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Then and Now: Nims Café a hot spot

1930: Nims Café is seen on Stevens Street in this view looking north from Riverside Avenue.

Present day: The Old National Bank building is at right, adjacent to the Levy Block and the Bodie Block.

Brothers Vivian and Bert Nims ran cafés in Spokane for 30 years, starting in 1915. Their most prominent location was 118 N. Stevens St., beside the Old National Bank building. Nims Café was a 24-hour joint in the Levy Block that opened in 1922 at the height of Prohibition. During the day it was popular with cops and office workers, but at night was known to serve gamblers, rumrunners and prostitutes. In 1932, a group of bootleggers spotted two suspected liquor informants driving by in the wee hours of the morning and gave chase. After their car was forced off the road, one informant, Percy Corkrum, sought refuge at Nims Café. The Spokane Daily Chronicle recounted that in the ensuing melee with police, bootlegger Paul Karrle, 37, whose alias was “Bohunk Whitey,” was thrown through Nims’ window and severely cut his hands. Perhaps coincidentally, Karrle was also a witness in graft charges against police officers who he said took bribes. The liquor informants escaped with their lives. In 1947, the wife of Nims cook Stewart Smith gave birth to baby Sylvia LaRayne, a “blue baby” whose life was ebbing away slowly as she was starved of oxygen. Her parents didn’t have $2,000 for a surgical procedure that could save her life. The Chronicle wrote a story about Sylvia, and dollar bills trickled into the café and the newspaper offices with notes like this one: “Dear Sylvia: With this small contribution may God see fit to grant you life.” Policemen started a Dollar for Sylvia Club. A Gold Star mother sent $10 with a note that read, “In memory of that ‘little boy of mine.’ ” Little Sylvia didn’t survive heart surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The baby fund had reached $3,500. Vivian and Bert added other businesses and cafes, including one in the City Ramp parking garage in 1929. They also built Nims Auto Court at 4412 E. Sprague Ave. in 1939, now the Park Lane Motel. Despite success in business, Vivian’s life had its share of trouble. In 1927, his son Merle, 20, was shot and killed as he tried to rob a store. In 1936, his wife, Hilda, divorced him and followed their two daughters, Betty and Ethel, to California where the girls started a vaudeville dance act. The brothers retired in 1945 and sold Nims to Monte Baertsch, who ran it until the 1960s. Vivian died in 1947, Bert in 1953. Nims Café became Phil’s Fine Foods in 1963. – Jesse Tinsley

Letter from owner’s daughter

The “Then and Now” feature on Nim’s Cafe drew this response letter from Judy (Baertsch) Muzzy, daughter of former owner, Monte Baertsch:

The article from the Spokesman Review about my dad’s restaurant, Nim’s Cafe, was wonderful. It brought back so many memories. I grew up all during my grade school years at the restaurant. The space was wonderful with its counter stools and booths, but I remember the huge cash register, and in the front window was the name Nim’s written in ice. But more important were the people I came in contact with. These were not the kind of people I normally met. These were boxers and hockey players plus the people ‘hard up on their luck.’ My dad, Monte Baertsch, always gave out a free meal to those in need. All day long workers came in to eat, then (from) about eight on came the people ‘off the street.’ I remember a man named Tiny; he had been run over by a train and moved himself around on piece of wood with wheels attached. I think we became friends because he was down at my level and willing to talk to me. He was so kind and he always wanted to give me a dime or quarter. He sold newspapers on the streets of Spokane. I was the only little kid they ever saw so these street people were especially nice and willing to take some time and talk. Down the alley by Nim’s was a boxing center. A lot of the men would come in for a meal and I remember my dad said not to stare at their cauliflower ears or bruised faces. They were always so kind to me. I felt sorry that they had to make a living being sparring partners. One group of people that always made me curious were this group brought in by police officers to eat and then marched back out after they were done. They didn’t look like criminals so who were they? I found out later they were juries on lunch breaks from the court house. My dad was involved with Spokane hockey. We always had hockey players from Canada staying in our basement. Talk about missing teeth! Growing up at Nim’s was a wonderful experience. I really met the wold right there in that little cafe. I think I became a more sensitive adult from that experience. Your article got me writing. Hope you didn’t mind listening. Judy Muzzy (Baertsch)


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