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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story

David Ishii, Bookseller: In his life and in his store, he chronicles the city's story

There is nothing easier to spot — and harder to quantify — than charisma. Generally speaking, we resign ourselves to the fact that some people have it and most don't, and we allow ourselves mindlessly to enjoy our encounters with those who do.

There is something particularly maddening, though, about David Ishii's charisma, which emanates not only from the man himself but also from his store. When you step through either door of David Ishii Bookseller — the entrance from inside the Grand Central foyer in Pioneer Square or directly from First Avenue — you feel it immediately: You are in an oddly wonderful place, occupied by an oddly wonderful proprietor.

It is a tiny, packed space, lined with crowded bookshelves, with more books and magazines piled high on the floor, a staircase leading to a book-packed loft, and what little bare space there is on the walls festooned with photographs of Asian-American literary figures, two baby pictures of Ishii, caricatures of the Seattle Mariners' Kazuhiro Sasaki and Ichiro Suzuki, former Baltimore Oriole shortstop Len Sakata's baseball card, paintings, drawings, framed fly-fishing lures and various other personal mementos. Stacks of dog-treat boxes, Ishii says, are for "all my buddies who drop by."

The proprietor spends his days slouched in a chair beside his rolltop desk, in his trademark spectacles and fly-fisherman's cap, reading or doing crossword puzzles. Hunkered down in his chair, he is barely noticeable — almost as if he is just another thing packed into the store.

Ishii is a short, unprepossessing man who scarcely seems to notice when someone walks in. Ask him a question, though — particularly one about books, baseball, the arts or Seattle history — and he jumps up and starts chattering with such evident pleasure that you'd swear he's been waiting all his life just to answer your question. His talk is punctuated by a giggling laugh described in novelist Frank Chin's "The Gunga Din Highway" (which includes a character, Milton Shiro, who is based on Ishii) as sounding "like a Volkswagen engine."

For the greater part of the store's history — Ishii opened it in 1972 — I have made a habit of dropping in from time to time not so much to buy books as to get a fix of one kind or another for my soul. There is something about the place that exudes Seattleness (whatever that is, exactly) more than any other place in the city. And during the recent times when Seattle seemed given over to the quest for quick riches and a place on the world stage, the store stood steadfast for what Seattle at its best always has been: arts-centric, laid back, generous, unpretentious and overfond of the kind of values that can make you happy (whatever that means, exactly), but will never make you rich.

Ishii and his store constitute an unrivaled encyclopedia of Seattle history, arcana and minutiae. In 1976, unable to find who had coined the term "Darigold," The Seattle Times turned to Ishii, who not only gave the paper the man's name — C.P. Constantine — but also a copy of his book, "Advertising in Action." I doubt that there exists anywhere a book by a Seattle writer, or about anything related to Seattle, that can't be found somewhere in Ishii's jam-packed inventory, and his collection of books on the Northwest School artists is one of the store's innumerable hidden treasures.

Standing amid the jumble in his store, I asked him once how he knew what was there. "I can't tell you what I have," he answered, "but I can tell you where everything is if you ask. Because I've held every book in here in my hands and studied it."

Two years ago, I stopped in at Ishii's one day on a whim. I lingered, picking out some books about Seattle's past, savoring the peacefulness of the place. And as happens almost every time I visit the store, I heard this exchange:

"Do you take credit cards?"

"No, I don't take cards. You can either pay me with cash or a check, or if you don't have anything on you now, just take the books and send me a check when you get home."

I bought two books that day, by Emmett Watson, and asked Ishii about a third. "I'll call Emmett's daughter," he said, "and get some more copies of it. I can have it for you in a couple of days."

I stood there watching him, wrapping my purchases in brown paper and tying the package with string. He wrote out a sales receipt by hand. A rotary phone hung on the wall. His desk was covered with papers, books and other, less identifiable, detritus, the pile partly covering a manual typewriter. No computer, no cell phone, no answering machine. I was standing in a place out of time — a place that simultaneously transcends history, makes history, buys and sells history, and disdains going along with the rest of us on history's wild ride.

EVERYONE WHO has met Ishii raves about him. When he was hospitalized after a heart attack a year and a half ago, his room was packed with visitors every day, from dawn to dusk. "I couldn't believe it," marvels his older brother, George. "I had no idea how many people cared about him."

