a man talks to his food
it’s after midnight
and this guy in a fishing hat
sits in a diner
arms on the formica counter
eyeing the plate
of this pork chop
fresh off the grill
seems to answer back
The late David Ishii who ran a second-hand bookstore in Pioneer Square for years was a friend of mine. When he lay ill at Keiro, I realized that David was loved by hundreds and had an iconic “rock star” status. I bumped into a friend, Pat, at the entrance who overheard the staff wondering if David was someone famous because they had never seen so many visitors coming through.
Human beings are complex and David was no exception. He had myriad interests. His individual friends did not necessarily overlap and so many of them had never met. Yet as passionate and quirky as his interests were, I know his love for the arts and dining were unparalleled.
To go out dining with him was a revelation. He was ecstatic about the best steak in town or swoon as he cleaned a plate of fois gras until nothing was left but the sheen of goose fat. Much as he loved dining with friends, he would also think nothing of sitting alone at a greasy spoon in the wee hours of the morning. Once we were in a neighborhood at night and he stopped us all to cross the street to examine a coffee shop with a counter. He said, “I’d like to come back sometime when it’s open.” I think of the painting, “Nighthawks,” Hopper’s iconic American masterpiece of strangers at a counter in communion with steaming cups of coffee bathed in artificial light as the darkness outside surrounds them.
And he loved movies. He could regale you with stories of an all-night theater downtown that he would go to after work to unwind. He told me that it was really something to see prostitutes and their pimps, gamblers, couples and working class stiffs seated together in a dark theater enjoying their soda pop and popcorn, all immersed in the action on that widescreen. There was always bingo or a raffle before each movie. When SIFF had an all-night screening of American films made in “Cinerama,” he was first in line to get a ticket. He loved his opera as well. His passion for things he loved was contagious. In fact, he converted a friend by taking her along and before you know it, she became a season subscriber. But just as wide-ranging as his tastes in the arts, he could be opinionated about his likes and dislikes. Once when I told him how the voices of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir reminded me of “wounded angels,” he could only sigh, shake his head and exclaim, “God, Alan! I don’t know why you want to torture yourself.” But David being David, you would just agree to disagree and move on to something else.
David had a small but decent art collection. Little things that he had saved up money for and bought in monthly installments or gifts from artists. He loved deeply that era of American art dominated by the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s. Maybe it was his years haunting galleries like the influential tastemaker Zoe Dusanne, the first black American modern art dealer in Seattle, who brought the modern art of Europe and New York to her salon. Or his visits to Ginny Wright’s gallery with work fresh from the Big Apple or his visits to Joe and Mineko Namkung’s Hanga Gallery, chock full of Japanese woodblock prints. Or maybe he learned things from novelist Tom Robbins who in his early days, worked as an art critic for the Seattle Times or mystical meetings with Japanese antique dealer Tomotsu Takizaki marveling at his fine eye. He also hung out with George Tsutakawa, Johsel Namkung and Paul Horiuchi remembering the fun they’d have picking matsutake in the mountains, cooking over an open fire. If David knew you really loved art, he’d reach behind his table for a little box to show a charming stone sculpture of a wild creature by James Washington, Jr. When asked how he got it, he’d smile and just say he traded it for books. I still owe him a debt of gratitude from when he has covered the cost of framing my shows knowing I couldn’t afford it myself.
Now when I wander through neighborhoods in this city, there’s not a street that goes by that doesn’t have a place where I met with my friend. We all miss you, David.
The family requests that remembrances in David’s memory can be made as donations to the International Examiner (www.iexaminer.org) and to Allied Arts (www.alliedarts-seattle.org). For additional comments on David, go online to www.iexaminer.org. To read another article on David, go to http://crosscut.com/2012/03/07/books/22034/Remembering-David-Ishii,-Bookseller/. To see a short film on David by Doug Ing, go to www.youtube/dT4QwSBhfUA.
