Cairo: One Pyramid at a Time

How a local shop is expanding to create a community, brick by brick.

If you've stopped into Capitol Hill's Cairo, casually browsed through their selection of vintage wear, and maybe bought some handmade jewelry or secondhand moccasins, you've seen only one facet of the boutique on Summit Avenue East and East Mercer Street. Since its beginnings as a gallery for local art in April 2008, Cairo's become a home for silk-screening, live music, and, most recently, a record label. "It was very intentional," says co-owner Joel Leshefka, 34, of the space's branching out. "The structure that we created right off the bat was super-fluid." Leshefka and co-founder/store manager Aimee Butterworth, 28, are seated at a table in Cairo's whitewashed back room—where the makeshift live shows take place—along with Ian Judd, 24, who serves as their official booker. Last year, Cairo released a compilation called The Cold Jungle, featuring contributions from regulars like Witch Gardens, Secret Colors, M. Women, Wet Paint DMM, and other bands who consider the space home turf. The success of that compilation led to the formation of Cairo Records in June. The Cairo team envisions their label as a midway point between DIY self-releases and larger labels like Sub Pop: releasing a record on Cairo is meant to serve as a step up between the former and the latter. "We imagine that they'll go out and move on to a much larger label after [us]," says Leshefka. In other words, if Sub Pop is Harvard or Yale, Cairo Records is meant to be something like community college for lesser-known artists. Cairo Records' first official release, earlier this month, was Flexions' Golden Fjord. Flexions also appeared on The Cold Jungle, and their bassist, Robin Stein, works on the label's staff. Leshefka says that for now, the label is "keeping it in the family"—meaning that although anyone's welcome to send them material to check out, they're going to start by focusing on bands that already frequent Cairo. On Saturday, Cairo's efforts will extend beyond their tiny space with the inaugural Vibrations Festival at the Volunteer Park Amphitheater. Vibrations, Judd's brainchild, is an entire day of Cairo-approved live music—a chance for bands in the Cairo family to share a bill with outsiders who Judd felt matched the Cairo aesthetic, and to expose a larger audience to that community. "When Ian first brought the idea to me, I kind of built a visual image of people hanging out outside, kind of like a magical twilight hour, listening to good music and hanging out in the park," says Butterworth. "[And] if it starts raining, we'll just break out the Slip 'n Slides." Fund-raising through private and small-business donations to keep the fest free, the Cairo crew has put together a day that includes food vendors, DJs for the intermissions, and booths for local clothing and jewelry artists. The impressive lineup of bands features Cairo familiars like Stephanie and Seapony, local hip-hoppers Metal Chocolates, and two out-of-town headliners: San Francisco girl rockers Grass Widow and Portland electro-funk duo Purple & Green. It makes sense that Cairo's looking to extend even further beyond their established family of bands—it's the same upward trajectory by which a one-room art gallery evolved into a festival-hosting, band-promoting, album-distributing record label.

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