DOORS TAKE A LOOK! PRICES TO PLEASE! Welcome to Lake Union St. Vinnie’s

By Paul Dorpat, edited by Sally Anderson.

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(click on photos to enlarge)

While certainly welcoming, perhaps broader meanings for this sign come from within. It reads: “DOORS Take a Look! Prices to Please!” and hangs beside a ceramic grouping of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus. I was of a habit to silently continue: “Please remember, I am the way, the truth, and the light.” Or: “Please knock and it shall be open unto you.” Or both.

The friendly if surreal tableau was a fixture at St. Vincent De Paul on Fairview Avenue along the southeast shore of Lake Union. It was propped overhead on beams and set about halfway down the “Grand Boulevard” on the left side. If you ignored the arrow and took a sharp left instead, eventually, if you watched your head and kept going, you might reach a curtained inner sanctum in which were kept the damaged statues. (The pictured group of busts on pedestals printed here is a simulation only.)

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Roman busts on pedestals

I have recently recovered – stumbled upon – Kodachrome slides of the sign with John and Jesus, as well as four other St. Vinnie’s details from a 1967 visit. I’ll use them now to reflect on the pleasures and past uses of one fondly remembered thrift store.

It may also be well-timed. Some of us – but not all – are now more likely to need a discount and ready to also “use the used,” which is to recycle other people’s stuff. Sadly, this fountain of surplus value – Our St. Vinnie’s by the Lake, which was one of the best – is long gone, replaced by yet another bistro. (Here I recall when it was commonly claimed, at least, that there were only a half-dozen “good restaurants” in Seattle.)

Founded in Paris in 1833, the Catholic lay charity first came to Seattle in 1920. It is better known as St. Vinney’s, or Vinney’s, or Vinnie’s, or Vinny’s for short, and in mind’s-eye, at least, the spelling does not matter. When I first visited this St. Vincent De Paul it seemed to be slipping into Lake Union. But for all the sloping and the Katzenjammer confusion of its covered but open-air sheds, the place was overbuilt with some posts the size of flying buttresses. A few of its coveys and collections were in dead-end chambers and reached carefully by a sense of smell, shadow-reading, and, again, watching for beams. There was ducking to be done, and for taller explorers chronic bending too, for at least one ceiling was under six feet high.

The place may have originated as a coal bunker. I don’t know and never asked. Everything was mysterious in its candor, so “matter of fact” strange that like a tourist in Marrakech or Brest it was best to just accept it and admire.

That first visit in 1958 was to hunt for antique furniture with Dr. Klarese Lere Dorpat, my sister-in-law. Nineteen and attending college in Portland, I took a bus north to visit her and my brother Ted over a weekend. To get a feel for my adventure I took the front seat of the Greyhound next to the door and read Kerouac’s On the Road, published the year before. The driver had long sideburns and an existential confidence. I imagined him as Dean Moriarty, Kerouac’s fictional name for Neal Cassady.

Soon after I arrived, my sister-in-law advised, “Let’s go picking.” As a recently matriculated MD from the UW Medical School, Klarese needed some good furniture cheap, and since she was a smart girl of Norwegian descent who grew up in South Seattle during the Great Depression, she knew the location of the best thrift stores in town. Lots of the very best “wood” wound up at St. Vinnie’s, and my sister-in-law and brother’s apartment was artfully arranged with it. Old furniture was not so valued then because the styles of the new suburbia were modern. Antiques Roadshow then was the forsaken furniture dropped at the sides of streets or vacant lots in other neighborhoods or in thrift stores.

Thrift stores were generally not moneymaking enterprises then, as many are now. Or at least they did not seem to be. We believed that their primary purpose was to help the customer – even temporarily poor young physicians. I think this attitude came out of the  Depression, when helping others was considered more ennobling than in times of glut or surplus value, when it is expected that everyone should have figured out how to grab some of it for themselves by their bootstraps.

We also imagined that the skimpy sums removed from our pockets traveled primarily to benefit the Joe’s who worked at the place. Some of the help was cheerful and some furtive. As anyone would learn, if you frequented St. Vinnie’s you got to know the workers. This personal side was ordinarily both pleasing and advantageous. The workers, it turned out, could discreetly digress on what to charge. It depended upon how they liked you – I imagine. It was the kind of endearing corruption we admired for the loose wisdom in it – sometimes the compassion. We never saw any administrators, unless they were undercover. This assumption was probably wrong.

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Stephen L. with record

There was much else besides furniture, of course, to be got or just goggled at, at St. Vinnie’s. In the accompanying “Then and Now” feature this essay introduces, we meet a friend, novelist Stephen Lundgren, who was a master at using the old St. Vinnie’s and continues as one of its best fantasists now that it is no more.

Here you see Stephen holding one of the actual “sides” (an older hip name for “records”) he found at St. Vinnie’s many years ago. If you ask him, he can imagine for you the entire life course of this one medium-size 78-rpm record, from its manufacture to this presentation of it near the site where Werner Lenggenhager recorded the step-lightly character heading down the Grand Boulevard of St. Vinnie’s into its mysteries in 1953. That you will also see in the accompanying “Then and Now” feature.

After that first visit with Klarese I did not return to St. Vinnie’s until moving to Seattle for good in 1966. Then I became not a regular but a fancier of the place, attending at least seasonally for the adventure.

