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Originally published March 1, 2012 at 10:27 PM | Page modified March 2, 2012 at 3:10 PM

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Longtime bookseller David Ishii was quite a story himself

David Ishii, who owned an eclectic bookstore in Pioneer Square for more than 30 years, died Thursday.

Seattle Times arts writer

YouTube | David Ishii Bookseller

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David Ishii, whose secondhand bookstore was a fixture of the Pioneer Square neighborhood from 1972 to 2005, died Thursday at the age of 76.

At his own request, he had been taken off kidney dialysis last week, after doctors confirmed that his diabetes and kidney problems had taken an irreversible turn.

His friends were dismayed by the idea at first, documentary filmmaker Frank Abe said. "But he was firm."

Mr. Ishii was legendary for his unusual bookstore, which he opened in 1972, and his equally unusual business practices (he didn't take credit cards but would trustingly sell books to cashless strangers if they promised to send him a check).

He was equally well-known for his wide and eclectic range of arts interests, and spent many years on the boards of Allied Arts and the Allied Arts Foundation.

But he first became a noted figure in Seattle in the 1930s, under the toughest of circumstances. His mother died giving birth to him in 1935, and his father, battling cancer at the time, arranged for David, the youngest of seven siblings, to be cared for as a "community child" at Swedish Hospital for several years.

"David has a lot of mothers here," nurse Ruth Ulleland told The Seattle Times in 1939. "Every nurse on the floor keeps an eye on him — and everybody loves him."

Fred Moody, in a 2004 Pacific Northwest magazine profile, wrote that "Ishii may have done more than anyone in Seattle to give a human face to the interned in the eyes of the white community."

After the war, Mr. Ishii attended Queen Anne High School and Seattle Pacific College.

He worked for 15 years in The Seattle Times' advertising department, followed by five years at Seattle magazine. His bookstore, says Abe, became a "mecca" for Asian-American writers and artists within a few years of its opening. Rick Simonson of the Elliott Bay Book Co. told Moody in 2004, "David's store was like a stop on the Underground Railroad for Asian-American writers."

Abe first met Mr. Ishii in 1977, when he was a young actor visiting from San Francisco. He felt at home the minute he entered the bookstore, he says. The reason was two posters on prominent display next to each other. One was of John Okada, author of "No-No Boy," now a classic of Japanese-American literature. The other was of Lenn Sakata, a shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles — and the first Japanese American to play in the major leagues.

Mr. Ishii's bookstore and personal interests extended well beyond literature and baseball. In a 2005 interview, he said, "One time I got a wonderful collection on butterflies and moths. That doesn't happen too often. Another time we got a very good collection on children's books. When we get collections in depth is when we're able to expand our store."

In the same interview, Mr. Ishii, who had decided to close his store on First Avenue South, lamented the way that book dealing had become less personal in the computer age.

"I really like going to people's houses, where people live, and buy their books. There's nothing like that. But now booksellers often buy online. ... The thrill of going and seeing the book, and buying the book, and touching it, is gone."

Moody eloquently summed up Mr. Ishii's bookstore as "a place that simultaneously transcends history, makes history, buys and sells history, and disdains going along with the rest of us on history's wild ride."

Mr. Ishii blamed the closure of the store in part on health reasons but also, he said, because he feared the rent would rise.

Mr. Ishii's other passions included opera, chamber music, art shows, movies, dance — and fly-fishing.

His friend Laureen Mar said that when he was asked recently what his proudest achievement was, he didn't hesitate. It was his donation last December of close to 400 fly-fishing books, including some autographed rarities, to Western Washington University's Special Collections library.

"They were thrilled and rightly so," says Mar. "It was extremely generous."

When he retired, Mr. Ishii talked of spending more time with his books and actually getting a chance to read them. But Abe, with a chuckle, says Mr. Ishii may have spent just as much time following baseball on radio and TV.

Mr. Ishii took Abe to his first Mariners game — and gave him guidance on how to enjoy it.

"He taught me patience," Abe says. "He always said baseball is a game of moments: five or six exciting moments in every game, and you have to wait for them. ... He would find a kind of poetry even in a losing game."

Until the end, Ishii continued to buy books ("There were stacks of books," Mar says, "right around his bed") and he kept up his busy social schedule and arts activities.

Ray Ishii, Mr. Ishii's nephew, emphasizes, "He had a lot of interests he was very passionate about. But I think what he really enjoyed was being around people: telling stories, chatting with them, helping them. He just seemed to collect friends. He had many special friends."

Mr. Ishii is survived by brothers George Ishii and Bill Ishii, sisters Mary Ishii and Harriet Ishii, and many nieces and nephews.

At Mr. Ishii's request, there will be no public funeral or memorial service.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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