Pieces of a Mosaic – Memories of David Ishii
Compiled by Alan Lau
My uncle was passionate about whatever he did. He loved baseball so he went to see the Tacoma Rainiers and Everett Aquasox every year – in addition to his season tickets to the Mariners. He served on the public panel that helped choose the art at Safeco Field. He loved the opera and would sit through the entire Ring performance. He loved food so he learned to make his own dashi to have with his soba noodles. He especially had a thing for fly-fishing. When we cleaned out his apartment, besides his extensive collection of fly-fishing books he must have had 25 boxes of fly-tying equipment and material.
My uncle enjoyed helping people, educating them and introducing them to his passions. He and my dad took by brother and I to our first Seattle Pilots baseball game. He liked nothing better than to introduce people (especially young people) to the Mariners, a new author, and fly-fishing or to the arts.
– Ray Ishii, David’s nephew.
I handed the line to Dave. He retied his rig. He cast again into the tuna, still molding across the ocean’s top. He cast. Bang! This time after 15 minutes he brought the big fish to gaff. The tuna trembled in the bottom of the boat. To my wondering eyes appeared Dave’s big pocketknife blade that from the tuna severed an inch-square chunk. From a fly-vest pocket Dave fished out a small bottle of soy sauce. He doused it onto tuna flesh. He offered me a bite. I shook my head, no. The guide, amazed, had burst into a flow of Spanish too rich for me to glimmer. Dave offered to him. The guide grimaced. Dave bit into his tuna, chewed. A smile radiated across his face.
– David’s fishing partner for over 50 years, Jack de Yonge.
I don’t know that he ever formally studied the discipline, but David Ishii was Seattle’s true Zen master. For what it’s worth, David was the first person to befriend me when I arrived in Seattle in 1962 and went to work as an art critic for the Seattle Times. He would often come by my house with a six-pack, and we’d talk for hours about art.
– Novelist, Tom Robbins
During my freshman year at the U of W (1970-71) I had a part time job managing a small used bookstore…the owner was away on a year’s field trip. During that time, I met and became friends with an interesting customer of the store, one David Ishii. David had recently been laid off when Seattle Magazine stopped publishing, and he had a goal to open his own bookstore, something he had thought about for some time. And he had the materials needed to start the store, which was some money (from a federal loan), a location (in the soon-to-be-rehabbed Grand Central Bldg.) and his own small collection of books…. but he had no experience in the actual buying and selling of books, and so he asked me to come work for him to help him learn the trade. That was a great honor for me, and (as I realized years later) a great leap of faith for David. I had more experience than he, sure…but that amounted to four years of working for other book people while I was in high school. But we started buying books that fall…storing them in his apartment (the living room became even more packed) and opened the store in early 1972. I stayed with him part-time until September of 1974 when I decided to quit books, quit the U of W and go to work driving a cab…all of which happened in the space of about ten days.
My favorite story about David? He had hired me to work half time in 1971 for $75 per week. I thought I was in heaven. After more than two years, I shyly asked David if I could have a raise to…$87.50 per week…explaining that “I’d figured it all out” and that the extra $12.50 per would be just the right amount to keep me going and take care of everything. And David said, “Taylor, I’ll give you the raise because you’ve really earned it. But remember this…no matter how much money you make, it won’t ever be quite enough for you!” And he was right…although it took me about 25 years to realize how right he was!!
– Taylor Bowie, Bookseller
David often told me this story. David sits in his shop reading the paper when an old wisp of woman walks in, so tiny and light that a breeze could knock her down. At first, David doesn’t recognize her. Then she smiles and says, “Don’t you remember me David? I was one of the nurses at Swedish that took care of you.” David was left as a child by his father in the care of Swedish Hospital’s “community child ” program. His mother had died giving birth to him. He was the youngest of seven siblings. His father, stricken with cancer, went to Japan and returned to pick up David upon his return. He re-married but died soon after. David’s stepmother was left to care for seven children.
