20/20: Wheels of Fire

How a "crazy Czechoslovakian" turned a Central District bike shop into a favorite venue.

20/20 Cycle’s cozy decorating scheme draws equal inspiration from the average college guy’s dorm and a 1970s living room. Pinned to the wall of the Central District bike shop is the cardboard album cover of Heart’s Dreamboat Annie, and the taxidermied head of a pronghorn antelope looks down over a computer. A table holds a coffee cup filled with fresh flowers and a pile of books (among them, Twilight: Breaking Dawn and All for a Few Perfect Waves: The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora) advertised as free for the taking. Atop an olive-green wooden platform sit a few bikes for sale and a lot of toys—Battleship, Hot Wheels, and a metal Tonka truck that the shop’s owner, Alex Kostelnik, was given as a child, in 1972.

“There’s a couple neighborhood kids that choose me over the library,” he says, “which is a real source of pride.” Bands are also known to choose Kostelnik’s space over traditional clubs—that green platform isn’t just a place to store toys, it’s a stage for live music, which Kostelnik books sparingly yet deliberately, making this increasingly a favorite venue of local musicians.

Sitting in a chair in front of his stage, Kostelnik, 45, has salt-and-pepper hair and a matching beard and exudes a loud and smiley persona that fits the space’s homey vibe. His left thumbnail is painted sky blue with a tiny, sparkly silver microphone—a souvenir from a trip to a nail salon with his wife of four months, Sasha Morgan, who works at Sub Pop Records. His ensemble—flannel T-shirt and a wide gold wedding band, imprinted with images of dolphins, starfish, and sand bubbles, made of recycled gold from circuit boards—is a Northwest uniform for a most Northwest guy.

Born at Doctors Hospital (now part of Fred Hutchinson) about eight blocks from where 20/20 now stands, Kostelnik currently lives about eight blocks in the other direction. He was raised in Green Lake, but discovered an affinity for the Central District early on when he spent a year attending Garfield High School. He would bus over just to hang out in the neighborhood—the T.T. Minor Elementary School playground for kickball games, the corner stores to buy candy necklaces and sour balls. After graduating from Roosevelt High School, he spent seven years at Evergreen, where as a film student he captured some of Nirvana’s early shows on video. (Biographers Charles Cross and Gillian Gaar both interviewed him for their tomes—respectively, Heavier Than Heaven and Entertain Us. In the latter, Kostelnik memorably describes a Nirvana performance at an Olympia house show, where he felt like the room was “expanding and contracting” like “some kind of acid trip from the music!”)

Kostelnik ended up being drawn back to the CD by its diversity, history, and eponymous centrality. “Wallingford’s kind of a drag. Like, 40 guys like me elbowing each other to get a muffin at, like, some fucking coffee shop, and we’re all buying the same ironic jazz record, and we’re all the same. I can’t stand it,” he says. “I’m a weirdo here, ’cause it’s still diverse.”

Kostelnik, who’s never owned a car (“Well, except for that one,” he says, thumbing back at the Tonka truck), worked at eight different bicycle-repair shops in 20 years, hating his bosses every step of the way, before opening 20/20 in 2006—a move he credits to an REI co-worker called Boots: “He would tell me all the time that I was full of shit. Like, ‘Shut up! Quit fucking complaining!’ And then one day he said, ‘You should start your own business, because you’re driving us crazy.’ ” Kostelnik rejected Boots’ idea for a business name—The Crazy Czechoslovakian—but did seek a space. He paid off his startup expenses within six months, and hasn’t been in debt since.

About five times a year, Kostelnik shoves aside the bikes, display cases, helmets, and assorted parts that litter the floor, and hosts shows. “It’s pretty amazing to stand in the space before and after this process,” says Anacortes musician Karl Blau. “If [Alex is] putting on a show at his bike shop, it’s because he’s super-passionate about the lineup.”

Kostelnik has been producing shows since the early ’80s (“Seattle’s punk days,” he calls them), when he would assemble bills at now-defunct spaces like Ground Zero, Lincoln Arts Center, and Oddfellows Hall. He has also recorded studio albums—for the Moondoggies, Shenandoah Davis, and Jack Wilson, among others—and is a stickler for sound. “I like shows that sound good,” he says, “so the way to get that is to do it yourself. There’s a famous hi-fi recording from Sweden or something called Jazz at the Pawnshop. It sounds amazing, and you can tell the audience is really into it and the band is inspired. I aspire to that. I guess someday I’ll put out a live album and call it Jazz at the Bike Shop. Although it will only have a little bit of jazz.”

Local singer/songwriter Damien Jurado remembers his 20/20 set as one of the “most intimate shows I had ever been to,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Everyone in attendance [was] quiet and attentive. It was a great reminder that a show can be put on anywhere . . . even a bike shop.”

Eli Moore, of the bands LAKE and Baby Island, whom Kostelnik names as one of his favorite performers (“He writes lullabies for adults”), calls 20/20 his favorite venue in Seattle. “It’s not their ‘job’ to do shows, so it always seems likes a fun time for them,” he says. “Alex is an excellent recording engineer, too, so the sound is always good.”

Kostelnik says he gets e-mailed all the time by bands who want to play at the shop, but he frequently turns them down. The “Shows” page on 2020cycle.com warns that “It’s mostly our friends and definitely our favorite bands.”

Upcoming shows will feature former Nirvana drummer Chad Channing and his band Before Cars (“Which seems appropriate!” laughs Kostelnik), and, on a January double bill, Unnatural Helpers and La Luz. Kostelnik says his favorite show was the one Blau headlined earlier this month. Blau recalls spotting Kostelnik “grinning ear to ear, standing behind the mixer like a sea captain at the ship’s wheel.”

“It was a super-fun, festive night,” says Kostelnik. “It was like family night. We were all one.”