Coffee culture in Anacortes

Coffee kiosk1

On the west coast, the coffee culture is rich, full bodied and intense. They know their coffee, and they like it. Which calls into question why Starbucks remains in business in these here parts. Maybe they’re rooting for the home team that conquered the world.

On our first trip to Washington State, years ago, we toured the Olympic Peninsula, which remains one of the great experiences of my life. Gargantuan cedars and dripping rainforests and vast thundering beaches strewn with boulders and the bleached bones of dinosaurs.

At the tail end of that trip (or was it near the beginning?), in the middle of nowhere, we found ourselves driving through a Native reservation and were struck by the sight of a dilapidated roadside trailer parked on a patch of gravel. Espresso, declared a hand-painted sign. How could we resist?

In the shadowed interior, dreamcatchers hung from the plywood ceiling, posters of Native warriors were scotch taped to the corrugated tin walls. A Native girl, no more than fifteen, reluctantly rose from her stool. She was surly in the way of all fourteen-year-olds who know their time could be better spent at the mall with her pals.

Behind her stood a gleaming, brand new Italian monster at full pressure. We ordered a double espresso, a cappuccino and biscotti, all of them excellent.

Coffee kiosk2
On our first trip to Anacortes, right outside this coffee kiosk, on a Sunday morning, the middle-aged and elderly exercised their right to free speech by pacing back and forth on opposite sides of the street and holding up signs. SUPPORT OUR TROOPS was the argument on one side, MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR on the other side.
This was in 2014, when the idea of a Trump presidency would have elicited laughter on both sides of the street. In Anacortes, the exercise in free speech continues every Sunday morning.
Plywood lookout
Anacortes Veneer, which donated this slice of Douglas Fir, went under generations ago, but the roadside lookout remains. I went behind some bushes for a much-needed pee, and to get a look at the view. I was promised Fidalgo Bay in the foreground, where millions of logs were once assembled for the devouring sawmills, and Mount Baker, in its snowy cap and shawl, in the distance. But there was nothing. Just an impenetrable screen of blackberry bushes and evergreens. Revenge of the trees.

Greek coffee in Park Ex

Coffee culture is equally strong among Greeks, where it’s an essential mid-afternoon social lubricant, usually accompanied with several packs of cigarettes.

I often watched my mother read people’s fortunes in their coffee cups. Among Greeks, this is quite common. You simply turn your empty demitasse upside down on its saucer for a few minutes, to allow the coffee grounds to slide down the sides. The soothsayer (i.e. my mother) picks up the cup, turns it slowly in her hand, and closes one eye in a manner freighted with meaning.

I watched her do it plenty of times, and I could never tell if she was conning the neighbours or herself. According to her, the coffee patterns revealed everything: financial windfalls, a death in the Old Country, a meddlesome in-law, a hat trick by Jean Beliveau. Once, in the delicate language employed by adults in the presence of children, she suggested that a baby had been taken before its time. The young woman whose fortune was being told burst into tears.

My mother showed me how. It’s easy, like lying on your back, having a smoke and staring at the clouds. There goes Goofy, followed by Dolly Parton, and, bringing up the rear, a roast turkey.

Every hour or so, a freight train blasted out of a hole in the mountain and, after about a mile, enter an identical hole in the next mountain. Right in the middle, beside the railroad tracks, is Taylor’s. Mud flats as far as the eye can see and acres of oyster beds. People come from miles around for trays of oysters and buckets of beer. As they eat, their kids wander into the mud flats and sink up to their knees. Their dads, cursing with every step, come to the rescue, tugging skinny limbs from the sucking mud.
The best spots at Taylor’s, equipped with barbecues and picnic tables, are commandeered by Asians with piles of children. They toast slices of bread and grill the oysters, picking up the meat with chopsticks and slurping from the shells.
Mini lighthouse
A short drive away lies a dot on the map called Edison. If you’re in the area in February, you can enjoy the Edison Chicken Parade. “People and poultry flock to Edison to participate in this annual parade,” declares the local guidebook. Alas, the date for this year’s Chicken Parade has “yet to be determined.”
Western marine
Efthemios Demopoulos emigrated to the United States in 1907 and soon founded Anacortes Junk Company, later rechristened Marine Supply and Hardware Company, the oldest continuously operating hardware store west of the Mississippi. He did such a roaring trade with commercial boats, that in 1956 he donated ten city blocks to Anacortes. On our first visit, I saw an attenuated descendant sitting behind a desk and surveying his vast emporium of useful and useless ware. The place had definitely come down. It also pandered to tourists such as myself. On this last visit, I asked about the founding family. The descendant sold up three years ago, I was told. But inside, in the older part of the store, glows a small glass shrine to Efthemios.
At dusk and especially on Sunday evenings, Anacortes is Nowheresville, U.S.A. We like places just like this — endlessly fascinating in their particularity and eccentricity. It’s our third trip to Anacortes. We’ll be back.

