Japanese gallery helps revive Seattle’s International District

Nov 12, 2015

Like other Japanese-American business owners, Sanzo Murakami was forced to board up his shop near Seattle’s Japantown while his family lived in an internment camp during World War II. He died shortly after returning home, but his wife and children restarted the business – reportedly one of few businesses able to recover. The Murakami family closed Higo Variety Store in 2003, but its legacy lives on, thanks to the vision and passion of John Bisbee, an architect who has worked in Tokyo, New York and Seattle and his wife, Tokyo-born Binko Chiong-Bisbee.

The couple met Paul Murakami, nephew of the last surviving Murakami child, through a mutual friend. They had run Kobo, an artisan gallery on Capitol Hill featuring Japanese and Northwest fine crafts, for nine years and were looking to expand. The old Higo space was a perfect match. “We looked long and hard for a tenant that would not only fit the space, but also respect the sense of family and community that was so much a part of Higo,” said Murakami. KOBO at Higo maintains much of the flavor of the old variety store by utilizing its vintage fixtures, including 1930s glass cases unearthed from the Higo storeroom. Uncovered treasures include classic tin toys, an electric train set and antique cash registers, which are displayed in the refurbished space. A museum wall display and the "Meet Me at Higo" installation created by the Wing Luke Museum are also featured to tell the history of Higo Ten Cents Store in Japantown.

They have the spirit and talent to bring new life to a place that is special to our family – and the community, as well.

Paul Murakami

Kobo, which means “artist’s workplace” in Japanese, specializes in both traditional and contemporary works, offering a selection of objects made of various materials. The first Kobo location opened nearly 20 years ago. The second location, in the Higo space, opened 10 years later in Seattle’s International District. At that time, the neighborhood was very depressed. “It was a huge risk on our part,” said Chiong-Bisbee. “When we first committed to go into that space, we weren’t quite sure where that money was going to come from.”

Fortunately, Kobo had a strong partner and lender in Bank of America. “If we didn’t have that in terms of growing the business during those first five years, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Chiong-Bisbee. A decade later, Kobo – and its relationship with the bank – are still going strong. Recently, Bank of America Client Manager Travis Wilson conducted a comprehensive business review for Kobo to ensure it continues to thrive for another 20 years. They determined that one of the strengths of the business was its unique location, and its ability to share the rich history of Seattle’s Japantown with the greater community in the Northwest.

The International District is certainly attracting attention and interest. Thanks to Kobo and other businesses, and partners like Bank of America, the neighborhood is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. “Binko and John have brought new energy not only to the store itself, but also to the building and the neighborhood,” said Murakami. “They have the spirit and talent to bring new life to a place that is special to our family – and the community, as well.”


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