In Seattle's International District, celebrating the Higo Variety Store

Jul 9, 2012

An old five-and dime store that helped Seattle's Japanese community rebuild itself after World War II is being celebrated in a new way: in a permanent exhibit by the Wing Luke Museum in a local gift shop/art gallery.

The exhibit features a variety of old store merchandise from a business that lasted 96 years. There's also an assortment of personal items from two generations of the Japanese-American Murakami family.

The Higo Variety Store was a landmark in the city's Nihonmachi or Japantown. When it first opened its doors in 1907, it catered to waves of new arrivals, providing them with whatever they needed to set up their households.

But it helped anchor a community during its most trying time: the Japanese interment during World War II. The Murakami family, which owned and operated the store, was one of the first to return to Seattle after the internment. A neighbor had watched over the Murakami's Jackson Building and prevented the Higo store from being vandalized.

The Murakami family reopened its store and it helped hundreds restart new lives.

"They would come to Higo to get a rice cooker and get started again," John Bisbee explains. "Get some bedding, pajamas or whatever it was they needed."

Bisbee is one of several people helping preserve the legacy of the Higo store. It stood at the corner of Sixth and Jackson and for decades, it was run by a pair of sisters: Ayako and Masako Murakami.

"The main thing about Higo was not so much the merchandise, it was the people who were working here," says Paul Murakami, a family member and guardian of the Higo legacy. "People would come here just to chat with my aunts."

Ayako Murakmi or Asa was the one who had taken business school classes. She was the more serious one. Her younger sister Masako or Masa was very loquacious.

You can see a life-sized cutout picture of them -- in their skirts and cardigans and glasses -- inside the old Higo location. The space has a new tenant -- the KOBO at Higo gift shop and art gallery. But owner John Bisbee and his wife Binko Chiong-Bisbee have turned over an entire wall to displaying old Higo items.

A can of Colgate shaving cream. A vintage typewriter. A brassiere.

There's also luggage the Murakami family took to Minidoka. And Masa Murakami's graduation photo from Seattle's Franklin High School.

Both Murakami sisters have died. The Higo store closed in 2003 but when the space reopened with the KOBO store and gallery, the new tenants made a point to honor the past.

"We tried to just incorporate our business...and somehow dovetail it with what was already here. And not change much," says Binko Chiong-Bisbee.

So the couple use old Higo display cases and racks to sell their items, which reflect a Japanese aesthetic: paper lanterns; wooden furniture; ceramic dishes.

They devote part of their space to showcasing work by all different artists, offering lecture and demos as well.

And then there's the exhibit, with maps showing how vibrant Nihonmachi used to be as well as a video of the Murakami sisters recorded in 1993.

The "Meet Me at Higo" exhibit is on permanent display at KOBO at Higo, 604 S. Jackson St. in Seattle during business hours.

Note the original light fixtures from the 1930s as well as the dark green banners. The banners look like the Higo store's wrapping paper.

A companion book, "Meet Me at Higo: An Enduring Story of a Japanese American Family" by Ken Mochizuki has also been published as is available for sale at KOBO and the Wing Luke museum.