Auction helps Jet City prepare for its closure History to highest bidder

John Middlebrooks bought the night’s first item: an orange and purple inflatable snake stuck through a heart-shaped slinky. He and his wife Linda also bought one of the night’s last items: an old-style (unworking) wooden telephone.

  • Monday, August 4, 2008 4:26pm
  • Life

Jet City Espresso barista Patrick Balles serves Jessica Smith

John Middlebrooks bought the night’s first item: an orange and purple inflatable snake stuck through a heart-shaped slinky. He and his wife Linda also bought one of the night’s last items: an old-style (unworking) wooden telephone.

A variety of knick knacks came in between the Middlebrooks’ purchases, including an old Maxwell House coffee can, a 60s coffee carafe, a globe, wind chimes, a pair of pearl necklaces and an old gumball-spitting love-tester machine.

Until Saturday night, these goods were part of the decor of Jet City Espresso, the gas-station-turned coffee shop on Main Avenue South. On Saturday they were sold to the highest bidder.

The auction was a decluttering attempt by Jet City owner Debbie Natelson.

Everything has to be gone by Aug. 31, when Jet City will cease business (at least at its current location) to make room for a six-story apartment and retail complex. Building permits still need to be submitted, but construction will likely begin sometime after September.

Mostly small items were sold at Saturday’s auction, and not enough to make a dent in the knick knackery cluttering Jet City’s every surface. The love tester was the most expensive item sold. It went for a mere $105.

But Natelson didn’t seem worried.

Calling the auction “the first pass,” she said she’s already sold and received unbeatable offers on many items she didn’t show Saturday. She also plans to sell some stuff online.

Some of the store’s collectibles Natelson calls “essential Jet City kitsch.” Finds like the one-arm mannequin, the neon Jet City sign and the drum labeled “13th Naval District band.” Natelson says she’s coupling these items for sale with the business, which she hopes a buyer will move to another downtown Renton location.

Although Saturday’s auction wasn’t a big money-maker or cleaner-upper, it was, as Natelson said, a “fun gathering.”

The crowd cheered when John Middlebrooks bought Saturday’s first auction item, which he bought simply because it was the first item.

“This was the first one, the historic first one at Jet City,” he said.

The Middlebrooks have been coming to Jet City since the opening 17 years ago. The couple and their three poodles join a crowd of regulars on Jet City’s mismatched couches and chairs around 10 a.m. every morning. Linda orders a nonfat latte, and her poodles — BG, Bruno and Buffy — get first dibs on the foam.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Linda says of Jet City’s closure. “This is our Cheers.” Cheers as in the TV show about the bar “where everybody knows your name.”

Linda’s friend Fay Moss doesn’t consider herself “a real regular” of Jet City’s. But she loves it just the same.

“It’s the coffee shop Cheers,” she says. “And everyone’s really sad about it leaving. It’s just a landmark.”

“You can just see everyone here knows about each other, is comfortable around each other,” Moss added, of the small crowd semi-circled in chairs in Jet City’s parking lot Saturday night.

The crowd spanned generations, from young girls in dresses and fairy wings to old men in ball caps and sweaters.

Auctioneer Jerry Benson faced them all, from under one of the two rolled-up garage doors. He held up one item at a time. Hopeful buyers held up paper plates sharpied with their number. Some items, like a flower yard sculpture, had competing bidders. Other items sold on the first bid. The buying and selling went on for a little over two hours.

In between bids, customers wandered inside to consider placing offers on the remaining artifacts piled on couches and dangling from shelves. Meanwhile, a steady stream of customers ordered fuel from new Jet City barista Patrick Balles.

A recent transplant from San Francisco, Balles has only been in Renton a few months. But even he is broken up about Jet City’s closure.

“It’s so depressing,” he said from behind the counter Saturday. “The thing is, there’s not enough mom-and-pop shops around anymore. And to put condos over it…”

Balles’ comment is a common refrain among Jet City’s loyal fanbase.

“I think that it’s a huge mistake,” says Ryan Runge, 27, a Jet City customer since age 9. “I think the one thing that sets Renton apart are its funky shops. The last thing we need is another mixed-use condo development.”

“This should be a Renton landmark,” Runge adds.

Others are more resigned to let progress run its course. Brothers Mario and Victor Tonda, 82 and 79, have been Jet City customers since the beginning — Victor since Natelson and her espresso cart were at the old McLendon Hardware site. Mario hasn’t found a better latte.

Both have met many old and new friends during Jet City’s 17 years. But both have accepted Jet City’s end.

“I don’t like to see it go, but you can’t stop progress,” Victor says.

Mario agrees. But he’s sad to see Jet City go.

“It’s an end of an era, that’s for sure,” he says.

Natelson, who has another job at an organic land-care company, no longer has the time or money to run Jet City Espresso, but she is not ready for its extinction. Jet City owner is her longest-held job.

“It breaks my heart,” she says. “You know, it’s sort of surreal. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen. It just seemed like it would always be here, and continue.”

Emily Garland can be reached at or (425) 255-3484, ext. 5052.

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