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Wednesday, May 10, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cafe Allegro celebrates 25 years as center of a community

Special to The Seattle Times

It's easy to miss. But go down the alley behind The Magus bookstore on Northeast 42nd Street in the University District, and you'll discover it. Cafe Allegro.

Located in a former mortuary garage, the Allegro has the distinction of being the first Seattle coffeehouse of the current incarnation to specialize in espresso brews. And probably the only one to have a coffee blend - Starbucks' "Espresso" - made exclusively for it.

Founding owner Dave Olsen, now senior vice president for corporate social responsibility at Starbucks, bought the building in December 1974 to create "the consummate coffee experience." Five months later, he opened his doors to the public and promptly had his vision dismantled. "When I slid that first cup of coffee over the counter to the customer, I realized this had nothing to do with some perfect cup of coffee but everything to do with the person I was serving," said Olsen.

As Cafe Allegro celebrates its 25th anniversary today, Olsen's insight about its role as a people place still applies. Only much more so. Over the past quarter-century, it has attracted a diverse community of adherents - they don't think of themselves as customers - who have come to regard the place as theirs.

Take Brian Taylor, who has written his five-volume epic poem, "Cantata on Western Avenue," at the Allegro. Taylor is a permanent morning fixture at the cafe, his table clearly marked with the nameplate "Poet's Corner," an allusion to its Westminster Abbey counterpart.

A self-confessed creature of habit, Taylor walks to the Allegro every morning, usually arriving 15 minutes before opening time at 6:30 a.m. When an audacious customer once challenged Taylor's claim to his space, they nearly came to blows. "I had to explain the protocol to the unknowing chap," said Taylor, tongue only slightly in cheek.

Then there's artist and teacher Kim Newall, some of whose artwork hangs permanently in the cafe. She started coming here 23 years ago when she was a student at the University of Washington. These days, she drives from her home on Vashon Island just to visit the Allegro. "I come here to have a public place to be private," said Newall. "I write and draw. It's a creative oasis for me."

When a fire closed the cafe for two weeks in 1989, customers were undeterred. They bought their coffee around the corner and sat on the wooden benches outside the Allegro. "It shows just how strong the community is when people will come to a place even when it's not open," said Taylor.

Perhaps the most moving example of devotion to the Allegro concerns Geoffrey Dyer. Dyer was the kind of person who would attract half a dozen people to his table, none of whom would otherwise have anything to do with one another. At 33, he was diagnosed with cancer in one eye. The day before he died, he had his wife drive him to the parking lot outside the Allegro, so he could sit and pay his respects to the place one last time.

Several marriages also have been celebrated at the Allegro, including that of current co-owner Nathaniel Jackson. When he and his wife, Sandi Chelan, were married in the nearby university herb garden in 1989, the Allegro was the venue for the reception. Hundreds of people gathered for the occasion, which turned into a 12-hour community festival that overflowed into the alley and adjacent parking lot.

If the Allegro is like a shrine with its faithful devotees, then Jackson is its high priest. Or, as he prefers, a "steward." Standing 5-foot-4, with a rounded face and salt-and-pepper curly hair, he is nearly hidden behind the stainless-steel espresso machine. But don't be fooled. His presence permeates every nook and cranny of this three-room, two-level place.

With a penchant for indirection and sparkle in his eye, Jackson is an expert in what one customer calls "the two-minute exchange."

When Jackson first walked into the cafe in 1975 and volunteered to work for nothing, Olsen didn't know quite what to make of him. But Jackson felt an instant, deep connection with the place and wanted to stay. He was clear then about one thing, and still is. "I never had any ambitions, other than being in the company of others," he said. "And this was a great place to do that."

Cafe Allegro's 25th anniversary party will be Saturday all day, with a potluck at 4 p.m.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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