Salem’s IKE Box is moving – and taking the building with it

IKE Box, the downtown coffee house, will be moving to a new location in the same neighborhood – and taking the building with it.

IKE Box director Mark Bulgin knew the coffee shop and community hub on Cottage Street at Chemeketa Street might have to move after Salem’s YMCA announced intentions to overhaul and expand its aging building.

Now, with just months until the YMCA begins demolition, Bulgin, his co-director and wife Tiffany, and the board of their nonprofit, Isaac’s Room, have settled on a plan they acknowledge is a little off-the-wall.

“It sounds crazy to move a building,” Bulgin said.

But after looking at other scenarios, he and the board found there was no suitable building to buy or lease in the same neighborhood, and building new would cost as much as picking up the building and putting it on a new foundation.

With the business benefits of keeping a recognizable name and storefront in the same neighborhood, Bulgin said it made sense. The price tag is still being worked out, but Bulgin said it would cost roughly $1 to $1.5 million.

The intensity of community support for the coffee shop, which has served as a meeting place, job training center, band venue and more for over a decade, convinced him it was the right move.

“We don’t think of it as preserving a cool old building, but continuing a community story,” he said. “We wouldn’t be crazy enough to think about this if we didn’t think Salem wanted to.”

Built in the early 1900s as a funeral home, the historic building was for decades home to Rigdon-Ransom Funeral Home, which advertised a “home-like atmosphere” in its Rose Chapel, painted with angels and doves carrying garlands of roses, according to a brochure from the 1950s.

The IKE Box building, on the corner of Cottage Street and Chemeketa Street, was used as a funeral home for decades before being transformed into a coffee shop. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

For 15 years, the building has been home to Isaac’s Room, a nonprofit focused on helping struggling young people with job training. The Bulgins started the organization after their first son, Isaac, died just two months after birth from a congenital heart problem.

The Salem Area Chamber of Commerce recognized the couple with a distinguished service award last year for the effort they’ve put into creating a home for challenged young people in Salem. Earlier this year, they opened a second coffee shop downtown, Isaac’s Coffee, downtown to expand the program.

To the public, the Cottage building is better known as IKE Box, the coffee shop that provides more than half the revenue for Isaac’s Room and gives the young people it serves a place to train and work.

Customers say its atmosphere fosters connection and conversation in a way few other coffee shops do. It’s easy walking distance from the Capitol and counts many state workers among its regulars. The large, open main room once used for funerals has enough space for groups of 10 or 12 to gather comfortably, and the labyrinth-like building boasts many back rooms that can accommodate meetings.

Groups using the shop for meetings include 12-step programs, language exchange clubs, writing groups, church communities and student organizations.

“There’s nothing like this. It’s become this amazing de facto community center in Salem,” said Nancy DeSouza, who’s part of a group of customers working to preserve IKE Box.

The lot it sits on is owned by the YMCA, which planned to demolish the building as part of its renovation, scheduled to start this summer. The lot will eventually be home to an affordable housing apartment building, YMCA CEO Sam Carroll said.

That project is separate from the overhaul of the fitness center and still needs to raise funding, but the YMCA wanted to do demolition at the same time to save on costs, Carroll said.

Isaac’s Room has always been willing to buy the lot from the YMCA, but the organization hasn’t wanted to sell, Bulgin said. Instead, at a recent meeting, they came up with an alternative idea: the YMCA would donate the building if IKE Box could find the money to move it.

“It helps them and helps us,” Carroll said.

When the shop opened, many Salem residents were skeptical of having coffee in a place where they’d once attended the funerals of loved ones, DeSouza said. With the angels and doves still on the walls, and a large furnace from cremations in the basement, the atmosphere struck some as more creepy than cozy.

But DeSouza, who attended her grandmother’s funeral in the parlor upstairs, said she came around quickly to appreciate IKE Box’s charms.

“It isn’t even a diamond in the rough. It’s polished,” she said.

One of IKE Box’s signature mugs, shown during a Saturday morning coffee group gathering. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The nearly century-old building was once part of a neighborhood called Piety Hill, said Hazel Patton, a longtime historical preservation advocate in Salem. It’s one of the few remaining buildings from that era and could be listed on the National Register of Historic Places with the owner’s consent, something Patton would like to see pursued.

“It’s a beautiful building. It has a story. But it’s how it’s used now that really makes it valuable to us,” Patton said.

Bulgin said he’s always known the shop was loved by its regulars, but said he’s gained a new appreciation for that love over the past year.

“As we’ve faced the possibility of the building being torn down, we’ve heard, ‘That’s a shame! What can we do?’” he said. Now, he and the board are counting on that support to raise funds for a move.

Bulgin said they have a location in mind that’s within a block of the current IKE Box, though the finishing touches on an agreement are still being worked out. Once that’s final, the leaders of Isaac’s Room will announce a fundraising push to raise what they need for the move by mid-June.

 “It’s a lot of money to raise in a short amount of time, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Salem community and everyone connected to this place could pull it off,” Bulgin said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.