EVERETT — At the AFK Tavern, it’s game over.
At least, for now.
Friday was last call at the landmark geek bar on 41st Street, off Rucker Avenue.
For a decade, the AFK was a haven of weird and wonderful, with 1,000 board games and untold cosmic cocktails. Patrons could sing their hearts out to karaoke or zone out on video games. Anything was possible in the ramble of rooms with mismatched walls and curtain tie-backs made from Nintendo controllers.
COVID-19 changed the game board.
“We are a place for experiences,” owner Kayla Graves said last week. “For large groups, for friends to hang out. We can’t have those things. We can’t be ourselves under the restrictions.”
Her lease of 10 years on the building is up. The plan is to reopen elsewhere in 2022. Until last month, she had been looking for a place to move, but that is on hold.
“We’re walking at the end of our lease, not going bankrupt,” she said. “I keep calling it victory. We’ve been here 10 years.”
Graves was only 26 when she opened AFK, a messaging phrase for “away from keyboard.”
“The idea was the only place I ever felt happy was with people playing games, and I wanted to find a place that was also happy and away from the keyboard,” Graves said. “I was a bartender and moved here with my wife (Alison Stoneklifft), who got a job at Boeing. I was following her jobs. I did software, but never really liked it.”
The tavern drew people from all over the state — and out of state — who picked up a Sharpie to leave a message on restroom walls. It stayed open on holidays, with potluck meals.
Pandemic steps were taken to try to keep going. Booths were turned into pods, draped with plastic sheeting. Games got sanitized. Karaoke mics went mute.
“We’ve been soldiering along,” Graves said. “We’ve stayed afloat through COVID. It hasn’t been easy and there are days when we haven’t had anybody walk in. We’re not the place that used to have a three-hour wait on Wednesday.”
The last day was supposed to be Nov. 28. The announcement on Nov. 10 was a week before the latest round of state restrictions. The remaining nights were supposed to be epic. Instead, they were pretty much limited to a few chairs of chilly outdoor dining and delivery.
In March, AFK Tavern had 28 workers. By November, only five were left, including a few, like Graves, who don’t get a paycheck. CARES Act aid barely paid the rent.
AFK Tavern as a business is not for sale. Not the name or the hundreds of video games, posters or stacks of chairs.
“Don’t pick over the corpse of the company before it’s dead,” Graves said. “Everything is going into storage.”
Graves created drinks named after games and characters.
Mai Pikachu, with orange and citron vodka, plus mixers. Kirby’s Adventure, a drink that’s a metaphor for existence, with banana, chocolate liquor, cream, pink stuff and more cream. Klingon Blood Wine. Deadpool’s 4th Wall.
The goal wasn’t a “Cheers” bar where everybody knows your name. Your game, yes.
“I’m not good at names, I’m very good at remembering what people drink,” Graves said. “It’s a good skill to have for this industry.”
The menu included Battle Ready Burgers and Mozzarella Joysticks.
Olushola Bolonduro, founder of the goth social group Dark Side of Everett, said AFK Tavern was the first place he felt a sense of belonging when he moved to Everett from Seattle in 2019.
“I played video games with friends and shared stories,” Bolonduro said. “It has been an important social spot for my group … until COVID.”
Online comments offered thanks for the food, drinks, games and memories.
“I have laughed harder there than anywhere else,” a post read. “The nerd talk… From my own table of weirdos and drifting from other tables of weirdos.”
Another said: “AFK helped me realize that I didn’t need to hide who I was and that it was cool to be geeky.”
A tweet put it this way: “Damn 2020.”
Graves said she is not angry. The AFK afterlife will be a set of meetups, events and online content. Imbibe as if you were there by subscribing to the AFK Drink Book on Patreon.com.
“Beyond the physical location, we built a community full of great people,” she said. “That’s going to live on beyond these walls, the mismatched walls.”
Andrea Brown: firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.
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