Incidentally, David had more of a link to the redress process than you probably know. After he had spent however many years as a little kid living in Swedish Hospital, his father came back, remarried, and soon died. World War Two broke out. People were sent to the camps. David’s new mother, Mary, had all those little kids to care for, and she was damned if any of them was going to wind up in a camp. So she broke the family up, sending the older kids to live with relatives inland. She took David and went to stay with distant relatives who farmed in Worland, Wyoming. The baby of the (I think extended) family that took them in was Grant Ujifusa, who just received the Order of the Rising Sun from Japan for being the main strategist behind passage and signing of the redress legislation.
– Writer, Dan Chasan
During my graduate school era at the UW (1973-75), when my family and I were “poor” and did not have much of an entertainment budget, my late wife, daughter, and I would go to Pioneer Square to hang out. This included my visits to David’s bookstore. The first visit, I found a book relating to my profession and grad school studies of architecture, but its $25 price tag was more than I could afford. Semi-seriously, I offered to buy it for half its stated price. David held firm. In the subsequent months and years, when I revisited the bookstore, I would always go to the book, and again make my original offer of half, to which he would always smile and decline. Eventually, inflation and my earning ability reached a point that the original price fell within a range I could afford, so I returned to David’s store and bought the book for its stated price. Later, I almost regretted it, because I no longer had the vehicle serving as the basis for our “fun”. During those visits, our talks, and observing his encounters with other customers I came to admire him very much.
During our encounter last fall, I told David this story, and he mentioned that at the end of his bookselling career, he became less of a business person, and when he encountered situations like mine, his stance “became one of allowing customers to take books with the promise of returning them when they were finished.”
– Stan Mitchell
Strangely, I don’t remember the first time I met David. It feels as though I always knew him. When I was in my 20′s, he helped me get a job working for Richard White (then Pioneer Square property owner and co-partner of Foster/White Gallery), a few doors down from his bookstore. That was 30+ years ago. He knew everyone and was like the center of the universe.
– Graphic designer, Terri Nakamura
I first met David through Ruth Nomura, David’s friend and then director of the Northwest Craft Center where I was working in 1970. But my brother and siblings already knew David from working at the Seattle Times. One fond memory is the tribute I did to the waitresses at The Dog House restaurant the week before it closed. It was covered by all the local media, and David was there with me for the entire adventure – from conception to execution. It was one of those special, magical, truly Seattle-only adventures that he and I shared as only we could. He even had a Dog House placemat laminated and gave it to me as a Christmas gift. David had that rare genius for giving exactly the right gift on just exactly the right occasion. That goofy laminated paper placement means more to me than the Hope Diamond or the Crown Jewels. I will treasure it forever. I really have been spending all evening looking up David, listening to his voice on the YouTube video reminiscing about all our marvelous adventures together, his exquisite tastes in absolutely everything, his laughter, his goofiness, his zest for life, his ability to tick off friends who still loved him regardless and his indefatigable uniqueness.
– Deborah Todd
I learned about David from Frank Chin. I heard so many stories about him, I decided I should drive up and meet him. I first met him while I was still in college at Berkeley in 1971 and made a trek to Seattle to meet him as if he were some kind of Asian American landmark. We now know he was and if you’re a budding Asian American writer like me, you make the journey. Then I moved to Seattle five years later and spent many hours in David’s store meeting other Asian American writers, painters, musicians, actors, and all sorts of other artists who came through the door of his bookstore.
– Writer, editor and UW Professor of English, Shawn Wong
When I showed up in Seattle in 1975, I was 24. I’d heard about David Ishii already and just went down to his store and introduced myself. He took me for a cup of coffee across the courtyard and asked if I wanted a pastry too. We talked about what I was trying to do – start the Asian Exclusion Act theater group-and he just said, “How can I help?” And when I was writing my play “Nisei Bar & Grill” in 1976, he brought food from Atlas Cafe every night for a month so I wouldn’t have to stop to take time to cook and clean up. He wanted me to write!”
