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The Shirlee Bird Café in Fairhaven turns out a wide array of coffee drinks, baked goods, salads, sandwiches and breakfasts that is downright shocking, given its small footprint in the Sycamore Square building. Now owner Shirlee Jones has opened a second location in downtown Bellingham, moving into the space occupied by the beloved Black Drop Coffeehouse before it closed in early 2022.

Shirlee was raised in a small southeastern Idaho town whose only claim to fame is that it’s near where the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” was filmed. But that tidbit of trivia was not enough to keep her there. “I got to Bellingham as soon as I could,” she says. “I picked Western because they had a dance team and a softball team, and I studied international political economy and philosophy.”

A dancer from the age of three, Shirlee joined several different dance teams during her time at Western. “Coming from small-town Idaho, I was pretty proud of myself to take on that stuff and be picked to perform,” says Shirlee. “But what I actually found was the women’s rugby team.” In addition to discovering a new passion and developing a new set of skills, she also found she had to explain her rugby bruises to her fellow dancers, and her ballet classes to her rugby teammates.

Emmy shows off a delicious array of pastries, all of which are freshly baked specifically for the coffee shop. Photo credit: Steven Arbuckle

While the physical demands of playing rugby are obvious enough, Shirlee also found a different source of a different kind of strength that could serve her through the rest of her life. “I learned a lot about what women could do. I’m really weird where I’m from, and when I moved here, I found out that it was fine to be a strong, feminine woman, and to do all those different things. I was greatly blessed to meet all those women and be guided by them.”

After paying her way through two years at Western, Shirlee decided to move to Boise, to take advantage of in-state tuition rates. And she also saved money by cooking for herself, a simple decision that would affect her life’s trajectory. “I started making cookies, and they were awful. So, I started making better ones. Then I moved to my mom’s in Southern California and went to culinary school and started making desserts and waiting tables at a couple of fancy restaurants.”

The new location, in downtown Bellingham, has resurrected the very same espresso machine that gave the beloved Black Drop Coffeehouse its start. Photo credit: Steven Arbuckle

She brought her new skillset with her when she returned to Western to finish her bachelor’s degree and worked at a now-defunct downtown eatery called Chiribin’s. Her connections there led her to jobs at current downtown staples D’Anna’s and Avenue Bread. “I started baking at Avenue when it was just the downtown location, and we made everything by hand and from scratch, on site,” she says. “Hundreds of croissants, thousands of scones — I worked 40 hours a week for them while I finished my bachelors in 2004.”

And rather than celebrating by taking a break from all the hard work, Shirlee decided to strike out again. She spent some time travelling around the world before settling in Ashland, Oregon, to run what she describes as a fancy cheese shop. But Bellingham beckoned again, and Shirlee began to notice a pattern. “I decided to move back up here because I always landed here better than I left,” she says. “And I feel like each one of those jobs was pivotal and taught me how I want to run a business — and how I don’t want to run a business.”

In addition to hard work and smart decisions, Shirlee attributes her success to the support she’s received from her network of friends. Photo credit: Steven Arbuckle

When she returned, Mike Waters, owner of the Senate Smoke Shop, and Mo Green, who worked the counter for him, were able to help Shirlee put her ideas to use. “I signed a lease for my first brick-and-mortar shop the day after I heard about it, because Mo and Mike vouched for me,” Shirlee says. “It opened August 31st of 2015, and we’ve been open seven days a week ever since.”

Since opening Shirlee Bird Cafe, Shirlee has survived a global pandemic and overcome a terrible broken ankle that plagued her for 18 months. It was baking on crutches that finally taught her to truly rely on her employees. “My employees have blown me away since the day I could afford to have one, and that’s still true today,” she says.

Shirlee Jones has distilled her experiences in life — including travel, learning new skills, and working for others — into a business model that keeps her and her employees happy and successful. Photo credit: Pat Beggan / www.patbeggan.com

With years of success at her own business — and some help behind the counter — Shirlee was recently presented with a business opportunity she says she literally could not refuse. “I’m real picky about who I do business with, but the building is owned by DVSAS,” Shirlee says, referring to Bellingham’s Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services nonprofit. “The tenants I’m leasing from moved here the same year I did, and have just been devoted, bad-ass Bellingham women this whole time. We have similar inspirations and memories.”

The deal also involves Shirlee taking over a very special piece of equipment that has been in the building since the former tenants left. “There are legacy pieces of the Black Drop that Bellingham needs, and the espresso machine I have now used to be theirs. It was one of the last built in Seattle and it was the one that first opened the Black Drop. It’s unbelievable,” says Shirlee. The new location is open downtown from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday; hours for the original Fairhaven cafe are daily from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

If there’s something driving Shirlee to preserve her love of this community, it’s probably because the love of this community is what has preserved her. “None of this could have happened without the community around me,” she says. “I survived on the kindness of my community for years before the general populace found me. My cafe was completely built by friends and love and teamwork.”

Featured photo by Pat Beggan / www.patbeggan.com

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