Binko Chiong-Bisbee and John Bisbee reimagined the Higo Variety Store.

In 2004, Binko Chiong-Bisbee, a pragmatist, and her husband John Bisbee, an architect, first gazed upon these 3,000 square feet of store on Jackson Street with divergent reactions: Chiong-Bisbee saw the undertaking required while her husband envisioned the potential. But both knew they could help keep a Japantown landmark alive yet very much a part of Chinatown–International District’s evolution.

The couple opened Kobo at Higo—an art gallery and shop offshoot of Kobo on Capitol Hill—half a year later inside the two-story Jackson Building, which has been owned by the Murakami family since 1932. The Bisbees worked with third-generation landlord Paul Murakami to adapt the longtime home of his family’s Higo Variety Store, keeping cabinets, cases, even cash registers from this bygone hub where Japanese families once found news and home essentials. “We wanted to preserve all the things the Murakami family used to run that business,” says Chiong-Bisbee. “We wanted to live with that history.”

Seattle’s Nihonmachi, or Japantown—defined by the trapezoidal boundary of Yesler, Fourth Avenue South, Jackson, and I-5—was established around 1891. It’s the oldest, intact Japanese American neighborhood in the U.S. But its historic renown is perhaps obscured by its diminished size. At its peak, Japantown was a lively area of 8,500 tight-knit residents until the exclusion order forced the community into internment camps during World War II. It never quite rebounded from this dark chapter.

Nevertheless, Japantown endures with born-again landmarks like Kobo at Higo. Mostly, though, the small yet vibrant community is proof that preserving history is just as much about engaging in the present.

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