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Remembering David Ishii, Bookseller

David Ishii at his bookstore Credit: Doug Ing

“David Ishii loved his coffee in the morning. Have a cup of fresh ground espresso and contemplate the wonder of David Ishii” – writer Frank Chin from his home in Los Angeles.

David Ishii wore his trademark fisherman’s hat as easily as his Mariners cap with the trident logo, and his heart on his sleeve. Nowhere in the world could you find another antiquarian bookstore that was a shrine to fly fishing, baseball, opera, dogs, and Asian American artists — all at the same time.  

David passed away March 1 at age 76, but not before imbuing Seattle with his peculiarly unique charm. Bookseller, enthusiast, civic-minded native son, he occupies a special place in our local history.

He began collecting writer-friends while selling ads for The Seattle Times, where he met Tom Robbins, then sold ads for the old Seattle Magazine, where he met Frank Chin. When the magazine folded, David rented a gutted space being remodeled above the old Elliott Bay Book Company around 1970, precisely where the offices of Crosscut are located now. “Rising Sun and Friends” was the name on the doorbell and the business card David had printed. “He knew he liked the Pioneer Square district,” says Chin. “He knew he wanted a small used bookstore. He paid a teenage Taylor Bowie to teach him the used-book business.”

“Rising Sun and Friends” was David’s first hangout, where he would sit and Chin would type and they would laugh at everything Chin wrote. (A quarter-century later, David would read in Chin’s novel Gunga Din Highway, “Milton Shiro has a round face . . . wears round glasses, his ears stick out, and he drives a white Porsche. He would rather be an eccentric dealer in used books in Pioneer Square. He likes writers.”)

By 1972 he would open “David Ishii, Bookseller” in a storefront in the Grand Central Building at 212 First Avenue South. Surrounded by art posters, autographed baseballs, black-and-white portraits of writers, photographs of old friends, and teetering piles of newspapers, mail-order catalogues, and magazines, David could be found sitting in his favorite captain’s chair atop a heap of vinyl-covered Mariners seat cushions so old, the yellow foam flapped out of the split seams. There he would sit with his mug of coffee and work a New York Times crossword or read Saveur or Bon Appetit, The New Yorker or the papers, jumping up to give you his seat when you entered. 

Columnist Emmett Watson often occupied that chair and he dubbed David “the unofficial mayor of Pioneer Square” for David’s ceaseless efforts through Allied Arts to revitalize and promote the district. But equally to the point, David was Pioneer Square’s heart and soul.

Booklovers came in to wander and browse or search his specialized collections of fly fishing literature, Asian Americana, and Pacific Northwest history, but the biggest draw was David Ishii Bookseller himself. He was a ready conversationalist with an intense interest in life and, given his wide-ranging interests and far-reaching knowledge, the ability to respond with complete immediacy to virtually any remark. If you came in to tell him you’d decided to raise chickens in your backyard, he’d tell you about his friend who rented them for six months. People made regular rounds just to hang out with him; he probably sold more cups of coffee for the Grand Central Bakery than he did books.  

Visitors recognized his store as the real thing, and a rarity: from the stories he would hand you along with the book you’d purchased, to the ribbon imprinted with his name with which he tied all of his packages (“the art of wrapping is to use as little tape as possible”), to his sale of books on credit the old-fashioned way. If out-of-town customers didn’t have cash or checks, he would wrap their book and tell them to send the money when they got home. They always did. “It was part of his legend,” says friend and Starbucks co-founder Gordon Bowker. “People would pass along stories about him.”

A self-taught arts aficionado, David saved his money to buy art works early on (guided in some of his choices by Virginia Wright and other dealers) and became a staunch advocate as a board member for Allied Arts, chair of the Washington State Arts Commission, and a panelist who helped select the public art at Safeco Field.

“He has done so many things to open people up to themselves,” says friend Deborah Todd. He’d introduce friends, acquaintances and customers to an artist, a good book, a new pastime, an idea, or astonish them with his spontaneity, generosity, and kindness. He mentored many of his friends’ children, and was the first to expose them to Edward Hopper, Wagner, Schubert’s “The Trout,” and handwritten thank-you notes. “Everything you did with David, even buying a hot dog, felt special,” says Todd, “because he did it with such gusto.”

He wasn’t a person to go halfway. Whether at a baseball game, opera, concert, poetry reading or movie, David was either avidly interested, or fast asleep, as many of his friends can attest.

A Seattle native, he loved his city and he loved its surrounding wilderness. He liked to recall how decades earlier with his friend Eiichi Fukushima, he backpacked to Enchantment Lakes; one of his most memorable pieces of advice to us was that we sign up our (then) 10-year-old daughter for an ice-axe course.