Everyone in Pioneer Square knows who he is, and such is his familiarity with the place that many consider him a kind of mayor.

A block south of his store, at Elliott Bay Books, general manager Tracy Taylor says, "I don't know what we'd do without him. I've been down here at 2:30 in the morning during Mardi Gras, and he's the first one here helping us board up our windows. He brings us buckets of caramel corn every year for Christmas. And he knows everything that's going on in the neighborhood." Adds Rick Simonson, the store's senior buyer and readings coordinator, "David is such a bridge and link for all kinds of people here. He is such a steadfast supporter of all the arts, does so much behind the scenes."

Walk around Pioneer Square with Ishii and there is almost no building or other kind of space in the area that doesn't remind him of a story. (Ishii not only works in Pioneer Square, he also has lived there for 17 years.) Walking through the cobblestone square itself, he starts talking, unprompted, as is his wont, this time about the cobblestones we are navigating. "The square was designed by Ilse Johnson," he says. "She worked right up there" — he points to the second floor of the Union Trust Building, across Main Street. "She wanted to design a low-maintenance park. She had these cobblestones put in and this grass seed planted in the space between them. But pigeons ate all the seeds, and the park turned into an incredibly high-maintenance space." He laughs. "And everybody absolutely hated these cobblestones."

As we head over to Torrefazione Coffee, he manages to bring me up to date on the history of every storefront we pass. "That's where Das Gasthaus used to be . . . where the Seattle magazine crowd hung out. When it opened in the mid-1970s — that was the beginning of the revival of Pioneer Square. And that" — pointing now to the Bank of America on Main — "used to be a wholesale grocery store owned by Nathan Eckstein. He used to carry Gold Medal Coffee there."

ISHII'S OWN FAMILY saga is about as quintessentially Seattle a story as you could ever hear. His father, Gunzo Ishii, left Japan at age 15 in the early 1920s, eventually making his way to Neah Bay, where he landed a job as a houseboy to a lighthouse keeper who was himself a Scottish immigrant. Needing an American name, Ishii took the name of the lighthouse keeper's son, Robbie, which he learned to pronounce with a long "o," as the Scottish do.

Several months later, Robbie learned there were better jobs east of the mountains, and he set off for Spokane. He was hired by a traveling brewery salesman, J.W. Dunn, as someone to help out his wife while he was away. After a month or so, says George Ishii, Mrs. Dunn told him his job had ended. "My dad burst into tears — it was the first time he'd been able to live in a house since he'd come over, and he'd gotten really attached to Mrs. Dunn." Nonplussed, she decided to keep Robbie on until her husband could come home and fire him. "But he turned out to be even more soft-hearted than his wife," George says. "They kept him on but made him go to school so he could learn English."

Not long after, the Dunns moved to Seattle, where J.W. went into partnership in the Strom Seed Co. (years later, the space would become the first Starbucks location). After buying the company outright and renaming it the J.W. Dunn Seed Co., Dunn hired Robbie Ishii as a translator and salesman to area Japanese-American farmers. A picture on the current Starbucks counter at 1912 Pike Place shows Robbie Ishii standing behind the counter.

The Dunns were childless and had more or less adopted Robbie. He married Seattleite Etsu Nagawara "on their orders," George Ishii says, and they would have seven children, the last one being David.

When David was born at Swedish Hospital in 1935, his mother died delivering him. With four other children at home, two daughters living with relatives in Japan, himself suffering from cancer and about to travel to Japan, Robbie Ishii was overwhelmed and decided to board the new baby at Swedish until he could sort things out. Incredibly, the arrangement was to last five years — the first three of which David spent living at the hospital, the last two largely with a Vashon Island family related to one of the nurses, Ruth Ulleland. "I was brought up by Norwegians," David Ishii says now. "Boy, that was really something."

The "community baby," as he was called in an occasional series of Seattle Times stories at the time, was something of a local celebrity. "David has a lot of mothers here," Ulleland said in a story about Ishii's fourth birthday party, celebrated at the hospital. "Every nurse on the floor keeps an eye on him — and everybody loves him. David is everybody's boy."

