As the summer of 1967 commenced, Seattle’s counterculture was only beginning to emerge from the shadow of San Francisco’s. Our leading underground newspaper, Helix, had been established to great acclaim a few months before. All Seattle then needed was a suitable public gathering place for its quickly growing population of “fringies.” On the date in focus here, that special place arrived in earnest with the opening of the Last Exit on Brooklyn, the now-legendary University District coffeehouse.
Located at 3930 Brooklyn Avenue Northeast near the University of Washington campus, the Last Exit was established by Irving E. Cisski (1930-1992), an entrepreneur, chess enthusiast, and former co-owner of the Eigerwand, another fringie-friendly Seattle coffeehouse that had closed several months before. Cisski wanted to recreate the Eigerwand’s bohemian atmosphere in a new, larger venue. The building Cisski chose was a small light-industrial building owned by the UW. Prior to the Last Exit’s debut, the building housed a high-speed envelope-printing shop.
What Cisski then founded would quickly become much more than a mere local business. The Last Exit on Brooklyn was an authentic anchor of local community, one that would soon prove to be both a magnet and a nurturing ground for genuinely countercultural thinkers, within both Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle-born writer and historian Knute Berger once described the Last Exit as “one of Seattle’s great ’60s landmarks, a gathering place for UW students, radicals, poets, nut jobs, chess masters, teens, intellectuals, workers, musicians, artists, beatniks, and hippies.” Berger also fondly recalled, “I remember the din, the open-mike music, cigarette smoke, impromptu poetry readings, the arguments of lefties, libertarians, crackpots, and cultists. You could hear the rhythm and roar of the counterculture as it lived and breathed.”
According to the local historical record, Cisski’s original intention was to create a place where conversation and collaboration would be valued over commerce, and substance over style. In a Seattle Times feature-length profile published on the occasion of the Last Exit’s twentieth anniversary in June 1987, Cisski recalled his aims and motivations for establishing the new venue:
“I asked myself, ‘How do I want people to feel when they come in here?’ I didn’t want it to be psychedelic. I wanted a place where the optic nerve could relax. So, dark walls, dark floor and ceiling. I wanted the stove, because it’s a focal point. The piano made it feel more like a living room. I wanted a place where everyone felt equal, where there were no sacred cows.”
That egalitarian vision was reflected in the venue’s décor, much of which was salvaged from other landmarks of Old Seattle: the large round tables in the center of the room were first used as card-game tables in certain circa-1900 Pioneer Square establishments, and the distinctive marble tables near the windows were fashioned out of stall dividers from the restrooms of the original Prefontaine Place location of the King County Courthouse building.
Along with lively conversation, the Exit hosted open-mic poetry readings on Wednesday evenings during its early years. While those readings were initially popular — being a remnant of the Beat Generation culture that still thrived circa 1967 — the quality of the poetry gradually declined, and Cisski thus eventually emphasized live music over poetry for the Exit’s evening entertainment.
The Exit would also become famous as a gathering place for those who shared Cisski’s passion for chess, eventually attracting many highly skilled players, including professionals such as chess grandmaster Yasser Seirawan, who once wrote of his early career, “Those first chess lessons soon led me to the legendary Last Exit on Brooklyn coffee house, a chess haven where an unlikely bunch of unusual people congregates to do battle.”
The Exit was also famous for its fringie-friendly food — in particular, the huge peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches that were a major attraction for starving UW students both bohemian and square. The Exit’s famous PB&J was Cisski’s way of providing the down-and-out with a cheap, nutritious meal. He offered it as a “loss leader” as a community service of sorts.
Among the ironies that thrived under the Exit’s roof was the political identity of its founder and proprietor. Despite the Exit’s reputation as a bastion of left-wing bohemianism, Irv Cisski’s politics was neither. He voted for Ronald Reagan for president and was known to defend the United States’ covert military intervention in Central America in heated discussions inside the Exit’s walls. Nevertheless, he remained a benevolent and sophisticated enough person to want to create and sustain the kind of place where diverse cultures and politics were encouraged.
“This is my gift to society,” he told The Seattle Times in 1987.
The beginning of the end of the Last Exit on Brooklyn began on August 25, 1992 — the day Irv Cisski passed away. Cisski’s death left the venue in the hands of new owners who, despite their strong countercultural sympathies, lacked the social clout Cisski had long wielded within the UW community. In 1993, the University repossessed the building occupied by the coffeehouse, and finally issued an official eviction notice. On November 6, 1993, the Last Exit’s new owners moved the venue from its longtime location to 5211 University Way Northeast. The original location opened that morning, and as part of the move, the northbound lanes of University Way were closed for a parade where staff and customers marched up The Ave, some carrying the last chairs to move. The new location was officially opened with an invocation from Rudy James, an elder of the Kooyu Ḵwáan Tlingit tribe and a longtime Exit regular.
The new, smaller location proved much less popular with the original’s core clientele, and after several years of dwindling business, the Last Exit on Brooklyn closed forever in September 1999. As of December 2019, the building the Last Exit once occupied hosted the UW’s Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity Instructional Center Annex.
Sources: Paul de Barros, “Last Exit, many returns: 20 years and many fads later, laid-back U District coffeehouse shows no signs of slowing down,” The Seattle Times, June 24, 1987, p. E1; Jean Godden, “Not an exit for the Exit; just a move,” The Seattle Times, October 1, 1993, p. B1; Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (University of Washington Press, 1995); Yasser Seirawan, “Play Winning Chess” (Everyman Chess, 2003); Clark Humphrey, “Vanishing Seattle” (Arcadia Publishing, 2006); Knute Berger, “It’s the end for the Last Exit,” Crosscut.com, September 27, 2007.