibe, or history that came along with that. We’re trying to do a simple menu, but just do it well.”

The store was built in 1916 and first used as a grocery in the 1950s, when the massive ivory-colored refrigerator was installed. Today, the grocery stocks approximately 30 types of craft and import beers as well as other beverages in the refrigerator.

Lee was confident in the store’s ability to maintain its presence in the neighborhood and its longtime customers by “trying to really respond to the neighborhood … what [it] seems to want.”

But the grocery industry is new territory for Lee, and he’s relied on local beer and wine retailers as well as using examples of other community grocery operations to design and stock the store.

Ann and Tim Rood have been coming to the Boulevard Grocery “in its different incarnations,” as Ann described, for nearly 20 years.

“We patronized when it sold nothing but beer and cookies,” Ann said.

Ann says the cafe is often filled but that it does take some time for people “to poke their heads in.”

“It used to be very different,” Ann said. “It didn’t encourage people sitting around drinking coffee.”

Tim’s laugh interjected.

“As a matter of fact, the owner took the best spot — put her computer here and just camped out.”

They both laughed.

“It kind of looked like it was an intrusion that you came in,” Ann said.

They’ve finally secured the best spot in the house: the corner window. They take the spot whenever it’s open.

“It’s really unusual to have sort of a public space in the middle of an established neighborhood,” Ann said. “So it really gives people a chance — a lot of students, a lot of musicians, a lot of artists — and it’s a way to keep in touch with everybody.”

Gradually more and more fixtures, artwork, food, beer, and wine come in, and more of Seattle and Washington state get included in the project. Jeff used the word “symbiotic” when describing the relationship between the cafe and its buyers and sellers.

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The artists started off making stickers and small graffiti paintings and later translated their images into larger paintings.

“Having a cafe like this, it just becomes a platform to be able to sell [Lee’s] coffee or to be able to sell maybe someone’s pastries,” Jeff said. “Having a public space like that — you can be really selfish about it, or you can offer out to everybody.”

There’s that phrase again: public space.

The store’s renovation has relied on a system of work trade as well, which Jeff knows well after more than 20 years as a carpenter. A new black walnut bar from an Eastern Washington mill is being installed where Ann and Tim now sit. The grocery front has been tended by a local landscaper who collaborated with Jeff and Lee in a work trade. This symbiosis just seemed an obvious answer to Jeff.

“It’s not like I thought about it ahead,” Jeff said. “It just made sense. If you need something done, and you have a space, and you have a product, why not offer that up to them if they want to offer up their product to you?”

One of the biggest projects Jeff and Lee have started is a collaboration between the store and local artists. As part of a promotional series, each artist — there are two in the first cycle — hand-paints 50 coffee bags, which are then filled with Seven Roasters coffee and sold in the grocery store.

The artwork on the coffee bags must be original work. Each one-pound bag sells for $21 with a cut of the profit going to the store, the artist, and a charity, which is chosen by Jeff, Lee, and the artists.

The first set of bags features Seattle artists Brandon Baker and Dave Bloomfield, longtime friends — “I guess our moms were best friends before we even knew each other,” Bloomfield said — who also share an art studio in the Greenwood district. Baker, who signs his art as Narboo, and Bloomfield, who signs his art as Starheadboy, share a kind of urban, graphic art style like that of other artists in the series’ first cycle.

“The street artists, their style kind of worked well with us because that’s kind of our similar style, not real highbrow,” Lee said. “It fit perfectly together.”

Both Bloomfield and Baker post stickers showing their work around Seattle.

“[The artists are] just trying to be ubiquitous; they want to be everywhere,” Jeff said. “And that’s kind of the strategy of this mass-produced imagery. It’s very easy to reproduce something over and over. It’s like a signature, like a signature character. You’ll start to see them all over town.”

To the left of the store’s entrance is a section of a wall preserved for hanging the artists’ personal work. Moving the gaze along the yellow wall and above the ivory cooler, brilliant hot pinks, deep but bright blues, yellows, and grays outlined in stark black surprise the viewer farther back on the same wall: a mural combining the work of the first artists.

Initially, Baker was going to apply sticker prints to the coffee bags but changed direction.

“I got inspired to do them all by hand, so I think they turned out pretty cool,” he said. “And each one is a different drawing, different character.”

Baker’s work is focused primarily on nature. If he has one at all, Baker said his signature character would be his blue owl, which represents one element of his portion of the mural. Bloomfield says he takes inspiration from anything around him.

“I grab everything,” Bloomfield said. “I definitely have some signature characters. They’re all kind of stream-of-consciousness, so they just build. I have sketchbooks filled with stuff. Like those guys [on the wall] are from 2009. So I’ll just find a character — when I get kind of burnt out on the subject I’m doing, I’ll just open up an old sketchbook, and find an old character, and bring new life to him.”

The grocery is a project that has a different benefit for each of its participants. For Jeff and Lee, it’s about the common space and exposure for Lee’s coffee and the artists. For the Roods, it’s also a common space to grab a cup of coffee and relax. For Bloomfield, it’s another new opportunity.

“I’ve just noticed, whatever comes out of it, it’s … going to be probably the most crazy, weird opportunity that I ever saw,” he said. “Pretty much every show I’ve ever had, there’s always some opportunity that comes out … that will propel me to the next thing. So I just kind of flow with it now, just try and keep up.”

The store’s walls are a mixture of past and present, with only a few square feet of the farmhouse pastel yellow covered by the new graphic art. As cycles of artists come through the grocery and stock its shelves with new, plump coffee bags, the yellow will slowly recede and give way to artwork.

Seven Roasters coffee is in the air and on the bar. Sweet, tangy, warm. Very Hawaii. Very Seattle.

Reach Features Editor Lauren Kronebusch at features@dailyuw.com.

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