There’s a little bit of Seattle on the corner of almost every city around the world. I am, of course, referring to Starbucks, the now ubiquitous coffee chain that got its start in Seattle. But before Starbucks was Starbucks, it was just another Seattle coffee shop that was trying to change American coffee culture.

As early as the 1930s, America was obsessed with coffee. Instant coffee that is. The flakes that eventually got our troops through two world wars was the fuel of choice for nearly all Americans. Thus, coffee companies competed on price, not quality.

Café Encore, Seattle's first coffee shop
Café Encore, Seattle’s first coffee shop

That began to change in the 1950s as the burgeoning counterculture movement was starting to take shape from our postwar “American dream.” Seattle’s first coffee shop opened in the summer of 1958, a place called Café Encore on upper University Way. It was opened by a New York transplant named Rusty Thomas.

In Europe, coffee shop culture had long flourished, many were known as “penny universities” because for just the price of a cup of coffee, you could participate in the intellectual gathering place the shops became. When that culture first took root in Seattle, it drew on a different part of the local culture. Within a few days of Café Encore’s opening, local folk singers started dropping by to perform. Thomas let them perform for tips, and more singers soon realized that the coffee shop was a great platform for exposure to a wider audience.

Seattle was a natural place for folk music to flourish. American folk music often draws on traditional sounds, and the Seattle area has long had a special tie with the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest. With the perceived vacuum in popular music in the late ’50s, folk music began to fill that void in Seattle.

Recognizing that performances were attractions for coffee shops, as more coffee shops opened, more of them had dedicated performance spaces where lineups of folk singers would be booked.

As Seattle’s coffee shops and Seattle’s folk movement grew up together, they mutually benefited from each other. However, as we know today, the coffee movement endured much more than the folk did. By the mid-1960s, coffee shops were becoming quite successful and in booking performances, they began to be swayed by not just local music movements but national ones. The biggest national movement was, of course, the British Invasion. Folk was too small-time for Seattle’s coffee shops now. The coffee shops that didn’t adapt died out and were replaced by a new wave.

A coffee shop in Seattle today
A coffee shop in Seattle today

From there, coffee and music diverged in Seattle. Coffee found new heights through changing American tastes via the Italian coffee styles which fueled the rise of Starbucks, and Seattle’s next and more famous music movement, grunge, grew up in a very different type of venue.

Nevertheless, there is always a place for them to be together. Today, Seattle is America’s biggest coffee consumer per capita and there are plenty of (non-Starbucks) coffee shops to serve that demand. Many of those places have room for music.

Even folk music has managed to continue to carve out a special place in Seattle. In the ’70s, there was a resurgence in interest in Native culture and folk music was a part of that. One of Seattle’s most popular free festivals is the Northwest Folklife Festival held every Memorial Day weekend. It’s certainly a festival worth supporting for Seattle locals.

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