Mod Curio, the late, great design store in Tacoma’s theater district, was one of the most well-conceived Spaceworks projects in the program’s five-year history. Spaceworks, if you haven’t heard, is Tacoma’s celebrated arts program connecting creative entrepreneurs with vacant retail space for low-cost or rent-free terms of 6 months with the goal of helping artists become lease-paying business owners. After being vetted and awarded a project venue, Mod Curio owners Jon and Heather Almeda poured more than half a year and copious amounts of their own money, design talent and effort into shocking a dead commercial space back to life. In the process of creating a singularly beautiful and well-kept shop, they knit themselves into the very soul fabric of downtown. Then, when they were ready to transition into paying tenants the property owner, Pioneer Human Services, declined to offer them a lease. Instead, they took back the storefront for administrative office space.
It’s part of the risk, but it sure ain’t pretty.
Speaking as a neighbor (I own a business two doors down In the same building), the now-vacant storefront is worse than a graveyard. It’s hard finding decent neighbors. But beyond that the Almedas were idealists: hardworking, committed creatives who welcomed every person who filled their doorway on this sometimes troubled downtown street. Their predecessor in the spot, artist Dion Thomas, had broken new ground with his Spaceworks project, the Gallery of Ambition; a high-flying, almost spiritual experiment that brought together hi-and-lo art and diverse people of every age – but especially youth – to engage with art, design and fashion at street level. When Dion decided to move on and plant seeds of social change around the city, my heart sank; it seemed unlikely anyone could again bring such a high note of unity and creativity to our block.
Then came Mod Curio – lightning strikes twice. It must be said that on this block graced by the Pantages Theater and some of the most gorgeous historic architecture in town, retail traffic is sluggish owing to low density, and to being around the corner (and half a block uphill) from the more-bustling Antique Row. It takes a certain personality (tenacious, optimistic, perhaps a bit foolish) to slug it out through the thin times. For artists, owning a business in this pocket is a labor of love – no one gets rich, the motivation is more about building relationships and culture, “doing it for Tacoma”, and a clear preference for community that is gritty, vibrant and real over that which is plastic, antiseptic and safe. The buildings on our side of the block are all transitional housing; in the 20 months I’ve been here the tenants have been overwhelmingly positive and involved neighbors. They phone me if my sandwich board is left outside, and have been known to scold bus commuters who put cigarette butts (or their own butts) in the planters. I help them with their succulents, and plants for their friends moving on to a new life. Mod Curio quickly developed the same good relations. Both of us were surprised and moved by the number of residents who came in to say, Thanks for putting something nice into these spaces that have been trashed-out for years. For a social services agency to swap out a lively, friendly storefront in favor of a deskscape – the real estate equivalent of a cold stare – is ironic, to say the least.
Last summer, I watched as the Almedas built out their space (one of those impossible spots that’s half-sunken below the sidewalk) and couldn’t help but smile as it became clear what they were up to – not just another retail store, but something special, artisanal. By the time of their grand opening in the fall, the smile had turned into a shit-eating grin…How lucky was I to have hit the awesome neighbor jackpot! For their brilliant, pristine showcase, they handmade and presented objects that would look right at home in New York or San Francisco: lustrous vintage radios refitted with blaster bluetooth; hand-thrown pinky-size ceramic pots; black-and-white photography (both are professional photographers); and gorgeous, blowsy paintings all amazingly well done. It was crushing to see that taken away for office space.
I am still shocked to see the Almedas go, sad for Tacoma, and sorry for myself. Disappointed that my shop, Moss + Mineral, is once again left to anchor this pretty block in the theater district flanked by a vacant bail bond office and an unfinished donut shop. It feels a bit like a D-I-Y experiment. I paid the City $80 for a gardening permit to move their planters 10ft. from by the bus stop where they were used as weed-filled trashcans, to in front of my shop where again this year they will be filled with herbs and vegetables free for the taking. For more than a year, I’ve asked the City to shift the three gi-normous dumpsters out front just 5ft. so they don’t block my tiny storefront. The US Open at least promised a no-brainer uptick – until it was announced that all the official activities celebrating the event – for all 5 days – will be held in Seattle. Seriously? With a convention center, the Tacoma Dome, world-class museums, a revamped waterfront – we couldn’t find a way to host one reception? How embarrassing.
When will Tacoma promote itself as a real city? For the arts and beyond, it’s impossible to calculate the cost to Pierce County for having rolled over on the golf championship. There’s a reason why cities like San Diego and San Francisco lobby for years to host the US Open – it’s worth $140 million in revenues to the host city and environs. Tacoma as an arts entity offered a genuine attraction for visitors; in fact, at this moment we are poised for a perfect storm of national and international publicity for two reasons: One, the City Council has given the green light for fundraising to put the world’s largest Andy Warhol on top of the Tacoma Dome. Two, the expansion of Tacoma Art Museum (to house the unprecedented gift of a major art collection by German benefactors) has transformed the landscape and ramped up the cultural activity of downtown – it has an epicenter now; or, as Gertrude Stein would say, There’s a there there. In essence, we just lost millions of dollars in free advertising. The US Open was like a hole-in-one soaring in out of nowhere, but losing its arc right over the cup.
When will our urban culture support innovators such as Mod Curio, the Graffiti Garages, and the newly departed design collective REVIVE (gah!)? These are some of the freshest projects that make our sprawling downtown a focused and unique destination to visitors. Memo to property owners: creative entrepreneurs are an asset. We do it (mostly) for love. We want a strong, vibrant, dynamic community where people will come and invest their loyalty in this city – Tacoma – and not as an adjunct to Portland or Seattle. As artists, we bring a special presence and care to the neighborhoods where we plant our flag, often on precarious financial terms. We didn’t think we had to worry – yet – about the disease of malicious gentrification; about making down-and-out streets livable and attractive only to be pushed out. With the rent hysteria in Seattle, it may not be too long.*
Small businesses fail for any number of reasons: lack of experience, marketing or capital; unimaginative planning; bad location; bad timing. In this case, the usual explanations don’t apply. As far as I can see, the Almedas did everything right. And Spaceworks, for its part, provides fledgling entrepreneurs with in-depth business training (including mentoring) for a nominal fee, vastly increasing chances of success.
No doubt Heather and Jon Almeda will undertake their next project with as much verve, nerve and incredible talent as they did Mod Curio. Meanwhile, the space next door sits closed and empty. For many of us, it remains an open wound.
*Re:property owners – Rick Semple and Jori Adkins, owners and developers of the former REVIVE showroom, are Tacoma landlord/activists who have bought and fixed up an entire block of buildings in the Dome District making work studios available to artists. Besides hammering away for 12+ years to beautify the industrial sector and preserve historic buildings, they are advocates for making affordable live/work space available to artists. REVIVE was a gem – thanks for the vision, Rick and Jori.
(Lisa Kinoshita is a Tacoma-based artist and freelance writer. This article was written over the course of a few days and I can’t seem to stop adding thoughts…Your opinion is welcome here, too!)