In my mid-teens, soon after I gave up hoarding the money made from my newspaper routes, I decided that I had best become a minimalist. (There was little motivation in me to waste time making money when I could probably do well enough on little of it.) What remains, before forwarding the reader to the “Then and Now” essay on St. Vinnie’s published in Pacific Northwest Magazine on December 30, 2007, are recollections of two more St. Vinnie’s visits, both in 1967.

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Double exposure sinks

Aside from the statues, the illustrations here were all recorded on an injured 35mm camera with a good lens but held together with a rubber band. I purchased it at St. Vinnie’s for two dollars. The gearing on the forward spool was ungoverned – which gave the freedom, or accident, to make double exposures, like that of the enamel bathroom fixtures printed here.

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Hose
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Shards

That may have been an accident; I no longer remember. But I still enjoy the composition of these details. They may remind one of the early work of an enthused student – consciously “arty,” not accidentally.  Their formal delights also show humor and a touch of vanity in their mundane subjects: broken glass, snarled hose, sinks, toilets, and a self-portrait reflecting from a window that interrupts a row of salvaged windows that are for sale, like everything else – except the statues.

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Self portrait

Also in 1967, but on a different day, the three-quarter-size Plaster of Paris statue of Jesus dragging his cross to Golgotha was somehow dragged from the thrift store to the Helix office on Harvard Avenue a block south of the University Bridge. There it was set next to the front door facing the sidewalk and close to the window. The mildly psychedelic frame (printed here near the bottom) is part of a design included on the back cover of an issue of Helix from the fall of 1968. The story of how I came to purchase the statue and then also unload it will, I hope, be of interest to some.

On that visit to the “sacred world of bargains” I noticed a small break in a wide curtain hanging from a long and high rod spanning two posts. Separating the curtain, I was jolted by what confronted me. Although there was neither any sign nor person preventing a visit into this makeshift room, it was, I sensed, almost certainly not open to the public. Behind the curtain were a dozen or more statues facing me like a prolific Christmas tableau without the sheep or oxen. All were injured and held there, I imagined, either for mending or burial. The statue of Christ carrying the cross had a busted left hand cupped forward – the hand not steadying the cross.

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Piano drop in The Helix

In a kind of study of comparative religion printed as an essay in Helix, I alluded to that busted hand, comparing it to both the broken body of the Greek god of music, Orpheus, who was torn to pieces by the maenads, and the broken furniture of a piano dropped from a helicopter in the Spring of 1968, fortunately onto the soft grass of Larry Vanover’s farmyard near Duvall and not onto the heads of the about 3,000 persons who came for the instantly legendary Piano Drop. The event was also a benefit for both Helix and “listener-supported” KRAB Radio.

Before the piano was let go – and my heart and throat rose together to my throat – Country Joe and the Fish played several of their rock ballads from a hill above the woodpile, which was the designated target for the falling piano, and which it fortunately missed.

In the Helix essay, the Christian and Greek divine analogies were used to describe the enthused ravaging of the piano’s wreckage by the devoted seconds after it plopped in grass. In the accompanying Helix centerfold from May 9, 1968, you may be able to see through the color effects many of the principals: the crowd, the helicopter, the piano, Country Joe (I photographed him at the airport with the paperless core of a toilet roll in his eye), and those sublime pickers tearing the busted piano to pieces.

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Christ statue frame

Returning now to St. Vinnie’s and the statues behind the curtain: I was eventually observed by one of the charity’s employees ¬– fortunately a worker I knew and who knew me from several visits. I expressed an interest in the statue that depicted Christ carrying the cross and was told that none of the statues was for sale. However, after a pause, he said with a smile: “Except to priests . . . If you return as a priest, I’ll sell it to you.” I answered, “I can do that.”

Because my dad was a retired Lutheran, he still had a box full of “dog collars,” and he was amused when I explained why I wanted one. He thoughtfully gave me one that was easy to attach at the back of the neck and told me to hold on to it as a souvenir of my ordination. This was like him. The Reverend Theodore Erdman Dorpat was more of a player or performer than a preacher.

With my neck properly wrapped, and wearing black shoes, black pants, and a long black borrowed raincoat, I returned to St. Vinnie’s and again presented myself to my friendly advisor there, now able to say: “I’ve been ordained.” Without hesitation he separated the curtain and sold Christ to me for $35, a dear sum then but one that he may have needed.

Two years and a few months later, when Helix went the way of most efforts that depend upon collective enthusiasm and a street culture, I sold the sacred plaster to local restaurateur Gerry Kingen, who was then scrounging for kitsch with which to decorate his Lake Union Café. It was nearby Helix – on the other side of Eastlake Avenue. Gerry gave me $100 for it, which was, I think, when currencies are compared, more than the biblical 13 pieces of silver.

Soon real priests arrived. Visiting the Lake Union Café for lunch, two clerics were offended that a figure of Christ was being shown out-of-church and in a secular place where they would order a dip sandwich. The statue was promptly removed, but not returned to me. I had by then long spent my pieces of silver in a devotion to basic needs, including Kodachrome, and security on a post-hip future about which I then had no inkling.

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Butterfly Helix Cover

3 thoughts on “DOORS TAKE A LOOK! PRICES TO PLEASE! Welcome to Lake Union St. Vinnie’s”

  1. Wow! I haven’t seen a cover of a Helix since selling them on the Ave, at the intersection of 43rd and U-Way, back in the day!

  2. In the 60’s, my dad and I would go to St Vinnie’s to wander and dig through the incredible assortment of wonders there. Thanks for refreshing my memories, Paul!

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