Sketch Review: Seattle’s Best Dive Bars

The other day I took my car in for its usual maintenance and wandered into downtown Corvallis. I went into the local used bookstore to browse when I found the most out of place book – “Seattle’s Best Dive Bars” by Mike Seeley. I am sure the story of how this book came to be in Corvallis (212 miles from Seattle) would be interesting, but unfortunately, I lack the superpower to read an object’s past. This book did have the power to transport me back to the Seattle of my young adulthood though and give me a new appreciation for this post’s title drawing.

The 2000s were an odd time in Seattle. Microsoft and Starbucks (plus an emerging Amazon) had brought newfound wealth to the area and a flood of young professionals eager to get a cut of the pie. Yet the city was just coming out of the grunge music scene, headlined by Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, that had been inspired by the rough, working class Seattle that had stumbled out of the near collapse of Boeing in the 1970s. Coming out in 2009, Seeley’s book captures this odd mixture of grunge and wealth saying, “But at times, the Comet unwittingly serves as a clubhouse for the worst Capitol Hill has to offer. I’m not talking about hardened criminals or people looking to start shit…I’m talking about the guy with the pierced eyebrows, manscara, pageboy hat and v-neck t-shirt who pretends to not know which friend’s couch he was going to crash on that night.” This is how I remember the zeitgeist of Seattle at the time. Everyone had the grunge look, even if they were hipster trust fund kids.

What makes this book an interesting read was that it goes beyond hipster stereotypes to document the full spectrum of Seattle’s dive bars that made up this dichotomy, and Seeley really put in the leg work to find a bar for as many communities as he could. There are bars were, “It’s ominous to approach a bar and there’s a paddy wagon parked across the street. It’s even more ominous sign when such an occurrence isn’t all that rare at said bar.” and bars that are “…the rarest of creatures: a white-collar dive…Here, doctors, lawyers, brokers, writers, professors, and students commiserate before Huskie home games or during class reunions.” Then there are bars that are gathering hubs for the LGBTQ and BIPOC communities. Finally there are bars for miscellaneous affinity groups like sports fans, frat bros and neighborhood hubs.

My major critique of Seeley’s book is that he clearly shows his north Seattle bias as north Seattle contains 45% of the bars while south Seattle contains 35% of the bars. I am leaving Downtown (21% of bars in the book) as neutral ground as it sits between north and south Seattle and is a mixture of both. Yet Seeley clearly has a love for north Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood and its population of sailors, opening this book there saying, “If you want to distill Seattle’s drinkers into an extremely pure weight class system, you might say there are two types: sailors and everyone else.” As I continued reading Seeley’s entry on the hard drinking sailors of Ballard I was struck by a sense of déjà vu.

Last December, I was visiting family in Seattle and decided to go to Ballard as I had not been there in a while. I parked on Shilshole Avenue and began my walk along the businesses on Ballard Avenue, which includes another dive bar on Seeley’s list (Hatties Hat). Not finding anything I particularly wanted to draw I decided to walk down Market Street to the Ballard Locks. These locks allow passage for watercraft between the freshwater canals and lakes in Seattle to the salty Puget Sound. Besides the interest of watching boats pass through the locks they are surrounded by botanical gardens built by the lock’s first superintendent. They are also one of the first places I went drawing with the Seattle Urban Sketchers.

While I did a few quick sketches of the boats passing through the locks, the view that ultimately drew my attention was the sign for the Lock Spot right outside the entrance to the locks. On reading the opening entry to Seattle’s Best Dive bars, I realized I had just drawn the scene that the book opens with saying, “The sailors of Shilshole Bay Marine, many of whom live aboard their vessels year-round, have it pretty good. About a mile from where they are moored, near Ballard Locks, is a remodeled government-run liquor store that, tellingly, is the state’s most lucrative, as well as two sit-down drinking establishments, the Lock Spot [sic] and the Sloop Tavern. Both serve good fish and chips and both are occasionally graced by the presence of a Deadliest Catch member, but that’s where the similarities end. And given that the Lockspot serves hard booze and the Sloop only beer and wine…they compliment one another nicely.”

While the walk from the Shilshole Bay Marine is from the other side of the locks from the way I came, this passage describes my walk surprisingly well, minus the alcohol. Indeed plenty of marines and shipyards exist on the Seattle side of the Locks too. My most startling realization though is that I captured both of these spots in this single drawing. The Lockspot is the most obvious with its giant fish sign, but this view also includes the Sloop Tavern in the background of this painting with the green and orange paint job on its side.

Yet as I looked at this view, I realized that it includes many other wonderful Seattle time capsules. The most obvious is the rock-climbing wall behind the Lock Spot. This is actually one of the first rock climbing gyms in Seattle. While it is known today as Edge Works it was founded in 1995 as Stone Garden. It has an extensive indoor space, but its most distinctive feature is the massive outdoor wall featured in this painting. As I looked deeper into this paining, I realized that the green and orange blur on the Sloop is my attempt to capture a Henry mural on the side of the Sloop Tavern, which is a major cultural touchstone for Seattle. And a final spot that may not seem significant is the Taco Time across from Edge Works. While a Taco Time may not seem significant this one has existed on this sport for as long as I can remember, and it has a surprising amount of character after many years of addons and additions.

While this painting seemed special to me while I was creating it I had not realized how significant it was until so much later and it may not have happened without the spark of Seeley’s book written almost 14 years ago. It is easy to get dishearten in a world where we can often feel insignificant. Yet we can never truly know the impact we have on the world as our gifts to the world resonate through time and reveal a far greater depth of meaning crammed into a single street view than we could ever imagine. Our lives and the places we lead them are far larger and intersecting than we know and there are as many stories about them as there are people to tell them.

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