By Jean Godden
For Northwest Asian Weekly
There are books of mine that, when I page through them, I can’t help remembering where I acquired them. And, if the book is a fine Northwest classic, perhaps signed by the author, I will remember with pleasure that I bought it from David Ishii, the legendary bookseller of Pioneer Square, who passed away last week.
I’ll recall how, despite the seeming chaos of the small book shop, he always knew where everything was located, he always knew which book I would find irresistible. And I can’t forget how efficiently he would wrap the book in brown paper and tie it with a paper ribbon that read, “David Ishii, bookseller.”
No, he wouldn’t take a credit card. You could pay in cash or a check if you had one handy. And, if not, just mail a check to him when you got home. It couldn’t get any more low key Seattle than that.
Without a doubt, David Ishii’s story — as chronicled frequently on the pages of Seattle newspapers — is unusual, perhaps it could only have happened here. It starts in the 1920s when David’s father, Gunzo Ishii, left Japan to work first for the Neah Bay lighthouse keeper and later for the Dunns, a childless Spokane couple who virtually adopted him, arranging for English lessons and eventually bringing him to Seattle to work in their firm, the J.W. Dunn Seed Co. The Dunns helped Gunzo find a bride and together, he and Etsu had seven children.
David, the couple’s last child, came into the world on April 16, 1935, at Swedish Hospital.
Tragically, his mother died during the delivery and his father, suffering from cancer, was about to travel to Japan with David’s siblings. Before Gunzo left, he arranged for the new baby to board at Swedish Hospital. The arrangement would last five years, with David living at the hospital for the first three years, then residing with a Norwegian couple on Vashon Island. Meanwhile, thanks to stories in the Seattle Times, David became famous as the city’s “community baby.”
In 1939, his father finally managed to return to Seattle and remarry, reuniting the family, but soon after died of cancer. Like other Japanese Americans, David and his family were interned during the war. Later, he would graduate from Queen Anne High School and spend three years at Seattle Pacific College, finally taking a job selling ads at the Seattle Times. Following his 15 years at the Times, he served a five-year stint at the late Seattle Magazine. When that magazine folded, he opened his Pioneer Square bookstore.
David’s remarkable 30 years at the bookstore gave him an opportunity to nurture his appreciation for the arts — opera, theater, chamber music, and painting — and his promotion of long-forgotten artists, many with Asian backgrounds. A season-ticket holder since the Mariners’ first pitch, he indulged his love of baseball and his enthusiasm for fly fishing. He seldom appeared without his well-worn fisherman’s hat.
David was so much a part of Seattle and the Pioneer Square neighborhood that it is impossible to walk past the First Avenue storefront at the Grand Central Hotel building without believing that, although he closed his bookstore in 2005, at any minute, he will peek, bespectacled and smiling, from behind the newspaper. In memory, he’s always reading the Sports Page, following his beloved Mariners. In other memories, I see him rewarding his canine visitors, digging into a special jar he kept filled with dog biscuits.
There is a hole in our hearts when we think of David, now gone from the Seattle scene. But we have said our goodbyes. We said the first farewells when he shuttered his bookstore, worried about possible rent increases and increasingly ill with heart and kidney complications. We said more goodbyes as he spent his last years at Seattle Keiro, room 312. Since last fall, he had been in and out of the hospital, where he underwent heart surgery.
Like many of David’s friends and admirers, I received e-mails from the family about David’s illness and his end-of-life decision. One message from a nephew read, “Please respect David’s decision to stop dialysis. He is tired and has been suffering for a while. The struggle has gotten too hard and he doesn’t want to suffer. As David told me, now is the right time.”
Troops of relatives were able to visit with him in his final days. Dozens of friends stopped by and called. He was, after all, the city’s “community baby.” In a sense, he served as the city’s uniting spirit, as writer Fred Moody noted in a 2004 magazine story about David, “[He] may have done more than anyone in Seattle to give a human face to the interned.” We will remember the inspired bookseller as long as there are books to page through, arts to savor, and the Ms playing ball. (end)
Jean Godden is a member of the Seattle City Council. She was a columnist and chronicler of Seattle life for many years at both Seattle daily newspapers. Visit www.jeangodden.com to read Jean’s frequent postings on Seattle life.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Ishii says
Thank you for your comment here and for filling in some gaps. I know you were a very good and cherished friend of David. My Uncle David was an incredible man. We miss him dearly, as do so many. I would add here that he was an early champion of Asian American writers and his bookstore was famous as a place where some of the early conversations and planning for the very first Day of Remembrance took place. While he and his siblings were not incarcerated they were forced to leave Seattle. Initially, they went with their stepmother to Worland, Wyoming where they had distant relatives. David’s older brother Bill once recalled to me that they initially had to sleep in a chicken coup and he remembered waking up covered with chigger bites. My father told me that they later rented sleeping space in a dental building. They would have to rise very early in order for all the children to use the sink and clean themselves for the day, put away bedding, and disappear before the tenants arrived for the work day. David and his two sisters and step mother eventually went to Milwaukee near the end of WWII to be with his stepmother’s sister. Eventually the family was finally reunited in Seattle with the Dunn’s who had adopted David’s father as a undocumented immigrant teen and raised him, and then made him the partner of their seed store in the Pike Place Market.
Laureen Mar says
Thanks for this article. Until last fall, David actually spent his last years as he did much of his adult life, enjoying a variety of activities. He had especially good times discovering with his friends wonderful new places to eat! He was admitted to Keiro in mid-December for rehabilitation following a stent installation, where for the last two and a half months of his life, he thoroughly appreciated the visits and calls of many friends from near and far, who had figured so prominently in different periods of his life. He was social to the end, as his nephew Ray said–an engaged and astute conversationalist.
To my knowledge, his family did not stay on the West Coast during WWII, but was moved, some to stay with an aunt in Wisconsin and himself with his mother with distant relatives on a farm in Wyoming. That through so many many separations and tribulations, his family has remained close and loving tells much of what this very special man was made.