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.”