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Originally published Friday, July 20, 2012 at 8:41 PM

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Cafe Racer stages resolute reopening on another tragic day

Rain-soaked customers turned out to support the Cafe Racer on Friday, its first day of business since a gunman killed four people there in May.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Standing behind the bar at Cafe Racer on Friday morning, Leonard Meuse rubbed his eyes and stared off into space — only to be pulled back to reality by the sizzling griddle behind him.

Meuse, 46, the chef at the cafe, hustled up and down a stairwell in his kilt, slinging breakfast orders and offering a smile and a handshake to rain-soaked customers who turned out to support the University District cafe on its first day of business since a gunman killed four people there in May.

The cafe's reopening came on the same day a gunman walked into a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and opened fire, killing 12 people and wounding 58. While some customers talked about Colorado shootings among themselves, the cafe employees were mostly focused on the work at hand.

Employee Nancy Neyhart did say that what happened in Colorado wasn't going to stop the cafe from opening.

"We set the plan in motion, and it had to be followed through. It just makes us want to be kind of more about being alive in the face of adversity. If we stop, everything that's bad wins."

Among the first customers at Cafe Racer when it opened at 8 a.m. were Meuse's parents, who chatted with those around them, took photos — and watched their son closely.

"I'm a little shaky," Meuse said on Friday as he walked out of an upstairs lounge that holds memorabilia of the four cafe victims. "I don't know what normal is anymore."

Meuse is the only victim to survive the May 30 massacre; he suffered gunshot wounds to the jaw and armpit. His friends, Joe Albanese, 52; Drew Keriakedes, 45; Kimberly Layfield, 38; and Donald Largen, 57, were all slain by one-time customer Ian Stawicki.

After opening fire inside Cafe Racer, the business that had kicked him out on occasion, Stawicki, 40, headed to a parking lot next to Town Hall on First Hill where he killed Gloria Koch Leonidas, 52, during a carjacking. Stawicki fatally shot himself later that day on a West Seattle sidewalk.

Sitting at a table with her 4-year-old son, cafe employee Neyhart pointed out the new interior paint color, a dark khaki, and the new black and chrome bar stools, donated by restaurateur Tom Douglas. She said that everyone — including their vendors, Cafe Vita, longtime customers and complete strangers — chipped in to get the restaurant ready to reopen.

"The best way to describe this place is 'your other living room,' " she said as her son, decked from head to toe in Cafe Racer lime green, scanned a comic book. "In here, no one is a stranger."

Ava Shockley used to stop by the cafe almost daily when she worked at a University District hair salon a few years ago.

"I've worked on my days off the last six weeks to do my part putting things back together," she said.

The cafe walls are lined with eclectic art, including a painting of President Obama and a large photo of Cafe Racer owner Kurt Geissel. A plaque, donated by Kimberly Layfield's family, reads, "The song has ended, but the melody lingers on."

Dave, a longtime customer who gave only his first name, said Cafe Racer has been a second home to his wife and him. The couple were in Frankfurt, Germany, when the shootings occurred. Dave has been at the restaurant every day this week offering support, while the staff worked out the kinks during several days of soft openings.

Everyone knew the cafe was magical, but the carefree feeling isn't quite there anymore, he said.

"There's a sense of innocence lost."

But to new customers running in from the rain to order plates of eggs and steaming cups of coffee, the cafe was still a special place.

Ali Daniali peeled off his soaked raincoat and ordered a cup of coffee to go. He had never been to the cafe before but found it important to stop by for the grand opening.

"I wanted to show support to the people who work here," he said, offering kind words and a handshake to Meuse.

After making the rounds, filling coffee cups and checking on customers, Neyhart sat down and talked about the importance of reopening quickly. Had they not pushed to get Cafe Racer back, the business "would have been another shooting victim."

"If Racer had shut its doors permanently, he (Stawicki) would have won everything and our friends would have lost everything," she said.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.

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