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Smoke Damage

Jim Pirtle's slipshod nicotine habit spells the end of an era for No tsu oH, but he hopes to rise from the ashes

Yes, there was a small fire at No tsu oH late on the night of June 12. And yes, the Houston Fire Department has shut down the king-hell funky coffee shop/chess club/music venue/art gallery/playhouse and cut off its electricity. That much of the word on the street is true. What's wrong is the part of the story that has No tsu oH padlocked for good.

"No, we're not closed permanently," says co-owner Missy Bosch. "We did have a fire, and the damage is pretty bad. When you have a fire, you have to bring the building up to code. So what we're gonna try to do is get a loan on the building and renovate the upper floors. We're still gonna be a coffee shop, but we're also gonna get a beer-and-wine permit. Also live music. Kinda the same thing, but different."

No tsu oH's polyester-shirted co-owner, creative force and guiding light Jim Pirtle tells Racket the story in his own inimitable way.

"Well, we have to get through a…uh…Marlboro Mediums. Yeah, short." Pirtle is distracted by a friend who's making a smoke run for him. "This is actually the cause of the fire, cigarettes," he says, turning his attention back to the interview. "The damage wasn't from anything other than my own stupidity and desire for nicotine. I woke up naked with fire around me. Fire extinguishers don't work for a piece of shit."

Late that night, Pirtle, who sometimes slept in a crash pad/storage area above the coffee shop, fell asleep on his couch while enjoying the day's last Marlboro. The fire quickly spread from the couch into the 109-year-old building's floorboards. "We couldn't get it out, so we had to call the fire department," says Bosch. "They called the fire marshal and the inspectors, and they were like, 'This is a dangerous place.' "

"We've got to go to a court case, and we don't really know if they're going to charge us with massive fines or what," says a deadly earnest Pirtle. "Apparently we're like a new textbook case in the city for screwing up," he says mirthlessly.

Pirtle is entirely chastened by the experience. From here on out, he says, No tsu oH will be run by the book. He and Bosch are hoping to take out what they estimate will be a $200,000 loan against the value of the building and renovate extensively.

From a financial standpoint, the mere fact that Pirtle and Bosch could swing such a deal is something of a coup: The two bought the building in 1996 for just $20,000 and $100,000 in back taxes. "We bought it six years ago for absolutely nothing, and we didn't have the money to turn it into something," he explains. "Suddenly because of the way property values have gone, we might now have the money to do the building up as it was supposed to have been done then. We'll probably stay closed for a while and retool the entire second floor as a live music venue that's not a cheeseball place. I've got a lot of architect friends and other people who know how to put all this together."

Bosch estimates that No tsu oH will be out of commission for six to 12 months, but both owners see the fire as a blessing in disguise. They admit they had succumbed to inertia. "We always thought we could maybe get a loan, blah blah blah, but now we have to," says Bosch. "The coffee shop wasn't doing so well, and we were kinda getting bored with it. So it's actually a good thing to have had happen. We were talking to people about what we could do, and they were all like, 'Just get a loan on the building, you know? Any bank would be stupid to turn you down.' And yeah, we should do it right now when business is bad and the streets are all torn up. By the time we open back up, everything will be back to normal down there."

Pirtle agrees that downtown business had been slumping, but he's hesitant to blame it on the never-ending construction. "Let's also blame the cycle of people's interest," he says. "I think all the construction has covered the fact that a lot of people's lame ideas had run their course."

Pirtle counts No tsu oH among the stale ideas. Racket finds that view unduly harsh, but Pirtle insists that the decline in business showed people didn't care about the place anymore.

"I felt like it was getting so damn irrelevant in people's minds," he says. "This is the first time I've discovered that people actually care. But it's that damn thing of you don't miss your girlfriend until she leaves you. It's like when you ask her, 'Why did you do that?' and she goes, 'Well, you ignored me and didn't give a shit about me.' If you want cool things in this town, you have to go to them."

But even Pirtle is looking on the bright side. "There's absolutely no damage to the building," he says. "All there is is psychic damage…We're not getting busted by someone getting hurt and we're getting sued. There's so many scenarios that could have ended the game as a real sad story. And this is 'Well, Jim got his fingers and hands burned and has blisters on them,' but I'm not gonna sue myself."

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