A threatening flier in the mail was all it took for Café Racer’s owner to relive one of the worst days in Seattle’s recent past.

Share story

When it came rushing back for Kurt Geissel, it wasn’t just in memories, or emotions. The symptoms were physical.

“I had sweaty palms, I was shaking, I got lightheaded,” he says. “It kicked in all this PTSD, all of a sudden.”

Geissel is the owner of Café Racer, a bar and restaurant in the U District. It’s been four years since it was the site of a mass shooting, when a mentally ill man shot and killed four people in the friendly bar, execution-style, and then fled, sparking a citywide manhunt before he killed another woman and eventually himself.

Café Racer concert Sunday

Café Racer is taking part in the Concert Across America to End Gun Violence, an event planned before Friday’s mass shooting in Burlington, Skagit County.

1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the cafe at 5828 Roosevelt Way N.E., Seattle.

The concert is free, and all ages are welcome.

Proceeds will go to Café Racer and Stop Handgun Violence.

When Geissel opened up a letter Friday morning, the latest mass shooting, in Burlington, hadn’t happened yet. So he wasn’t thinking of any of this. It was addressed to “Gun Control Concert, Café Racer,” which seemed perfectly normal to Geissel because this Sunday, from 1 to 4 p.m., the café is hosting one of 350 shows nationwide as part of the Concert Across America to End Gun Violence.

But inside the envelope wasn’t information about the concert. It was a threat.

“Hey all you liberal (blanks) … gun control means use both hands!” it starts out.

The mailer features a photo of Jackson Browne, who is headlining one of the anti-gun-violence shows in New York and has become the face of the festival.

“We’re gunna drill this (blank) right between the eyes,” it says.

It goes on to issue various insults and threats before finishing with “God guns & guts make America great, let’s keep all three!”

That this landed in still-fragile Café Racer was like ripping a bandage off a fresh wound.

“Did we get this because of what happened here?” Geissel said, tearing up. “Who would send a gun threat to a place where four people were killed by gun violence? It’s unimaginable.”

Geissel called me to tell me about the mailer because, he said, “these things need to be talked about.” But it wasn’t an easy conversation.

He arrived at his café that Wednesday morning in 2012 just as paramedics were rushing bodies out. The blood, the lost friends and the subsequent guilt at not being there led him to three years of therapy and post-traumatic stress counseling.

He reopened Café Racer a month and a half after the shooting, in part as an act of defiance. It’s been tough coming in every day to the same bar scene where Ian Stawicki opened fire. Early on Geissel decided he couldn’t turn the bar into a memorial shrine — everyone had to be able to move on.

“We try to put it behind us, while also respecting what happened here,” Geissel said. “I don’t know if I got the balance right or not.”

Last year, Geissel bought a handgun “off the street” and then filmed himself shearing it in half with a chop saw. It was part performance art and part political statement — the video of the smoking saw and the neatly sliced gun played at The Factory experimental art gallery in Seattle. But it was mostly recovery therapy.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“I murdered a gun,” he says. “I took one gun off the streets and I killed it. I know that’s basically nothing. But it felt like what I could do.”

Now he’s not sure what to do. He called police, but the threat is nonspecific enough that he felt the show should continue. Still, because of Café Racer’s history, some customers have said they aren’t sure it’s safe to come.

A local producer of the concert said that despite the threat and the pall cast by the Burlington shooting, they had no intention of canceling, but will add extra security.

“I just feel like we’re losing it in this country,” Geissel said. “It’s the whole village — it’s becoming unhinged. Like on the flier, this phrase ‘make America great.’ Now where does that come from? There’s this powerful rhetoric broadcasting around the nation that’s provoking this stuff. These ideas trickle down from somewhere.”

Business overall is down 10 percent, but that was due to a city road project, now finished. Mostly Café Racer is recovering, too. Any given night you’ll find it packed with artists and misfits — on some Tuesdays with cartoonists doing a group project, on Sundays for its live jam series called the “Racer Sessions,” on “Euchre Night,” when, Geissel says, “all these people from the Midwest materialize to play euchre.”

But all it takes is one piece of hate mail to send a wave crashing through the place.

Says Geissel: “We don’t dwell on it. But I’m learning that the shooting, it’s never going to go away.”