Seven months after retiring from the Seattle Public Library, Chris Higashi is still getting mail there.
“Two cards just came in,” she says over coffee at Amandine in Capitol Hill. People are still sending her thank-you cards for her years of work with the Library, particularly as program manager of the Washington Center for the Book.
“I was so very lucky to love the work I did,” she marvels. “I’ve been showered with appreciation. But my work wasn’t about me—it was about the experiences that people brought and came to the events, about the writers. It was about the impact on people’s lives.”
“It’s a gift,” Higashi says, that she gets to hear from people about the impact of her career. People regularly stop her on the streets, she says, to give her a hug, to talk about a Library event they’d attended, or remember a ceremony for the Washington State Book Awards.
A self-proclaimed auto-didact (a “college dropout,” she says, somewhat ruefully), she’s learned her world vividly and voraciously through reading. Although she was an avid reader as a child growing up in Seattle, Higashi’s career was not always in books. She managed the offices for two Seattle law firms, where she gained experience in writing, proofreading, and project management—all skills that would eventually serve her well at the Seattle Public Library. She liked her work enough: “They were good people, working for good causes,” she says—but something was missing. The unexpected tragic death of one of her colleagues sent her to “run away” to Hawai‘i for a short time, in shock. She returned to Seattle and found her “refuge” at Elliott Bay Books in the early 1990s, when it was still located in Pioneer Square. “I thought I was always going to be there,” she says now. “Everyone talked about books all the time.”
Eventually former lawyer colleagues helped to recruit her from Elliott Bay to work in office management again. She worked as an executive assistant at the Library for a year. “I was depressed,” she says, “because nobody really talked about books.” She made friends with the new Deputy City Librarian, though.
Then SPL hired Nancy Pearl from Tulsa as City Librarian. Pearl came with “her many talents,” Higashi says, “but she didn’t know Seattle.” Higashi did. They became friends. Together the two of them developed the program “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book,” which became “Seattle Reads” and has been successfully duplicated in other cities around the nation.
In 1989, Seattle applied for funding to have a full-time coordinator for the Washington Center for the Book, housed at the Library. They already had a coordinator, but that person had to split those duties with other responsibilities. Higashi saw a need for a full-time coordinator. “Seattle was already on the book tour circuit,” she says. “We already supported these book tours with special collections that we’d lend to book groups, to individuals.” Higashi and her colleagues hoped for programming that would provide broader community reach, particularly at the branch libraries.
The programming underwent some funding shifts, but Higashi and the Library were able to create new events—films, panel discussions, conversations between visiting authors and local writers about the same theme. “I wanted [the events] to put the book in context, help the readers understand more,” she explains. “They were not always well-attended, but for the people who came, the events did exactly what we wanted to do.” To connect everyone to the book under discussion, that is. Authors would visit for as many as five days at a time, connected to larger and smaller events throughout Seattle libraries. Higashi accompanied the writers through most of their visits.
Higashi cites BOOK-IT Repertory Theater as a powerful force in these events. These events provide dramatic readings of portions of a book, often stopping at a pivotal point. “It brought a different audience to the events,” she says, “but it also opened up different conversations.” Her favorite events have included authors such as Greg Martin, Isabel Allende, and Julie Otsuka. Martin’s event, a performance of his memoir Stories for Boys was especially moving, even to the author. “[Martin] came up to the podium at the end of the performance,” Higashi remembers, “and he was in tears. ‘I wrote those words,’ he said, ‘but my heart hurts so bad.”
Higashi also recalls Otsuka’s event for When The Emperor Was Divine at the Beacon Hill branch. It was moderated by Densho’s Tom Ikeda and attended by many Japanese Americans, including Bainbridge Island resident Fumiko Hayashida. Ikeda asked them to stand and be recognized, and many were also in tears.
“It’s easy for people to talk about building community,” Higashi now reflects, “but we really did it. Everything was free and open to the public.” She talks about the community with respect, as an entity that she feels privileged to have served. “Those people you hear about who only read one book a year,” she muses, “I don’t know how [they] navigate the world [without reading].”
And so she’s off to travel for a little while, using the time to enjoy her new chapter and reflect on her next steps. But books will always remain part of the picture. She’s been a visible figure in Seattle for so long, and she’s attended a few readings since retiring. But it’s still a bit difficult to think about attending Library events. Still recovering from her injury (a fractured femur) in April 2016, she remembers that she’ll “just have to do it all a little slower.”
One of her first stops on her travels? The Jaipur Literature Festival in India.