BY JUDITH VAN PRAAG
Examiner Arts Writer
On Dec. 31, 2005, visitors were ushered into the space at 212 First Ave. in Pioneer Square, which for 32 years had housed David Ishii’s well-known book store. Except for a few framed photographs on the red brick walls, some shelves, boxes filled with odds and ends and an answering machine on the floor, the space was cleared. Cleared, but far from empty.
The vacant store was filled with folks who wanted to bid the bookseller goodbye. Ishii had gone out for lunch and was expected to return through the front door. In order to surprise him, people moved away from the entrance, up the stairs to the mezzanine, or into the grand hall of the old Pioneer Square mall. Among the latter was Walter Carr, the founder of Elliott Bay Books, who opened his business only a few months after Ishii started his.
Carr reminisced about how the first week his store was open, a woman entered and disappeared into the biography section, returning with a 12-inch pile of costly books. Leaving her name, she said she would go out for lunch and return to pick them up later. Carr rushed out to ask Ishii if he knew the lady and whether she was for real. Ishii had said she was one of the richest people in town and happened to like books. He assured Carr that she would return and buy that pile. That’s how their collegial relationship started.
Gathering from anecdotes, Ishii has often surprised his patrons with unexpected actions.
“One time a Scandinavian lady spent the night in the store after David, not knowing she was still on the mezzanine, locked up,” said Alan Lau, poet and arts editor of the International Examiner.
On the last day of his reign in Pioneer Square, Ishii approached his “empty” store from the grand hall, rather than the street. He stood still for a moment, surprised by the crowd, perhaps wondering whether he could still turn around, unseen. But a murmur, “He’s here,” made everyone turn his way. Ishii gracefully said, “Thank you all for coming.”
Shawn Wong, author and professor of English at the University of Washington, acted as Master of Ceremony, introducing the first speaker, antiquarian bookseller and neighbor Michael Lieberman, who read out loud King County Executive Ron Sims’ proclamation that Dec. 31, 2005 had been declared David Ishii Day.
Many speakers followed, among whom Don Glober, “who now has all the books.”
Fellow Seattle Mariners lovers remembered how the bookseller sometimes had free tickets to give away.
Lau made messages — from folks who couldn’t attend — sound like poems, some actually were. And while all this was going on, the answering machine recorded the voice of a woman who wanted a certain book.
Not only did Ishii sell books, he appeared in at least one, that is, “Gunga Din Highway.” Author Frank Chin based a fictional character, Milton Shiro, on the man whose bookstore for 32 years was a meeting place for readers, artists, authors, activists and baseball and fishing fans.
On Sunday, Jan. 29 at 3 p.m., you’ll have a chance to see Ishii as he appears on the big screen in Doug Ing’s “David Ishii Bookseller” and in Curtis Choy’s, “What’s wrong with Frank Chin?” These two films will be presented back to back during the Northwest Asian American Film Festival. Choy and Chin are scheduled to attend this Seattle screening.
Doug Ing’s three-minute documentary “David Ishii Bookseller,” with Ishii and Frank Chin, was produced in 2002 by “New Voices,” a master documentary series, in connection with 911 Media Arts Center and KCTS 9 PBS Seattle. Shot on miniDV, the short film has been presented at various film festivals as a 35MM print.
Curtis Choy’s 97-minute documentary “What’s wrong with Frank Chin?” features Frank Chin (activist, author, as well as founder of San Francisco’s Asian-American Theatre Workshop) with Pacific Northwest locals, Ishii, Lau, Wong, Frank Abe, Janis Chan, Jeffery Chan, King-Kok Cheung, Lawson Inada, Elaine Kim, Mako, Spencer Nakasako, Ishmael Reed, George Takei and Jessica Yu.
Curtis Choy wore possibly every hat during the making of this documentary — producer, director, editor, writer — with good results. The film was awarded the “NAATA San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival’s Best Documentary Feature Award.”
Speakers at Ishii’s surprise goodbye party expressed their hope that the retired bookseller would discover new pursuits in his free time. Going to movies during the day may be one.
The Northwest Asian American Film Festival takes place Jan. 26-29. The above highlighted films will be shown at the Theatre Off Jackson, 409 7th Ave. S. (next to the Wing Luke Asian Museum).
A limited number of first-come-first-serve tickets are available at (800) 838-3006. $7 general admission, $5 for students and seniors.
Directors and producers, as well as participants, may be present at a reception following the presentation of the two documentary films.
For a complete program, rates, times and venues of the Northwest Asian American Film Festival see the International Examiner’s insert or visit www.nwaaff.org/festivals/index.html.
Messages to David Ishii …
Call Me Ishii (not Ishmael)
David — no, not the fig-leafed statue
Replicated a million times in cheesy plaster of paris
Or the rich one with the Rockefeller surname
Or is it King David, or the musician David B.,
Maybe some other illustrious Dave?
But it’s David Ishii, the bookseller of Asian America
A small world to be sure full of brown and yellow
Writers on their lap tops making sense of the senseless
Or making senseless of what made some sense before
Ishii, the proprietor, the purviewer, the purloiner
Of the WORD, the BOOK, the EXTINCT TRIBE
Of lost Asian Americans, and, sans David
He is Ishii, the last man in the last wilderness.
He wanders among insane & lyrical
Words yet to be born.
– Russell Leong
It’s fun to imagine all the delightful pursuits you will discover with the glorious free time retirement brings … that is, delightful pursuits in addition to the amazingly rich collection of subjects you already master (baseball, history, opera, cuisine, dogs, law, politics, art, books, friendship … the list goes on and on). Way to go, David! Have a wonderful time! We’re all excited that you’ll be spending some of your travel time with us this Spring in Arizona.
– With great big smiles and lots of love,
(and not forgetting your loyal buddies, Soup and Aduke)
We are sorry we will be unable to attend the party on Saturday. It should certainly be a wonderful celebration for a very dear man.
David Comstock would like to contribute his first association with David Ishii. It was when they were on the planning committee for the first Seattle Antiquarian Bookfair held at the Georgian Room at the Olympic Hotel in 1978.
Most enjoyable were dinner and drinks afterward to the tune of many good book stories. David Ishii is one of the nicest people and his store (with him present) will be greatly missed.
– Anita Comstock of COMSTOCK’S BOOK STORE