Walking in as a customer in need of coffee, a drink or a bite to eat, you’d be forgiven for not realizing that this is a place forged out of grief, conceived of need.

The space at Lindaman’s is airy and open. Soft light streams in through big windows and from colorful glass fixtures. The chalkboard menu displays wedding invitation-perfect calligraphy, and the work of many local artists has hung on the brick wall behind the long bench.

The music changes depending on who’s working, but there’s always a buzz of long-friendship conversation, laughter from meetings over pie and the occasional shrieks of a toddler steeplechasing around the room.

And, oh, the smells – roasted garlic on some mornings and oven-fresh peanut butter chocolate chip “Monster” cookies on others. Even those who order only a cup of DOMA decaf can’t pass up a glance at the pies and stuffed spuds and are powerless to resist lemon poppyseed muffins when they appear. During tough times, these weaker beings have been known to commit to a giant hunk of German chocolate cake.

(Lindaman’s patrons meet and greet on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. The business is closing after 35 years. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

We regulars assume our places. When outsiders come in and sit at invisibly reserved tables, they may wonder at the stink-eye cast by employees and fellow travelers. There’s no way to know, if you are not a regular, that you are trespassing on staked-out territory. We are, by nature, a possessive species.

Friends come to catch up and offer or receive counsel. Colleagues get out of the office to discuss office politics. The Spanish Club meets Friday afternoon; Bible study group sits together in the morning. Investors scrutinize strategic plans.

Academic departments push tables together to hold meetings. First dates happen over coffee; sometimes they lead to second dates with wine. Long-married couples silently swap sections of the newspaper.

Lindaman’s is Cheers

It’s a coffee shop, a bar, a bistro. It’s Cheers. And after 35 years, Lindaman’s Gourmet-to-Go is closing. The name reminds us that the place is a living memorial – an embodiment of ideals. The joint has never been just about the food or drink; it’s a tribute to a person and about how community forms when given a spot.

Edward Lindaman was president of Whitworth University in the 1970s after serving as director of programming for the Apollo space program. A futurist whose thinking had stressed applying Christian principles of tolerance and compassion to contemporary problems, he played host to Alvin Toffler and Buckminster Fuller. He sat and listened to members of the John Birch Society and marched with Cesar Chavez for the rights of farmworkers.

Lindaman had retired from Whitworth and was traveling to China in 1982 when he got a mosquito bite. He contracted viral encephalitis, fell into a coma and died in a Shanghai hospital at age 62.

His daughter, Merrilee, is now 62. After her father’s death, she says, she and her brother “needed to hang out somewhere where people cared. We could not find that space. We decided to create it.”

A mistake baby – the nearest of her three siblings is seven years older – Merrilee graduated from St. George’s School and then went on to Whitworth. She says, “My dad was the president, and I could go to school for free, so I just kept taking classes.

“I was going to go for a master’s in counseling. I was interested in juvenile justice, and my professor said, ‘You are not cut out for this. You will take every kid home with you.’ ” She concedes that he was right.

On a trip to San Francisco, Merrilee and her brother David had seen places with big deli cases of prepared food that people could purchase and take home. It’s a familiar model in big cities but was then unheard of in Spokane. She wanted, she says, to create a “joint,” a place where people could come, get some food and maybe hang out a little.

Owner asked for money

Tall, lanky and luminous, Merrilee was a model at Nordstrom and waiting tables at a downtown restaurant when she and David came up with the idea for Lindaman’s. She laughs as she remembers her chutzpah: “I asked customers for money. Who does that?

“Jim Cowles said he hadn’t loaned money to anyone since Louis Davenport asked him for a loan for waffle irons. Jim loaned us money. On top of that, Phil Stanton, whose dad started Washington Trust, was a customer, and the bank gave us a loan for fixtures and stuff.”

She flashes a smile as she says, “We didn’t have much in the way of collateral,” and allows that she will always be grateful to Washington Trust. They found a crummy old building next to the Cathedral.

It had been a lot of things – a grocery, then a florist shop. The church gave them a long lease. The siblings bought a huge oven at auction for $600, which their mother pieced together. The floor was repurposed from Roosevelt Elementary School.

“My mom was an amazing cook,” Merrilee says. “We always had dessert with dinner. She was the pie queen. I had to make good pies, or I wasn’t my mother’s daughter.” And indeed, the pies have long been big sellers, although originally it was Nanaimo bars and the romaine salad that brought people in and coming back. Indeed, when news of the closing hit the whisper network, in addition to expressions of surprise and loss, requests for the garlic dressing recipe flooded Merrilee’s inbox.

