Floyd McIssac still worked at Sears when he opened Changes, Seattle’s longest continuously operated gay bar in Wallingford 35 years ago. He didn’t have high expectations and said he only bought it because he thought it would cover his car payment. 

Back in 1989, McIssac was tired of the scene on Capitol Hill. If you lived north of the ship canal, reaching the bars was a hassle, and the bars didn’t feel communal.

“You felt more like a number than a person,” he said. He wanted a classic dive, something like “Cheers,” “where everybody knew your name.”

He kept a meticulous list of all the things he liked, and disliked, about other Seattle gay bars. He painted the walls black, so it felt like the classic San Francisco spaces. He installed TVs and a sound system. He held Halloween costume contests and claims he gave way more prizes than any other bar in town. He selected high tables and chairs so people entering the bar blend in with the crowd. Other bars had low tables, which made him feel like a model walking in on a runway, he joked.

The Stranger talked with McIssac before the bar celebrated 35 years on the last day of January. He talked about the bar, and his experiences as a young gay man visiting Seattle bars during the 1970s.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Happy birthday, Changes! JP MARTIN PHOTOGRAPHY

Do you remember the first night that you opened?

It started snowing, and we had probably one of the worst snowstorms that we've ever had. [The next day], there was like a foot of snow on the ground. We actually had a very good turnout, because of the person who worked for the [Seattle Gay News]. He made sure we had ads together to promote the bar months before I opened. We had probably 30 people, which for that bar is a pretty good turnout considering, prior to that, if they ever had 30 people in that bar—it would have been a miracle.

What was it before?

It was called the Bus Stop. I don't know if you would call it a lesbian bar at that time, but it was owned by two gals. They were partners. But it was a neighborhood bar. I used to stop by there with a friend of mine all the time who didn't want to go to the Hill. It was never busy. I mean, maybe five people was the busiest I'd ever seen it. I was in there one night, I said to the girls, ‘What would it take for you to walk out this door and never come back in here?’ The one gal, she came up with a number … When I bought the bar, it really had no business going on there. I don't even know how they afforded to keep the doors open. But I instantly turned it around the day I bought it.

How’d you do that?

At that time, 1989, all the [gay] bars were located on the Hill. Everything that was downtown had closed, because prior to that there were a lot of bars downtown and they all moved up to Capitol Hill. I just think it was a terrible attitude when you went to those places up there. The bartenders weren't very nice. You were just a number, I guess you would say. And there was really no personal contact or no customer service.  I really promoted [Changes] to let people know that when they came in there, they were going to be treated well … I could care less what you look like, I could care less if you're a male or female, I want to treat every person as a person, as an individual so they felt welcome; they felt special. I’ve been treated that way, too, as I got older in a couple of bars on Capitol Hill. Your age has absolutely nothing to do with it, and your sex has absolutely nothing to do with it. We welcome everybody. I sponsor a couple lesbian softball teams. In the summertime. They play right up the street from the bar. A lot of transgender people come in there. Back in the day, there was, you know, a particular bar on Capitol Hill, that was a ladies bar, and they didn't like men in it, and then there were some men's bar that didn't want women in it. We’re a community, everybody needs to be welcomed in a place.

Do you have regulars who’ve been there from the start?

I was 36 when I opened up the bar, so I'm going to be 71 here at the end of [January]. There’s a handful. We have had a few of them that have passed away, but we have a handful of people that still come in there that’ve been there from maybe, well, from day one. I have a lot of customers that don't come in much anymore because they are older, that met their partner there, and they've been together for that many years. That's where I met my partner who passed away five years ago. 

What’s changed for gay bars in the last 35 years?

When I first opened up, it was mainly a men’s bar, and it was a gay bar. So not too many straight people actually went there at that time. It was basically all gay men, and occasionally a couple of ladies. But the trend has come to where you get more straight people into your bar, like in our neighborhood, it's kind of a mixed bag, as far as my customers go. That was something that I had to get used to because it was a men's kind of a place when I first opened up and because of past experiences with gay bars, we didn't really want it to be overrun by a bunch of straight people. I see a lot of places just lose their whole gay crowd to a straight crowd and end up closing. I wanted everyone to feel welcome and I wanted to make sure it didn't lose the gay atmosphere it had.

Why is it important for queer people to have these spaces?

There's a lot of stuff out there. There’s bath houses. There’s parks or whatever. People need to go places where they can actually sit down and talk to someone and actually get some social skills. Number one, we're supposed to be a safe spot. I keep thinking back to years ago, and you go to a straight bar, and oh, my god, if you were gay, and they found out, you were lucky to make it to your car without getting killed [laughs]. People need those safe spaces where they know it is a place where they're welcome. 

Do you remember the first gay bar you went to?

I was 18 years old. I met this guy and he took me the Golden Horseshoe in Pioneer Square. I probably shouldn't have been there. But he says, "Oh, nobody will ever question your age." The group that I hung around with at that time, we had all just graduated from high school. A group of us moved in together. We were all 18, 19 years old, and we used to throw these huge parties at our apartment back in the day. Then there was a bar down in Pioneer Square, it was called Greek Porch. You went upstairs, and they had this restaurant where you could sit and then there was a bar where you couldn't sit if you're underage, but they had a dance floor where you could dance. 

What made these spaces important to you?

When you're under 21 years old, at that time, they didn't have anywhere where you could go to really meet anybody. There weren't any clubs or, or groups or anything like that. Back in the day, before you turned 21, it was tough in this town because everybody went to bars. If you're under 21, you had to get a fake ID to get in there. I never wanted to go down that route. When I was 18 years old, the police used to really harass the bars in Pioneer Square. They really used to harass the community. They were plainclothes police, and they would drive around in these unmarked Dodge Darts. But we all knew that they were cops.

One day, I was down in Pioneer Square by myself, I was gonna meet up with some friends. One of those Dodge Darts pulled up next to me and the cops threw me in the back of that car. I was 18. I had just come out. They rode me around, and other cops came up, and they would roll their window down and go, "Oh, I see. You got one." And they go, "Yeah, we got one." They said, "Well, what are you gonna do with him, kill it?" And they said, "Well, we haven't decided what we're going to do with him, yet." One actually shouted to the other one, "Oh, I see you got yourself a faggot." One would call back to the other one, "Yeah, I got myself a faggot."

I was so scared for over an hour. There must have been 10 different cop plainclothes cop cars that came up. That was the scariest thing I went through in my whole life. Those two hours in the back of that plainclothes police car. I thought I was going to die. I thought they were going to kill me. It made me feel like, was this something that they may have done before? You know what I mean? Back then they didn't care how they treated people, especially gay people. They treated us horribly back then. They finally let me go and I would never go anywhere by myself again after that. I always made sure I was with my friends. That has weighed heavy on me since I was 18 years old. We're talking in the early '70s here. They were down in those areas, really harassing people. I mean, big time. They would raid the bars all the time. Almost every night, they would have like 20 cops come into a bar that would only have like 15 people in it. They’d turn down the music, turn up the lights, frisk everybody, and check their IDs. This was about the time right after Stonewall … Even with the changes in the police department and everything else, I have been reluctant to call the cops at Changes if we ever have any problems.

Wow. Have you ever seen a raid?

Three of my friends were in a bar in Pioneer Square. Everybody knew how old we were. It must have been 15 undercover cops who came in the door. Our friends kind of gathered around them and started pulling their IDs out and told us get the hell out of here. I don't know how we managed to get out of that place without getting caught. But all four of us got out of there. What was amazing is they used to post somebody at the door who would check every ID. So we just lucked out. It was just one of those lucky things.