Just a few weeks remain before Side Street Espresso closes in downtown Anchorage. But George Gee has little time for sentimentality during the morning rush. There’s too much to do.
He and his wife and co-owner, Deb Seaton, have been working through their days off, pricing everything for sale in the cozy shop. The artwork, the equipment, the furniture — all of it will soon be gone.
After 30 years, Side Street Espresso’s last day will be Sept. 30, they announced to their crestfallen clientele. A locally owned gift shop will move into the space.
Seaton said they’ve cherished the relationships they’ve built through the G Street shop, and saying goodbye won’t be easy. But she’s “happily moving into a very uncertain future,” she said. She is 69 and Gee is 80.
“I don’t want people to misunderstand, but I’m very much looking forward to it,” Seaton said. “I will grieve this, but it’s been a long time coming. It needs to happen.”
A journey’s end and a new start
The final decision to close Side Street came to Seaton and Gee during a stretch of glorious weather as summer began. It took COVID-19 to appreciate having more room to breathe.
In May, the couple both tested positive for the coronavirus and closed the shop for two weeks to isolate. Seaton, who had mild symptoms, helped Gee recover from pneumonia. As they recovered, they found themselves free of the demands of a business that had dominated their lives since 1992. Side Street has had no other employees for about the last 15 years.
“We were spending days outside of Side Street together,” Gee said.
“I would go outside,” said Seaton, a gardening enthusiast. “And I never felt so happy in all my life.”
“We’re aging, and so I want to stay healthy and well. I can’t take care of him if I’m not,” she said of her husband of nearly 30 years. “And he wants to stay healthy and well, because he doesn’t want me to take care of him.”
When they bought the business, Side Street was located a few doors down on G Street near Fifth Avenue. It moved into its current location in 1996. Over the years, it became a downtown coffee mainstay, known in part for Gee’s daily dry-erase board drawings and accompanying handwritten words, sketched in the quiet hour before the front door is unlocked. Subjects include authors, world leaders, animals and more.
Side Street’s walls have long featured young and emerging artists. For years, the display changed monthly. Behind the counter, the fridges are papered with mementos, including photos of family, former employees and notable guests. The shop’s tight seating is more like a living room, inviting more interaction than anonymity. There’s a shelf for books to leave or take, but it has never offered wireless internet.
“It would change the nature of why people are here,” Seaton said.
The atmosphere earned Side Street Espresso loyal customers and a steady stream of visitors looking for something uniquely local. In coffee-crazy Anchorage, Side Street outlived several other espresso options nearby. Regulars say it was the owners, above all, who made it different.
“My kids kind of grew up in here. I see my friends here. Sort of all different walks of life, different views of the world,” said Lance Wilber, now Anchorage’s director of public works. “It’s not the coffee shop. It’s Deb and George’s coffee shop.”
Seaton described it like a “safe house” for a broad cross section of Anchorage.
“It’s a very personal attachment we have with our people,” she said. “Sometimes they just come when they don’t know where to go.”
Seaton said she has come to realize that her customer-friends filled a void created by being separated from family in the Lower 48, a common experience in Anchorage.
“You transpose a lot of those feelings on the people that you meet every day,” she said. “You know about their kids and their family and their siblings and their shortcomings.”
An evolving downtown
Yeilyadi Olson sat at a small table alone while tourists and others filed through at about about 8:30 a.m. recently. Olson, who has been a Side Street customer since its former location decades ago, sees Side Street’s closure as part of an areawide change.
“It’s just that older Anchorage, that’s what I’ll miss,” he said. “Right now it’s one of the last ties to downtown Anchorage 25 years ago.”
Gee and Seaton, too, say they’ve seen downtown change. Several big employers, including retailers, banks and government agencies, have closed or moved. During the COVID era, many workers began to work remotely and many never returned to the office. At the bleakest moments of the pandemic, Gee said downtown felt like he might encounter the walking dead. The traveler rebound of 2021 was intense, but many professionals haven’t come back, they said.
Other pressures coincided in recent years. For a time they gave coffee freely when asked by unhoused people. The generosity became a problem when word spread. One morning, Gee recalled a line 40 deep of people waiting for free coffee. The couple said they now direct their charitable giving toward Bean’s Cafe and the Food Bank of Alaska instead.
For Seaton, downtown’s next great challenge is underway right outside their front windows. She said she thinks the planned redevelopment of a block between Fourth and Fifth avenues lacks respect for historic Anchorage and could create yearslong traffic problems. Gee is hopeful big changes could somehow spur planning for a more pedestrian-oriented downtown core.
[New downtown Anchorage mural puts Alaska’s Indigenous cultures front and center]
Jana Hayenga, the owner of Cabin Fever and Quilted Raven, said she feels fortunate for the chance to take over the Side Street space. Two of her shops are moving because her leases are up in the location of the planned teardown and redevelopment nearby. Despite the change, Hayenga said she’s optimistic about the future of downtown.
“We go through peaks and valleys, this whole state,” said Hayenga, who has owned businesses in downtown Anchorage since 1985. “I kind of anticipate with excitement to see what that next generation is going to do. I think it’ll be great, wherever it is, and I hope some of it will be downtown.”
But Hayenga said something will be lost when the coffee business closes.
“When you come in, you see the owners. And that’s happening less and less in small businesses all over,” she said.
Filling the void
Seaton admits she’s a little nervous about moving on from Side Street. The couple will face financial hurdles. That’s one reason they’re selling the contents of the shop.
“We haven’t amassed a lot of wealth. I think we’ve traded wealth acquisition for the business, the people, the business of people,” she said.
One kind-hearted customer proposed looking for funding to keep the shop open, Seaton said. But that’s not the goal.
“I’m like, ‘You don’t understand. It’s time for us to go,’ ” she said.
Travers Gee, a prosecutor for the city, eyes the situation for his dad and stepmother with concern. The reality of his parents’ retirement is probably different than some imagine.
“I think that it’s easy to wish them well and imagine them gracefully retiring…,” he said. “I think that’s an easy out of looking at what the real situation is.”
Seaton and George Gee are looking forward to the upsides. Both say that includes a reconnection with one another.
“I hope to cultivate a different relationship with Deborah,” Gee said.
“We need to know each other in a different way,” Seaton said.
Both say they intend to continue finding ways to give to community causes and focus on their health. Gee said he’s thinking about writing and research he’d like to do, and recreating the contemplative moments that his dry-erase drawings made part of his routine.
“It’s not the same therapy that happens just sitting at home writing,” he said. “I’ll miss that alone time.”
Customers, too, say the closing will require adjustment.
Richard Reed, an architect who said he’s been coming to Side Street for 22 years, said the end of the month will bring an empty feeling. “They just have a magnetism that is immediate and sustaining,” he said.
Phil Shanahan, a regular customer and longtime friend, said there was a period when he’d spend 45 minutes in Side Street each morning after dropping his child at school. This fall, in addition to the coffee shop closing, his kid is headed off to college.
“I can’t handle all this change at once,” he said.
Amanda Moser said Gee once drew her on his dry-erase board when she worked as executive director of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership.
“I felt like I really arrived,” she said.
During the pandemic, she tried to stay connected with many downtown businesses, but her bond with Gee and Seaton was special. Moser’s glasses fogged and her voice stalled as she explained. During the loneliest days of the pandemic, it was Seaton and Gee who regularly checked on her, just to make sure she was doing alright.
“It is something that is not replaceable,” Moser said before walking away with her coffee. “There will be other unique coffee shops, and downtown is blessed with many coffee shops. But there’s so many special elements at this place that … I don’t think you can create it again.”