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Bellingham loses Black Drop Coffeehouse

Queer owned and run coffee shop, Black Drop Coffeehouse, has closed, but its legacy can continue

One of The Black Drop's Coffeehouse's to-go cups in front of the pride flag displayed in the window of the shop in Bellingham, Wash. on Feb. 2, 2022. The queer-owned business closed due to pandemic-related financial hardship. // Photo by Sydney Jackson

After serving the community for 20 years, the final week Black Drop Coffeehouse had its doors open was emotional. People lined up to order their favorite drink one last time, buy merch or say a tearful goodbye to the baristas. Some people shared stories with owner Stephanie Oppelaar, mourning the loss but also celebrating what the Black Drop provided.

One woman who lived above the Black Drop with her husband wrote to Oppelaar; she said they had a date there every Sunday. All they could afford was one cup of coffee to split and a day-old pastry from the bakery.

“The Black Drop is where she fell in love with her husband,” Oppelaar said. “It was where they went to make do with so little and realize that their relationship was important.”

Oppelaar said the Black Drop has been a haven for many people – it was the kind of place you’d see a stay-at-home mom sitting next to a group of students, sitting next to a lawyer, sitting next to a person experiencing houselessness.

“Black Drop was the first truly safe space I'd ever found,” Oppelaar said, which is why she took ownership in 2009 when founders Alexarc Mastema and Teri Bryant were ready to sell. 

The Black Drop Coffeehouse on West Magnolia Street in Bellingham, Wash. on Feb. 2, 2022. The Black Drop had moved to a new space in Sept. 2020 with “an outpouring of community support.” // Photo by Sydney Jackson

What set Black Drop apart was a desire to run an unapologetically authentic business, to welcome those in need of a safe space and protect that space with fervor. The pride flags and large-lettered “Black Lives Matter” across the store windows were not a PR stunt, but a reflection of true values shared by Oppelaar and her staff.

“Anybody that walked through the door was welcomed with open arms, regardless of how they identified or how they presented,” manager Sarah Homeyer said. “You can't find that anywhere else in town.”

Barista Neya Salazar said there was an effort to care beyond the “numbers” of running a business. For example, the staff met multiple times to discuss how to handle racist behavior and exemplify anti-racism. 

“I think it should be standard for every workplace to help employees of color feel safe, especially in such a white-dominated city, and to help customers of color, disabled customers and queer customers feel safe,” Salazar said. 

Homeyer, Salazar and lead barista Liso Elliott agreed the inclusive culture they cultivated at Black Drop was a direct result of how Oppelaar treated them.

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A crowd lining up outside the front of the Black Drop Coffeehouse in Bellingham, Wash. on Sunday, Feb. 6 2022. It was closing day for this local business. // Photo by Sophia Heit

When Homeyer told Oppelaar they were queer, they were celebrated. Working at Black Drop taught Homeyer it’s okay to be authentic and true to themselves, they said, which is the biggest lesson they’ve learned in life. 

“Steph and [her husband] John have gone so far above and beyond to make sure that we feel welcomed,” Homeyer said. “I have never in my life experienced so much love.”

Elliott said being disabled has brought challenges to the workplace, but they have always received understanding and support. Salazar said after identifying their pronouns, they were never misgendered. 

Drag performer Mx. Combobulated, or Mx’d, said the Black Drop was one of the first businesses she visited when she moved to Bellingham five years ago. She said it became a space to go and be surrounded by people who were warm and understanding as she discovered her gender and sexuality.

“If you ask anyone, they'll tell you going to the Black Drop feels like going home,” Mx’d said. 

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Customers packing into the Black Drop Coffeehouse in Bellingham, Wash. on Sunday, Feb, 6 2022. The shop was decorated with a giant skeleton with dangling hearts for Valentines Day. // Photo by Sophia Heit

It’s rare to have a safe space for queers that is inherently non-alcoholic, Mx’d said, and losing Black Drop means people who do not or cannot drink have lost an opportunity for community. She had hoped to put on a “story hour” at the Black Drop, where drag performers could read or tell stories to kids.

Oppelaar, a parent to two queer kids, said it was important to have a space where families could see queer adults thriving, expressing “exactly who they are.” She said she doesn’t know of another space in Bellingham that can fill that role. 

Mx’d said what signals a safe space is more than a queer flag in a window. It’s who the employees are, and how they treat others – how they look at someone, speak to them and how they use gendered comments. 

For those searching for queer safe spaces, Mx’d recommends Avellino Coffeehouse and Homeskillet. Homeyer and Salazar said Mallard Ice Cream, which sells Maniac coffee, is another option. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, Oppelaar made community safety the main priority at the Black Drop. The business suffered as foot traffic slowed, with many usual patrons avoiding social gatherings or working from home.

Oppelaar said the whole restaurant industry is decimated, but it's a lot easier for someone who has a price point of $15 on a dish to survive than somebody selling a $3 cup of coffee.

Approximately 20 downtown Bellingham businesses permanently closed from 2020-2021 according to the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, a non-profit that works with the city to fund COVID-19 relief efforts.

“There was an initial flurry of funding opportunities earlier on in 2020 and less in 2021 with many hoping that vaccinations would usher in a return to normalcy for businesses, however that has been more complicated than expected,” Downtown Bellingham Partnership Executive Director Alice Clark said in an email. She said there are more grant opportunities on the horizon related to federal and state programs, but the details have not been released. 

Clark said there are data gaps when it comes to whether minority-owned businesses have suffered financially at a disproportionate rate during the pandemic, or whether businesses which have taken COVID-19 precautions more seriously have suffered financially at a disproportionate rate.

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Flags from different LGBTQIA+ communities hanging in the window of the Black Drop Coffeehouse in Bellingham, Wash. on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2022. The business will be sorely missed by many. // Photo by Sophia Heit

Oppelaar said it was never about the money – her staff and her community were why she ran the Black Drop. Her employees were the “backbone,” and she always tried to pay them what they were worth. 

Though the Black Drop is closed, its legacy can continue. 

“My message for Bellingham is that I want us to treat our neighbors with kindness and lift each other up,” Oppelaar said. “That means caring for the least of us.”

Sydney Jackson

Sydney Jackson (she/her) ( is a news reporter for The Front and WWU journalism major with a political science focus. Her research and reporting interests include politics, health sciences, social issues and the arts. She enjoys fashion, music, film, reading and creative writing. 

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