Anacortes, Washington

Bull boat angle
This brute of a boat appeared as we rounded the corner . It was like being punched in the nose.

More than 3,500 kilometres from Montreal, at a reception in a condominium overlooking the San Juan Islands in Washington State, where we sat during the late afternoon and watched barges loaded with granite heading south, possibly to Seattle, and ferries bound for the islands and Victoria slip from the dock below, a woman handed me a book she’d been saving for just this moment — Cuisines Collectives MultiEthniques: La Richesse de Parc-Extension.

It’s like a homecoming far from home. And, except for mis-spelling Park Ex, the book is perfect. So is the woman, the lovely Theresa, who grew up in Park Ex at the same time as I did, but who attended Catholic schools and therefore moved in different social circles from mine.

The book is exhaustive, more than 200 recipes, but only one for salmon (Saumon à l’oriental, with the inevitable ginger and unexpected cayenne). Just as well, for the wild salmon are being depleted. Anacortes, where we’re staying for a few days, once canned more salmon than any other place on earth. In season, the rivers positively boiled with the fish.

On our second night in Anacortes, which lies about halfway between Vancouver and Seattle, we bought some wild sockeye, what’s left of it in the wild, and feasted.

Puget salmon
Without a trace of irony, the old part of Anacortes celebrates an era when salmon was wealth. Trash bins dotting the neighbourhood replicate now long-forgotten brands of salmon.

Red breast

Trident salmonRevenue salmon2


The day before we arrived in Anacortes, we endured a terribly long drive from the Seattle airport to Anacortes. No one had warned us of the risks of driving by Everett, which lies about halfway along the route. It was a Friday afternoon, around the time when the massive Boeing plant in Everett releases a torrent of people and cars in every direction. Traffic is bumper-to-bumper on roadways for miles around, and this near-gridlock added more than an hour to our drive.

I’ve never seen the plant, but our hosts informed us that, at 13.3 million cubic metres, it’s the largest building, by volume, in the world. It covers nearly a hundred acres and employs 1.8 million people. It’s so big that it has a pack of bloodhounds for locating missing visitors, and is built over a titanium mine and aluminum smelter, for the convenience of making aerospace components in-house.

And yet, for such a massive operation, the Everett Boeing plant has just one bathroom, which means the lineups must be positively horrendous. To my mind, this is bad planning, and perhaps explains why their airplanes keep falling from the sky.

Bull boatB+W
I loaded up my Brownie and packed lots of extra film for our trip to Anacortes. As soon as we returned to Montreal, I rushed to the pharmacy and asked for “doubles.” 

Someone from Anacortes has to tell you about Lovric’s, otherwise you’ll drive right past the place on your way to the ferry terminal. Guidebooks don’t mention Lovric’s Seacraft, but it may well be the best reason to visit Anacortes. This was our third visit to Anacortes, and we made the pilgrimage to Lovric’s on the first day.

The place was founded in 1965 by Anton Lovric, a Croatian naval architect and marine engineer. He died some time ago, and the business is now run by his widow and two sons.

Lovric spool
Lovric’s is a theme park of broken-down machinery, flaking paint, ancient cogs and gears underfoot, and massive winches bolted into the cliff and meant for hauling ships from the sea.

Lovric silosLovric trucks

Lovric rusted tanker

But here’s what makes Lovric’s interesting. Two years later after Anton Lovric founded it, needing a northern breakwater, he beached an old four-masted schooner, La Merced, alongside the business and filled its hold with sand. Before its retirement, La Merced had spent decades sailing up and down the coast and across the Pacific. At its last commercial gig, when La Merced was slow and arthritic, La Merced served as a floating fish cannery in Alaska.

In the fifty years since, mature trees have burst through the schooner’s decks. Bushes and vines sprout from holes in the wooden hull. And alongside its vast haunches, like an invisible gas, an air of decay and menace.

Lovric ship from top
The breakwater at Lovric’s, formerly a four-masted schooner, protects the pleasure craft moored beside it. 
Lovric prow1
The schooner’s busted prow.

Long before he emigrated to Anacortes, during the Second World War, the Nazis sent Lovric for hard labour at Dachau. I wonder, did the prisoners share memories of pre-war meals and cigarettes under starlit skies, the breath of their beloved warm in their ears?

And did they leave with a hunger to get on with life, but also with a knowledge of a darkness, at the northern edge of things, a knowledge that never goes away?