Uncle Ike’s pot store and Unity on Union recovery bookstore negotiate being neighbors.
There’s an interesting culture clash going on at the corner of 23rd Avenue and East Union Street in Seattle.
A fast and loose entrepreneur who has made his mark in the legal weed business and a thoughtful woman in the business of recovery are facing off on the sidewalk.
The corner notorious for drug deals and shootings has become downright legit since the opening of Uncle Ike’s, the top-selling pot store in the state, according to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. Traffic snakes in and out of the parking lot. Cabs and buses pause to release eager customers. A neon sign beckons, “Hey Stoner! Around the corner.”
Across the street to the south, a liquor store does a brisk business. You’re just a crosswalk away from whatever your proverbial poison may be.
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Meanwhile, a half a block away, the Unity on Union Bookstore does a slow and steady business, tending to those whose lives have been upended by addiction.
In the five years since Carol Latimer opened the bookstore, she has watched the corner go from a spot people avoided, to one they show off to visitors like it was Pike Place Market: The giant, retro Uncle Ike’s sign, the lines of people waiting to get at the goods.
Latimer started to feel like her store — and the heart and mission behind it — was getting lost in all that smoke.
“I don’t know why I took it so hard,” she said the other day as we sat in the store’s open, light-filled room. “But I was really offended when Ike’s moved in with the flashing lights. It just seemed really aggressive, and I feel a call to action to let people know there is recovery in the Central District and in the whole city of Seattle.”
So Latimer got a sign of her own.
A few weeks ago, she had two sandwich boards made up, and planted one of them on the corner next to Uncle Ike’s, just to let the crowds know that there was help nearby if they ever needed it.
“Recovery is just 12 steps away!” the sign reads. (It’s actually more like 40, but that doesn’t have the same resonance.)
She chained it to the bicycle rack in front of Uncle Ike’s to keep it secure. (“Even an ashcan got stolen,” she said)
Not long after, she got an email from Ian Eisenberg, who owns Uncle Ike’s (and several properties in the neighborhood), telling her that he saw someone “having a difficult time” locking up a bike.
Latimer was dubious, and maybe with good reason. Eisenberg has been known to selectively use the letter of the law to his advantage. He once opened a game arcade to prevent a rival from opening a pot store within 1,000 feet of a place where kids congregated. He also sued to stop sign-spinners advertising another pot store down the street.
When she got an email from the Seattle Department of Transportation, citing the laws against using bike racks for anything other than bikes, Latimer removed the sign from the rack, but has kept it on the corner. (Eisenberg had used the city’s “Find It, Fix It” app to report the sign.)
She doesn’t want to be seen as a scold, as the neighboring store owner who looks at the thriving legal-weed business and sees red. She doesn’t even like being referred to as “Latimer,” because it feels too stiff and formal. Everyone knows her as “Carol.”
“I am not looking for a fight,” she said. “I was a pothead. I drank and I used. I’m a recovering alcoholic. Sober 18 years.”
The bookstore is home to 14-15 weekly recovery meetings, drawing some 400 people through its doors. Latimer also rents the building’s apartments to people who can only move in when they have been sober for six months.
Eisenberg pointed out that historically the Central area was drowning in watering holes. “There were two bars on every corner 50 years ago,” he said. “Back when this stuff was built it was all taverns.”
In that context, he said, his business may be an improvement.
“Look back on your life,” he told me. “Every dumb thing I’ve ever done in my life, I have always started with alcohol.”
That said, he would be happy to meet with Latimer, visit her store and get to know her as “Carol.” The two even made plans to get coffee.
“And if she ever wants to put recovery pamphlets in our shop,” Eisenberg said, “she’s more than welcome.”
If that isn’t enough, well, Carol and her bookstore are just steps away.
Just follow the signs.