David, the gregarious brother – the Sam Malone – held fort up front; Merrilee, their sister Susan and four others cooked and experimented with recipes. There are now 574 dishes in rotation, none of which have instructions because the same people have been preparing the food for the past three and a half decades. Early on, Merrilee says she had to learn how to make things taste good and look appealing in the steamer trays. “ ‘It’s too brown,’ people would say, so I’d throw a tomato on it.”

In the early days, Lindaman’s had one of only two espressos machines in Spokane. The coffee bar required three baristas working frantically to serve customers who lined up out the door. Among those employees were Kirk Haan and Kevin Soderquist, both of whom started in 1992.

Employers were fun

On a recent morning, after making an espresso with surgical precision, Haan remembers, “David and Merrilee were really fun to work for. All my friends would come in every day. I just had to be here, and the world would just come to me. The conversations people would have at the bar here were so stimulating.” He wipes down the bar and repeats, “It was just fun.”

Soderquist, Merrilee’s general manager, her right hand man for the past 28 years, had lost his dad within a week of Edward Lindaman’s passing. Their shared grief helped bond the 20-somethings.

Soderquist, who had just come back from a trip to Southeast Asia and thought he was on his way to law school, says, “It was just crazy. It was the place with Napa-inspired deli-style food. It was fresh to Spokane and was, in the early days, this hipster, scenester place. A who’s who of the South Hill.”

Merrilee remembers a piece in The Spokesman-Review years ago that noted that the parking lot was always full of Porsches and BWMs. She says she wasn’t sure how to feel about that description because the place has always attracted a big cross-section of people.

“We’ve never not been popular,” she says. “But it changes. We went through a period where we had a lot of Goths.” Now, in the evenings, the joint teems with retirees who don’t want to cook. “Even with the changes,” she says, “There’s always been a loyal customer base.”

And equally loyal employees. When asked how long she’s worked at Lindaman’s, Carol Eiswerth says, “I can’t find my employment folder, so I don’t even know how long I’ve been here. I’ve been here basically a million years.”

Eiswerth started in advertising working with Charlie Schmidt – the “Keyboard Cat” guy who is still a Lindaman’s regular – but she was friends with Merrilee. Eiswerth says, “The Lindamans talked about ideas, but I asked, ‘How are we going to do this?’ I made my own job.” Now she does, well, pretty much everything.

About Merrilee, employees use the same words over and over: kind, generous, gracious, open-minded. And, most often, fun. She stopped cooking full time about 10 years ago. “It was really hard for me,” she says.

“But you know what? I became a much better business owner. I had more time to care about the numbers.” She’s been cooking again for the last year when, for the first time, finding reliable, respectful and dedicated staff became difficult.

Now she’s just tired. “I could see the writing on the wall,” she says. “And it wasn’t writing I liked. I’m physical and I love hiking and biking, and I can’t risk not being able to do that. I can’t stand on my feet 16 hours a day and still be able to do the things I want to do. And there’s a lot I want to do.”

She continues, “I’m 62 and I’ve been here 35 years, and I actually feel apologetic about that. Did I really spend 35 years doing this one thing? There are so many other things I could have done.”

She shakes off the thought and repeats something she’s said before: “It’s been a love affair. When I tell people that, they say, ‘So why are you closing?’” She laughs and says, “Because my feet hurt.”

The last few weeks, her feet have been hurting even more. Devoted customers have stampeded in to get the last of their favorite foods and tell her how much the place has meant to them. “There are many families where I know four generations,” she says, “Many of them have also been employees.”

Recently, a customer who’s been coming in for three decades stopped Merrilee and said, ‘”I know it’s just a restaurant and I feel stupid saying this, but it’s so much more than that. Thank you.”

Edward Lindaman’s daughter tells this to a person who is about to lose the place she’s written her last three books, a customer who has come to regard the employees as co-workers and good friends, a quirky regular who has sat at the same table – except when a civilian has unknowingly transgressed and squatted there – with a cup of decaf and an occasional lemon poppyseed muffin for at least three hours six days a week.

We both get teary as Merrilee recounts the customer’s comment.

Finally, she says, “I wouldn’t have been doing this for 35 years if that was all it was.”