It would not be until 1939, when David was nearly 5, that his father would manage to return from Japan, remarried, and get his family back together — only to die of cancer almost immediately thereafter. He died leaving his family in the care of the Dunns and the children's new stepmother, the former Mary Doi. "The family life of little David Ishii is complicated but cozy," reported The Times in 1942. "Today David faces evacuation from the Pacific Coast, like all members of his race, alien or American-born. But if there's a Japanese boy in the world who's used to change and various living conditions, it's David." Ishii may have done more than anyone in Seattle to give a human face to the interned in the eyes of the white community.

George was to return to Seattle as soon as Japanese-Americans were allowed to do so, partly because the Dunns were desperate for his help at the family store. "It was like 'all in the family' or something," he says, "with grandparents looking out for our belongings and everything. It wasn't a problem for us, the way it was for others. We didn't have to face the hardships others had."

Even so, David's stepmother moved part of the family to Milwaukee after the war, for fear of mistreatment, putting off their return to Seattle until 1947. David would go to Queen Anne High, then put in "three years or so" at Seattle Pacific College before taking a job in 1953 in advertising sales for The Times. He would hold that job for 15 years, then leave to work at Seattle magazine for five years. When the magazine folded, Ishii took a summer off before opening David Ishii Bookseller.

ISHII STARTED gravitating to the arts early on and almost immediately made them the focus of his life. He still remembers his first encounter with a Mark Tobey drawing, of a New York City mounted policeman, when he was 25. And he was hooked on theater for the rest of his life, he says, when he went to a traveling performance "somewhere back in the 1950s" of "The King and I," with Yul Brynner at the Orpheum Theatre. "In those days; there were only four theaters here, and I went to everything," he says. He had a similar epiphany at the 1950s Chrysler Exhibit in the Seattle Art Museum. "I bought a catalog and stood before every picture and read the description. I did that three times; it started me going to every art show in Seattle after that."

For some 25 years, Ishii went to an art event almost every night: gallery shows, theater performances, chamber music, opera, dance. (There are advantages to being, as Ishii is, a lifelong bachelor.) It was to be an unbreakable routine until the arrival of the Seattle Mariners in 1977, baseball stealing his heart almost immediately. He has been a season-ticket holder since the birth of the franchise. His stature as a fan is such that when Ishii was hospitalized, , he heard Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus wishing him a speedy recovery on the air.

Aside from a near-lifetime on the boards of Allied Arts and the Allied Arts Foundation, Ishii's most overt support for the arts has come from his bookstore, an antiquarian shop that keeps alive works that have fallen out of fashion and out of print, that restores collections — Ishii almost single-handedly brought out of obscurity generations of forgotten Asian-American writers when he opened — and the role his store played in nurturing a new generation of Asian-American writers in the 1970s and '80s. "David's store was like a stop on the Underground Railroad for Asian-American writers," says Elliott Bay's Simonson.

It is when talking about this stage in Ishii's life that the writer Frank Chin comes to confuse Ishii with Seattle, Seattle with Ishii, as if the two are interchangeable. "I felt that I had stepped into a strangely protected atmosphere, that Seattle was the place for Chinese and Japanese in America, but that once we stepped outside, we returned to the world that was hostile and intolerant to Asians, Chin says. "I told people of Seattle, and the Japanese leprechaun-troll David Ishii, and Alan Lau and Frank Abe and Shawn Wong and a few others moved up to Seattle to practice their arts in a congenial, easy atmosphere where people noticed you were yellow and you noticed they were white, and the sky is especially blue, and Rainier is out today."

That's exactly it, I think, the next time I am talking with Ishii. This lifelong Seattleite who was born Japanese, raised by Norwegians and dedicated to savoring the city's life his whole life, is a kind of human representation of the city itself. It strikes me that our esteem for him, his charisma, is due at least in part to his being a kind of human litmus for measuring the state of the city. If he were to decline, it might be because Seattle has turned into something other than itself.

So it is with considerable relief, while I am regarding Ishii sitting happily now over a cappuccino, remembering all the drastic changes the city has been through over the past 20 years or so, that I hear him deliver this verdict:

"I think about how incredibly laid back we used to be," he says, "back before the World's Fair. Everything's completely different now!" He pauses, and smiles with a kind of epic contentedness. "But now when I look back on all of it, I think, 'We didn't do too bad. We did pretty good. We did pretty good.' "

Fred Moody is an author, most recently of "Seattle and the Demons of Ambition." Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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