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Friday, September 9, 2011 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

Seattle coffee scene loses beloved barista

By Melissa Allison
Seattle Times business reporter

For thousands of Seattleites over the years, Brian Fairbrother was the face of morning.

A longtime barista and manager at Espresso Vivace, he orchestrated the delivery of coffee and pastries to the caffeine-depleted hordes, making conversation with those whose eyes were open enough on topics ranging from the arts to cooking to linguistics.

Fairbrother, 50, died Thursday from head injuries sustained in a bicycling accident on Aug. 30.

Customers and co-workers can't imagine mornings — or Seattle's coffee scene — without him.

"We had a daily morning routine with my Vivace doughnut addiction. I am not sure if I'll be able to buy another doughnut from someone else. We had a system," Brandon Carr wrote at SeattleBikeBlog.com, one of several websites with outpourings of love and sadness for Fairbrother.

Brad Mumbrue, a regular at Vivace's Alley 24 location near the REI flagship store in Seattle, said the place is diminished without him. "Having him here made you want to linger. He brought a sense of community."

Fairbrother also knew how to pull an espresso shot and to treat employees fairly, said Vivace co-owner David Schomer.

"He created a balanced organization to counter my impulsiveness," Schomer said. "If I had a good training with somebody, I'd give them a raise. Brian said, 'You can't do that. You have to be very systematic.' "

When Schomer and Vivace's other owner, Geneva Sullivan, got divorced several years ago, they gave Fairbrother one share of the business, making him the tiebreaker for any future business squabbles.

"He was so perfectly trustable," Sullivan said. "When Brian said something to you, it was a very kind honesty, but you knew you were getting the story. You never had to read between the lines with the man."

Sullivan met Fairbrother in the mid-80s, when he moved to Seattle from Maine and they both danced for the same belly-dancing troupe. He started working for Vivace in 1989, when it was a coffee cart on Capitol Hill.

Fairbrother eventually became general manager over all three of Vivace's locations and directly oversaw its Alley 24 shop. Like all great baristas, Fairbrother easily made conversation, sharing with customers his enthusiasms outside the coffee bar.

He belonged to a Spanish-language book club and was an amazing cook, said Lisa Parsons, who manages Vivace's sidewalk espresso bar at 321 Broadway E.

"I've never known a more intellectually curious person," said Parsons. She said Fairbrother loved the color orange, pagan celebrations including May Day, and traveling to India and Mexico.

"When he first had the accident, a lot of us wore nothing but orange," she said.

In the '90s, Fairbrother commissioned the "Sacred Shrine of Caffeina, Goddess of the Waking Day" that's painted on a rock near the sidewalk espresso bar.

"I'm an urban pagan, and I see the goddess emanating in all sorts of ways," Fairbrother explained.

People who worked with him admired his skill with coffee and people.

"He's iconic as a barista," said Christopher Nicely Abel Alameda, a barista at Intelligentsia Coffee in Los Angeles who used to work for Vivace.

He remembers Fairbrother's response to a neck tattoo Alameda got while he worked there.

"I was actually afraid," Alameda said. "But he said, 'If that's how you express yourself, well then, there it is.' We had people with funny-colored hair, too, but as long as you worked hard, you had that level of protection and encouragement to be yourself."

Fairbrother crashed his bicycle on stairs near 1177 Fairview Ave. N. around 6 p.m. on Aug. 30. He was unconscious but still breathing when medics arrived, according to a Seattle Fire Department report. They took him to Harborview Medical Center, where he died Thursday.

Detectives in the Seattle Police Department's traffic-collision investigation squad are investigating the accident, in which Fairbrother was riding northbound on the street's west-side sidewalk, said police spokesman Jeff Kappel.

Cyclists are supposed to take a fork in the sidewalk that leads to a bike lane on the road. Instead, Fairbrother went straight and encountered stairs that lead to a floating dock across the road from the ZymoGenetics building.

He was found lying facedown on the sidewalk. A helmet was found at the scene, Kappel said.

Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Rick Sheridan said the city has not received complaints about that area and is not aware of previous incidents involving the steps.

"We'll review the areas on both sides of the pedestrian bridge to determine whether additional signage or markings would be beneficial," he said. "Our hearts go out to the cyclist's family and friends. This incident does reinforce that cyclists unfamiliar with a trail or sidewalk need to ride with caution."

Deputy business editor Rami Grunbaum contributed to this report.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

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