-Writer and University of Oregon Professor of Creative Writing, Garrett Hongo
I remember first meeting him in 1980, when I’d separated from active military duty and was still in the reserves. I was standing in his shop talking to him about living overseas and being in the Air Force. He struck me as being totally uninterested in what I was saying and almost suspicious of my intentions. The next time I came into the shop he was a bit friendlier and recommended some books he thought I might be interested in. Later, I found out that I could not walk down First Avenue without stopping in and saying hi and hanging around. I was at first uncomfortable with his laconic, sometimes blunt manner but I eventually got used to it. He was thoughtful towards me after a while – other times he barely seemed to notice I was there.
– Alan Corral presently living in Australia
I remember being in his shop when a man came in and asked David for a particular book. David said, “Oh yes I had that book but I sold it last week, if you go down the street to the other book seller I’m sure they will have it”. The man said thank you and left. David looked at me and said “all lies”. When I asked him why he said it, he said it was “because you said I should be nicer to people”. David was the first friend I made when I moved to Seattle in 1987. I rented an apartment in the same building he lived in.
– Artist, Jenny Fillius.
Shooting the documentary, verite style, I spent a week hanging out in David’s shop and along the way met the many characters that were important to David. During that week, I met the only man to sell books to David. That’s when I realized David didn’t have a lot of customers. I was amazed at his generosity to a man, Tom Tsuboi who regularly brought in books on fishing, baseball or the internment. When Tom left, he would remark, he didn’t particularly care for what Tom brought him but he bought it anyway because he wanted to encourage Tom to keep on searching for treasures.
– Filmmaker/artist, Doug Ing
David may or may not have been the mayor of Pioneer Square but he certainly had all the keys! In exchange for reduced rent David had the nightly job of walking around Pioneer Square at odd hours and making sure all the doors were locked. He was like the lamplighters of old. And you never knew when you might bump into David at what hour. He was also very good at triangulating; you could get your political or personal message to various city big wigs through David, he was seemingly connected to everyone by far less than 6 degrees of separation. David had manners and patience and though his opinion might be different than yours he never in my presence lost his cool. He was a gentleman. As he was moving out of his shop he told me he really wanted one of my Tai-Tung/Chinatown prints. When I printed a second edition a few years back I tried to get one to him but by then he was hard to reach. I’m only sorry that this little bit of interaction never happened. It would have made me proud.
– Seattle artist Billy King who lived for years in Pioneer Square
John and I returned to Seattle after living in New York and Tokyo and ended up living in the Quilt Building in Pioneer Square. David worked for the property manager and checked several buildings in the area in the evenings to make sure they were secure. Somehow we met just being in the same neighborhood. Later after we opened KOBO on Capitol Hill he would drop by. He never bought anything that I can remember but loved our logo, which was the wild boar, the Japanese/Chinese zodiac sign for the year we opened the store in 1995. He later told us that he was born in the year of the boar. He asked us if he could have a copy of the boar logo, which we provided. He later made two rubber stamps of the boar, one for him and one for us.
– Proprietors of KOBO shops on Capitol Hill and Chinatown/Japantown/ID
David was like one of those monks in the middle ages, who saved the texts from being burned by barbarians. Our texts are under attack by tea party vandals who want to erase ethnic studies. They’re running amok w/support of billionaires. I met him on several occasions and he struck me as a serious person who knew the stakes. Black bookstores are closing throughout the nation and our stories are being told by others. Gbernard Shaw said, “If you do not tell your stories, others will tell them and they will “vulgarize’” and “degrade you.” David knew this.
– Writer/poet/editor Ishmael Reed
David was a being of great heart and spirit. He bore a resemblance to the Dalai Lama, and exemplified the humor and wisdom of the Zen tradition. In centrifugal times, he was a center. In his presence, I’d try to discard my trappings, to abide with David for a while.
– Poet Lawson Fusao Inada
David was an uncle, big brother, role model and friend. His gift was sharing that which he knew best which was laughter. Through laughter he provided a safe haven for me as an at-risk-immigrant youth. It was in David’s bookstore that I learned the value of life and manhood through our conversations, which often took hours. Over the years I matured into a man and currently share David’s same gift with youth who are in need of guidance. I will miss you David.
