Washington State University students and this town’s permanent residents often stay at a wary distance from each other.
A comfortable cafe and concert hall called the Combine Mall managed to bring them together. Seventeen years after the Combine moved to Pullman’s Main Street, however, its owner has announced that she will close at the end of this month.
“I’ll be 60 next year,” says Pat Askham, who will leave Pullman this spring after her daughter graduates from the WSU architecture program. “If I’m going to do something else, I’d better do it now.”
That means no more late-night study sessions for college kids down from “The Hill.” The farmers, professors and local business people who ordered espresso and croissants right alongside them will also have to look elsewhere for their informal meeting places.
Inland Northwest folk musician Dan Maher will give one last free concert Feb. 27 at 8 p.m. on the stage upstairs, which has supported everyone from Soundgarden to Dog Vomit to Tom Paxton over the years. After that, farewell-wishers have a day to stroll through the funky, turn-of-the-century brick building.
“It’s been really nice to create a place where people could come and be comfortable,” Askham says. “Every year, we had to reintroduce ourselves. And every year we’ve said goodbye to another group of students.”
Now, it’s Pullman’s turn to say goodbye.
Replacing the Combine Mall will be an upscale restaurant, set to open in May. Its new owner is Dr. Lin Randall, a biochemistry professor at WSU. Randall and Askham are good friends. Randall worked part time in 1993 baking pastries in the Combine’s fragrant kitchen.
Ever since word of the closing hit Pullman, Randall has been fielding questions from upset students and townspeople. She says she understands folks are sad about losing one of their favorite haunts. Still, immediately filling the hole left behind by the Combine Mall helps keep downtown Pullman alive, Randall says.
“Having a cafe was somebody else’s dream,” Randall tells people. “My dream has always been to have a fine dining restaurant.”
When Askham bought the Combine Mall in 1980, it was just a little retail coffee and tea store. She moved it to Main Street the following April.
At the time, espresso - especially in Pullman - was a big risk. The fancy coffee machine she bought for $4,000 in 1982 preceded Washington’s coffee craze by a half-dozen years. Even Starbucks was still little more than a twinkle in a Seattle entrepreneur’s eye.
Askham also envisioned the Combine Mall as an incubator for fledgling small businesses. Start-ups like the Triticum Press, Brused Books, Steven’s Frame Factory and a hair salon called Artistic Touch all opened inside the nurturing confines of the mall - then moved to larger locations nearby where they continue to thrive.
The mall was open until midnight; students piled into the place about 6 p.m., armed with textbooks and the $1.70 or so it cost for a latte. There, they joined Pullman locals who frequented the place during the day.
Maher says he probably could have enticed more concerts to the mall, but Askham remained adamant that Monday through Thursday nights remain free for students using the tables upstairs to study.
He said losing the Combine will hit folk-music lovers especially hard. Performers like David Cunningham, Bill Staines, Brian Bowers or any number of Celtic groups who filled the upstairs with melodies are losing what was possibly the best venue on the Palouse for acoustic productions.
“You almost don’t need electrified music here,” Maher says. “It’s like home - you had some big star, playing music directly to you.”
David Nordquist, 66, Jim Engibous, 73, and Ted Saldin, 76, all three Pullman retirees, have been meeting at the Combine Mall since it moved here. They shoot the breeze and read newspapers.
“The Combine Mall is like a public library with coffee,” says Saldin.
Nordquist still remembers a trip he took to Pullman in 1947 with his Future Farmers of America group while he was in high school. He recalls that the brick building now home to the Combine was a watering hole called “The Smokehouse” - with cigars, beer, pool tables and girlie magazines.
“It was a community institution even at that time,” Nordquist says, chuckling. “Only to a different crowd.”
Two tables away, 28-year-old graduate student Jane Florence put down her sociology books to lament the Combine’s passing. In Bakersfield, Calif., where she did her undergraduate work, there was no place quite like this, Florence says.
Like many students, she’s begun to speak of the mall in the past tense.
“This was just a cool place you could come where you could relax and get some work done,” she says. “It’ll be nice to have a restaurant here. Still, it’s not the same.”
Triticum Press owner June Lipe remembers how her custom silk screening business got started here in 1983. She did all the dirty work in her garage at home; a small nook at the Combine doubled as her office and retail sales space. Lipe says the business outgrew the mall within a year, but she will always remember the lovely smell of fresh brownies baking in the neighboring kitchen late in the afternoon.
Still a regular, Lipe will miss the inexpensive breakfasts, tasty sweets and rich espresso drinks.
“When Pat started, who knew what a latte was?” Lipe says. “The Combine Mall has been a real important ingredient in downtown Pullman. In some people’s minds, it probably is downtown Pullman.”