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KOBO at Higo (#8)

Also known as: Higo; Higo Variety Store; Higo 10 Cents Store

“They didn’t throw anything out. It was just really great. Great for all of us.”

– Binko Chiong-Bisbee, co-owner of KOBO at Higo

“Do you need anything?”

Masako “Masa” Murakami was the youngest of the family, which owned and operated the Higo 10 Cents Store/Higo Variety Store for almost 100 years. She was known to stand by the entrance to the store and ask that question to those she didn’t know – those scant few who were unfamiliar to her.

Metaphorically speaking, those who worked on the display at KOBO at Higo replied, “Yes, we would like to know the history of your family and your store.” So, they entered, browsed, bought and left with products and connected the dots, snapped the pieces of the puzzle into place, though there are still some missing. The materials displayed here were found in the basement of the Murakami family residence, in the back rooms and storeroom of the former Higo store – sitting there for decades, with some wrapped in newspapers dating back 70, 80 years ago. Masa, the last remaining member of the family that ran this Seattle cultural institution, passed away in January 2010.

Besides Masa, the family members included father, Sanzo; mother, Matsuyo; oldest daughter Ayako “Aya” Betty; then Chiyoko “Chiyo”; and the third child and only son, Kazuichi “Kay.”

During the early 2000s, Paul Murakami, third cousin to Aya, Masa and Kay, began to help Masa manage the Higo store and Jackson Building after the death of Aya in 1999. With Masa no longer able to operate the store alone, the Higo Variety Store closed in 2003. Over the course of a year, members of Seattle’s Japanese American community helped clear out the inventory for the store begun in that space in 1932.

While looking for a new occupant, Paul was connected to John Bisbee and Binko Chiong-Bisbee, owners of KOBO at Capitol Hill, an art gallery specializing in ceramics from Japan and those made by local artists. Kobo means “studio” in Japanese.

“When we saw the possibility of this space, I think it donned on us both – we can actually host shows,” says Bisbee, “because one of the limitations of the other space was we couldn’t really stage shows very well.”

“The thing that really sold me immediately was that they wanted to retain the history and keep the Higo/Murakami family alive,” Paul says.

A rotating army of volunteers – family members, friends, friends of friends, “at least 25 people at different times painting,” Chiong-Bisbee says – labored for five months to open KOBO at Higo by November 2004. Not only is it a gallery/store that hosts artists’ shows, musical and theatrical performances and author readings, but it also contains a mini-museum with one wall dedicated to artifacts remaining from the old Higo store. The store is also visited by a continuous stream of locals who share their memories of the store and Murakami family.

The Bisbees consider it to be their “obligation” to not only operate a business, but, also, as Chiong-Bisbee says, “We’ve learned so much about what it used to be and we want to be able to pass it on to other people.”

Visit Sairen (waypoint #9) and the Jackson Building Warehouse (waypoint #10) to learn what happened to the Murakami Family, their store and their building before, during and after World War II.


A replica of the original sign for Higo Variety Store adorns the building exterior.

Alabastro Photography. Courtesy of Wing Luke Museum.

Art gallery KOBO has made its home at Higo since 2004.

Alabastro Photography. Courtesy of Wing Luke Museum.

Sanzo Murakami establishes the Higo 10 Cents Store, originally a few blocks south on Weller Street, in 1907.

Murakami Family Collection, Wing Luke Museum.

The Higo 10 Cents Store sells a wide variety of goods, circa 1907.

Murakami Family Collection, Wing Luke Museum.

Matsuyo Murakami stands in the doorway of the store on South Weller Street, circa 1912.

Murakami Family Collection, Wing Luke Museum.

The growing Murakami family visits Seattle’s Volunteer Park, 1923.

Murakami Family Collection, Wing Luke Museum.


Celebrating the Higo Variety Store

Listen in on interviews about Higo Variety Store with KOBO at Higo co-owners John Bisbee and Binko Chiong-Bisbee and family descendant of original owners, Paul Murakami.

“In Seattle’s International District, celebrating the Higo Variety Store,” by Florangela Davila, KPLU Artscape, July 9, 2012.

John Bisbee and Binko Chiong-Bisbee inside KOBO at Higo.

Aya and Masa

Together, Ayako “Aya” and Masako “Masa” continued running Higo Variety Store and remained a steady presence in Nihonmachi through the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“I remember as a kid – probably in grade school – my folks taking us down to the Higo store and, I say this fondly, but the two things I recall: one was the distinct smell of mothballs that permeated the area; and visiting Aunt Masa and Auntie Aya. You always knew you were going to come back either with Tomoe-Ame [rice candy] or senbei [rice crackers]. They were always generous to the kids; they loved kids and they always hated for us to go.”

– Paul Murakami, third cousin to the Murakami siblings

“Sometimes I would go in the back; they had a little kitchen, living area and I would go back there and talk, more to Masa … They would talk about various individuals because they knew everybody…. They would mention people by name, and usually Masa would be the one, when I would be talking to her, [who would] mention the stories, and Aya, or Betty, would chirp in with a little additional story, and she had this, kind of little giggle, too, that was very endearing. And so, they almost kind of spoke for one another. Masa would start a story, and then Aya would sort of finish part of the story, and then Masa would add in additional comments.”

– Ron Chew, former editor of the International Examiner, tenant in the Jackson Building

“[I recall when] these rough looking guys [hung around the store with] pistols in their belts… And you think, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ But, Masa would go up and just say, ‘How ya doin’?’ She obviously knew them, and I introduced myself, and they tell me that they’re protecting – they want to make sure nothing happens to Masa and they had weapons. I didn’t see them very often, so I don’t know if they lived locally…. You worry about it, but they were just so protective of Masa.”

– Paul Murakami

Aya and Masa Murakami in their Higo Variety Store.