– Bo Leong
To live life so after you are gone, your memory lives on in a smile. Now that is a goal. David lived his life in this way with his kindness, intellect and character. I remember Monday mornings and David excitedly sharing the wedding column story in the Sunday NY Times with us, he loved the romance. David storing Cuban cigars in his humidifier like they were children, each with a story. Driving David to a party on Bainbridge Island, but on the way home having to drop him off at a cooking class where he was learning to de-bone a chicken. And then there was his wonderful store and all David’s willingness to share it’s treasures. Every exchange with David was always interesting and thought provoking. A person like David is a special gift. If only we could be a touch more like him.
– Florist and former Pioneer Square merchant neighbor, Megan Mary Olander
I was so sad to hear of David’s departure. Your message was the first I’d heard and a couple of days later I received the obit. from a friend in the mail. It sounds like his departure was, like his whole being, on his own terms. What a precious human being-who was so influential in general and also in my own life. It was David who found Ted (Ted Joans, the late American poet) & me our International District apartment & wrote a little diagram of it to us in Paris, where we tried to figure out the square footage by converting it into meters. A very beautiful friend.
-Artist/poet Laura Corsiglia
I will never forget my trip to New York with David. I even went to the top of the Empire State Building with him (I had never been there before even though I had been married in New York and lived there for a year and visited numerous times.) It was February and I had gotten tickets to three fabulous Metropolitan Opera performances for us. After a visit to the Guggenheim Museum, we passed the Metropolitan Museum where I suggested that that is where he could spend the next day before I met him at Lincoln Center for the opera. We then walked down Fifth Avenue to the Frick Museum where I left him to go back to my hotel because I was freezing to death and catching a cold. David, without proper hat, scarf, or gloves declared how wonderful it all was and so bracing. He was so happy and I was so miserable and cold, I could have strangled him. What a great joy and appreciation of life he had!…and how I miss him. -Vasiliki Dwyer
When I was going through a divorce, David called me and said “no woman should be alone on Valentine’s Day.” He took me to Top Gun in Chinatown and then to the Olympic Hotel for their special Olympic Blue martini. We sat at the bar and watched the master bartender mix drink after drink. It was my most memorable Valentine’s Day. – Musician/composer Esther Sugai
“I enjoyed David Ishii, his sense of humor and his sense of community. When I first moved here from Canada, I often encountered him in the evening while on his walking tour of Pioneer Square. He was checking that doors were locked and looking out for all of us. – Current owner of Foster/White Gallery, Phen Huang
When David found out that I was a double sheep, an Aires and also a sheep on the Chinese astrological calendar, he started collecting stuffed sheep for me. After a homeless woman found out, she would find them at yard sales and bring them in. David would pay her a few bucks for each. Eventually the flock of sheep grew so big they started to take over my house. I told him “to stop and desist.” A few days later, I got a package in the mail from David. Inside were 3 stuffed border collies with a note, “here are some sheep collies to keep your sheep under control.”
– Elaine Murakami
It is sad news to hear of David’s passing here in Tokyo but I think of his way of living. The envelope with his bookstore logo, which he gave me, still kept in my desk drawer. Remembering his presence as if we were still there in Seattle, my family prays for his safe journey to heaven.
– Japanese journalist Nobuko Awaya who spent several years in Seattle with her husband
“Dave’s tiny bookstore for decades harbored one of the best collections of fly-fishing’s vast literature. No other sport has such fine writing. And no other bookstore that I frequented had such devoted customers of all sorts, but especially those hunting for good books on something that Dave loved along with opera, baseball, symphony, painting, good grub, good cigars and good friends and yes, fly fishing. – David’s fishing partner for over 50 years, Jack de Yonge
Pioneer Square has never been the same since he closed his shop almost 7 years ago and now that he is gone Seattle has lost one of its treasured souls.
– Pioneer Square bookseller and co-owner of Wessel & Lieberman, Michael Lieberman
Alan Lau would like to extend his heartfelt thanks to David’s family and friends for responding and assisting in the compiling of these memories.