University District Museum Without Walls Oral History: Leslie Grace (Founder, La Tienda Folk Art Gallery)

  • Posted 3/20/2010
  • Essay 9346

Leslie Grace founded La Tienda Folk Art Gallery in Seattle's University District in 1962. She is the daughter of attorney Cal McCune, late "Godfather" of the District, who wrote From Romance to Riot.  This is a transcript of an oral history that Grace gave in an interview conducted by Dawnee Dodson for the University District Museum Without Walls in March 2009. The Museum Without Walls, a project of the University District Arts & Heritage Committee, draws together the history and life of the University District through a variety of formats, including temporary exhibitions, community events, and oral histories.

Leslie Grace 

My name is Leslie Grace, and I am here because I've had a lifelong involvement in the University District. I started in 1962 a specialty store called La Tienda on the lower Ave, and persisted in doing that for 33 years. I actually first came to the Ave when I was a young child, and we used to eat in Ray Chinn's restaurant when I was about five years old -- that was the one place we could eat out and be very reasonable. And then I also worked in my dad's office on Saturdays when I was in high school. So I am very familiar with the Ave. 

No, I didn't grow up on the Ave. Actually, I grew up on a boat -- at least for nine years I lived at the Seattle Yacht Club. That was sort of a unique experience. It was during the war years, Second World War, and nobody owned boats in those days. And I walked to Montlake School and went to Meany and went on to Garfield during most of that period. And then we went and built our own house in Montlake ourselves, by hand, and my dad designed it. So yes, and it's very close to the U District. Fairly close. 

Well, I hadn't traveled. When I resigned, I had $500 in the bank, and I was driving a $300 car, and I was paying $90 a month rent, and I was looking for work. So I got a job at the library on campus for a dollar and a quarter an hour, because I thought that that might be able to take me overseas to see the world. And then a friend said, "Wouldn't it be interesting to open an import shop?" And I happened to mention it to my dad. I was over at my folks for dinner that night, and he caught on to the idea. And we had been in Mexico in 1955, and that had had -- we'd taken his 80-year-old parents to Mexico and that had left -- the country had left such an impression on me. And then, the Seattle World's Fair had a really extraordinary Mexican government pavilion, it was just beautiful. And so between those two things, I decided to open an import shop with things from Mexico. And my dad and I basically drove to Tijuana and brought things back. Eventually it expanded and expanded and expanded, but not for quite a while. And we tore apart the space, this space that was a huge mess when we arrived, and spent three months painting it, fixing it up, designing it, and put it out there for the public. And then we basically broke even for about three years, and lost money for about three years, and then we started to break even, and then in the early seventies we started to make it, thank goodness. So by the time I was through, you know, 33 years later, we had a profit-sharing plan, and a healthcare program for staff, which was pretty phenomenal. 

What "Fringies" Wore 

It's hard to say -- when we, when I first started out, people would wheel their kids in in baby carriages. After several years, I never saw that again for a long time. People would come in with their kids, but the atmosphere on the Ave was changing, people weren't necessarily coming over here -- but there was a period in there in the late sixties, early seventies, when there was a great focus on, sort of, ethnographic materials. What people wore, the so-called "Fringies" would wear ethnographic -- they'd wear huipiles and pieces that were quite lovely that I would find in Guatemala or Mexico, and those types of things had a really special place for some people in those days. 

In the late sixties when we really did start to grow -- financially, that is, and physically -- we took over the Marine recruiting center, which was in the same building we were. And it was during that really heavy period of anti-war demonstrating, and anti-police demonstrating, and windows were broken, and we feared for our own windows. And so sort of as a fallback, we decided to expand. And when I say we, that was pretty much -- my dad was involved, and we rebuilt the Marine recruiting center, and we doubled the size of the shop. And I think people could really see us and appreciate us much more after that. And we did that over Thanksgiving, which I remember because my mom brought us Thanksgiving dinner on the front floor of what was the Marine recruiting center, and we had, thanks to my dad, we put down these loose bricks in that front room. And to this day, people still talk about the "musical bricks." We didn't use any mortar, we just put bricks down, and people would walk on it, and they still remember that experience. 

In about the mid sixties, a couple years after I began, all these people showed up on the street and they didn't move. And many of them were on, or selling, drugs, and that was not an easy period, because people didn't want to come to the Ave, they didn't want their kids on the Ave. But it's not clear to me that that was caused by the Vietnam War. That was a good excuse when the Vietnam War came along. But the Vietnam War -- the people who really got involved in the Vietnam War were the students on campus. And they weren't the ones really on the street. And they're the ones that took to the street to oppose the war. I happened to be one of the few so-called "establishment types," whatever, who totally opposed the war. And so I would dress up, put my heels on, put my hair on top of my head, and march in Seattle. And I marched in San Francisco. I was so opposed to it. But in those days, there were not many -- what would you say, you know, I mean, there were mostly students that were opposed to it. But it was very important to oppose that. I remember one time we just put up a whole sheet on the front window, the big window -- it must've been in 1970 when Kent State happened, supporting everybody, whoever was going to be on the street, that "we support you." Because we felt that way. 

Caught in the Middle 

And I really wonder where all that anti-establishment stuff came that happened in those days. Part of it, certainly, was the police, and the police were a big issue. And it's probably hard for the merchants to hear that, because at the same time as I did, you see people victimizing themselves out on the street. You'd see somebody passed out, and the aid car would come pick them up, and you'd think, "OK, that's gonna teach them, you know, this is sort a life they shouldn't be leading." But that didn't happen, and people kept being drawn, especially to the lower Ave -- if there was any of it now, it seems to be on the upper Ave, which is a huge surprise -- but that was, the Ave was  like a -- there was an anti-establishment attitude which I think partly came a lot from the people on the street, because of the police, and the merchants were caught in the middle -- what do we do? In some ways, we don't want this, but we're not exactly anti-establishment establishment, and then the students would be sympathetic with the kids on the street -- but not really; I'm not even so sure they were, in that sense. They were certainly against the war, but you saw them out in the seventies protesting the war. But I think that the drugs just seem to come and go on the Ave; it's just a shame. 

You know, I was very fortunate, especially since I've never had a business course in my life, my dad underwrote my loans from the bank in the very beginning. I didn't even know, and I still don't -- wouldn't know, really, how to do a business plan -- and there would be a line of credit, and I would take off, whether I was traveling to Mexico or Peru or wherever it might be, and use a certain amount of that up, and then be expected to have it paid off by Christmas. And I did that year after year for probably 10 to 14 years, borrowed from the bank in order to make it go. And how did I educate myself? I would educate myself by spending a lot of time in museums and classes. I eventually ended up teaching at the U about folk art, because that's what I cared so much about, things that people made with their hands. I don't think I ever had difficulty. I think my first landlord, Mr. Ness, who was a Sephardic Jew, I think he had a lot of respect for me as a woman, and fortunately my dad did. And I remember when the women's movement came along (laughs) I was already doing this, and I can remember I sort of, I'm sorry to say this, but I was sort of resentful of my dad having to be involved at all, and then the movement came along, and I realized that there's no way in a million years I could have done it by myself, owning nothing, and not sure what I was going to do next. So, as a woman, I think I never was treated differently than anybody else. That's how I felt, quite frankly.

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