“I relished his laughter, his company, his love of wildness and solitude and the music of moving waters,” writes journalist Jack de Yonge, who fished with David for 50 years. “He was not a natural angler,” he says. “But what by fate he lacked, Dave made up for as much with glee — enthusiasm, perseverance, and such skills honed by diligent training and practice as tying the wonderful flies he donated in framed plates for charity auctions for the arts. If Dave went steelhead fishing with you in wind and rain and snow, he never quit, until you cried you had enough.  Once, from shore, shivering, I had to beg him to wade ashore from the Skagit River because ice floes were getting big enough to knock him down.”

David once gave a steelhead he’d caught to a then-junior reporter at King Broadcasting. “I cooked it carefully. Presented it prettily. I thought he’d like it,” says Jean Enersen. “But he looked up at me with tears in his eyes. He said it was the first one he had ever caught on that particular river. That’s when I knew the passion of that man ran deep.”

David was known throughout town for “two great passions and consolations: baseball and opera,” says Crosscut founder and Editor-in-Chief David Brewster, who accompanied Ishii to Seattle Pilots games. David wrote to teams across the nation — the Tigers, the Red Sox, the Cardinals — for baseball schedules that he would leave out for fans to pick up. He was among the inaugural class of Mariners season ticket holders, with seats on the first base line.

“David was a fixture at the Kingdome,” says M’s President Chuck Armstrong, who frequented the store when the team offices were on King Street. “He would always show me the latest baseball book he’d added to his collection.” One prize in his collection was a framed poster from the first Mariners Opening Day in 1977. One-time owner Jeff Smulyan came into the store and tried to buy it. David turned him down. 

Most of all, David’s store was a haven for Asian American artists — writers like Chin and Shawn Wong, painters like Frank Okada, James Leong, and Roger Shimomura, and poets like Lawson Inada, Garrett Hongo, and Alan Lau. Their portraits gazed down at you around the store as a constant presence. Their books were tucked in narrow shelves at the front of the store, along with rare finds. David himself uncovered An English-Chinese Phrasebook by Wong Sam & Associates, published and distributed free by Wells Fargo in 1875 to disseminate the litany of terse phrases Chinamen might find handy (“You have violated the Constitution of this state,” “They were lying in ambush,” “He came to his death by homicide,” “He was murdered by a thief.”) People made pilgrimages to his store from across the nation, having heard the legend of David and wanting to meet the man himself.

Unlike exclusively Asian American bookstores in California that had their own clientele but were ignored by the mainstream, David’s shop easily mixed an Asian American sensibility with the life of the neighborhood. He prominently displayed a framed photograph of John Okada, whose powerful novel of postwar Japanese-American Seattle, No-No Boy, was rediscovered and republished by those self-same Friends of David. He would tell visitors how Okada was born around the corner above Merchant’s Cafe, how the nearby clock tower of King Street Station was the setting for the opening scene of the novel, and sell them a copy of the book. The shop was adjacent to the site of the old Occidental Hotel, the setting for another classic, Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter.

The framed exclusion order on his wall (“Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry”) was only one of the ways David taught generations about the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.  Significantly, the popular campaign for redress was launched out of David’s store. To counter the anti-redress rhetoric of California Senator S.I. Hayakawa in 1979, Frank Chin penned a manifesto stating the case for monetary compensation for the Constitutional violations of the mass evictions, and placed ads seeking $5 donations from supporters to sign an open letter to be printed in the Washington Post. We needed an address to receive the checks, and used David’s store. Thousands of dollars poured in, enough for a 3/4-page ad, and for years people came in to thank David Ishii for standing up for their history. He would just smile and thank them.

David closed the store at the end of 2005. A self-described nester, he kept his extraordinary fly fishing library, acquired over a lifetime, at home along with his rods and creels, and boxes of feathers and fur, until last December when he donated it to Western Washington University’s Special Collections Library. It was, he said after brief contemplation, one of his proudest accomplishments, along with helping other local booksellers to thrive. 

David directed that there be no public memorial, but that his ashes be scattered on the Skagit River, where he had fished with de Yonge and other friends over the decades. Remembrances may be made to the International Examiner in support of its writers and artists and to Allied Arts.

As a posthumous gesture, David wanted to treat his close friends to a good dinner one last time, but he was concerned that his baseball friends wouldn’t mix with the opera fans, or his fishing buddies with the painters, so he left a little something for them to go out, each in their own groups.

In this, he was mistaken. Through David we’ve found we are all connected to one another, friends and family, and we acutely appreciate how, through David, the life of our community is made richer. The gesture was his way of bidding us farewell, as he often did, with his upbeat, “Cheery bye!”

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