“In the beginning, we never thought this was going to last 25 years,” Binko Chiong-Bisbee said, full of emotion.
Fighting back tears, Chiong-Bisbee recounted one of the early obstacles that she and her husband and co-owner, John Bisbee, faced as they tried to sustain their shop, KOBO Shop and Gallery, in its early years.
“There were some financial people who had a meeting with us,” she said. “When they looked at our bottom line, they told us we should think about getting jobs and giving this up. John was there. I had tears in my eyes, thinking that these financial people did not see any value in it. That just made me feel so sad. But the craziest thing is that we continued, we didn’t give in.”
If you traveled back in time to tell this heartbroken couple that their persistence would grow their little store to its current popularity, they’d probably be stunned. Their beloved art gallery and store hit a phenomenal milestone this year: a quarter century in business.
The story of KOBO begins with Chiong-Bisbee’s mother who moved her family from Tokyo to the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle when Chiong-Bisbee was just a little girl.
“She was a single mom with three daughters and she put herself back to school at the University of Washington where she became a librarian,” Chiong-Bisbee said. “She loved mingei which is ‘folk craft.’ If you travel to different parts of Japan, you encounter shokunin-san. They’re artisans and these artisans have been making things for decades. Not just two years, they’ve been making it for 20, 30 years. It could be a generational thing. So, these are things that I grew up with, you know, in our home.”
Two decades later, Chiong-Bisbee graduated from the University of Washington and moved to New York City to work in urban planning. There, she’d meet her future husband, business partner, and other half — John Bisbee. The two lived in New York for eight years before a new life event nudged their paths closer to the conception of KOBO.
Chiong-Bisbee’s mom retired from the University of Washington and started leading occasional tour groups in Japan. For one of her tours, she invited the couple to join her. Chiong-Bisbee hadn’t been to Japan since she was little and Bisbee had never been. After a whirlwind tour through five major cities, the two were captivated.
“I just remember we’d go to these very famous temples and get off the bus and my mom would explain the architecture and the art, and then she would say, ‘We need to get back on the bus because we need to go to the next stop.’ And that was so frustrating for John because he just wanted to stay and linger and look at the Japanese architectural marvels and just observe it all,” Chiong-Bisbee said.
So, they took a leave of absence from their jobs for a year and moved to Japan.
“We went to Japan and one year turned into five years,” Chiong-Bisbee said.
John found a job at an architecture firm and they were both thriving. These years spent in Japan would be a pivotal time for inspiring their future store.
“John and I spent so much time learning about art, design, and craft in Japan, she said. “We just absorbed whatever we could while we were there and met a lot of interesting people. At the very end, a year or two before we left Japan, we had an idea to maybe parlay this into some kind of business when we got back to Seattle, but we didn’t know what it was going to be.”
When the pair returned to Seattle to care for their aging parents, they launched their first pre-KOBO experiment. A nearby Japanese boutique called Midori Antiquities gave them a small space to sell some of the things they’d brought back from Tokyo.
Eventually, they’d find and open the first location of KOBO on Capitol Hill in 1995. When they first opened, they were showcasing exclusively art and goods from Japan, but they’ve since evolved to include Northwest artists whose work is in some way related, inspired, or reminiscent of Japanese design.
“We started off purely wanting to share Japanese craftsmanship and artisanship and then it moved onto something bigger than that,” Chiong-Bisbee said. “The concept is pretty much the same, what we wanted to accomplish, which was to share with people in Seattle and Westerners this idea of craftmaking, craftsmanship, different processes of production. These objects are not just things, but there are people behind it.”
Chiong-Bisbee described her curation philosophy for KOBO, explaining that the story behind an item is really important to her.
“There’s so much that goes into making something it’s not just the end result or the object, but there’s probably some backstory why that thing looks like the way it is and why it was created or processed that way,” she said. “We have one object made out of bamboo, and in Japan it serves one function. You put in the seven spices that you put in ramen or udon … It’s a bamboo thing in it’s traditional design that’s been around for maybe 50 years. It’s fun for us to showcase things like that. Some things that are very obscure. And some things are just ordinary like really nice plushy socks, they feel good. I’d like to get that from somebody.”
So in 2004, when the Murakami family was ready to close Higo Variety Store in the International District and put another Japanese business in its place, KOBO was a perfect fit. The Murakami family offered to turn their 3,500 square foot space into a blank space and turn it over to KOBO to do whatever they wanted with it. But John Bisbee is a trained architect, and they saw an opportunity to preserve a piece of history.
“That whole story was important to us. Not only the building, but the neighborhood and the story behind that neighborhood. I almost get emotional talking about it,” Chiong-Bisbee said. “It has a lot of memories for different generations of people. Older people come in and they begin to reminisce about what the neighborhood was like. The Murakami sisters who used to run the store … They were bringing their young children to buy trinkets and candy and all of that starts to come flooding back.”
Today, the Wing Luke Museum has an installation in the historic store called, “Meet Me at Higo” which preserves and catalogues the history of the Japanese-American community hub. The Bisbees have also maintained a restaurant booth from their former next door neighbor, the Jackson Cafe. John Bisbee likes to recount the stories he heard from Bob Santos, a late prominent community member and activist, who often came to sit in the booth.
“Bob Santos sat in that booth in [KOBO] Higo Variety Store, just kind of reminiscing,” Chiong-Bisbee said. “He sat many times in that same booth but next door with his father. And he’d talk about conversations he would have with his father. It was just so touching, that touchstone. Just sitting in that space, that physical space, made him think about his past and his father.”
The KOBO location has maintained the Higo Variety Store sign, and continues to be a beacon of Japanese-American pride in the community. Chiong-Bisbee expressed how extraordinary it’s been to own stores in both her hometown neighborhood of Capitol Hill and in the historically vulnerable, culturally significant International District neighborhood.
“Both neighborhoods are so important to us and who we are. I couldn’t live without either,” she said. But she continued, “There’s different issues that the ID and Japantown faces. There needs to be more voice to make sure that people honor it and support it.”
Chiong-Bisbee lamented about the severe challenges the International District has faced over the last decade, saying that it’s been difficult for so many business owners. First they endured the economic recession in 2008, then there was streetcar construction, which lasted for two years immediately afterward. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the neighborhood hard.
“I’m still trying to absorb what’s happened over the last year,” Chiong-Bisbee said. “We had a staff of 14 people. In March we had to furlough everyone. That was difficult. And then, as we moved to the spring, trying to figure out, ‘We need to survive, what are we going to do?’ I pulled together a small group of people and we brainstormed about, ‘How do we get through this?”
The answer has involved a combination of efforts. They’ve received support from neighbors like Trichome, who pick up their deliveries on certain days, they’ve gotten additional help from their daughter, Aya Bisbee, who comes in on weekends, and they rely heavily on their website to make online sales while people can’t patronize their stores. Chiong-Bisbee said that while that’s been a shift for their business model, they’re reaching more people nationwide.
“It’s like, somebody who used to live in Seattle who now lives in Florida still remembers us and now they’re connecting with us,” she said. “I sense that there is this great need for art and the handmade and I think people are connecting with that.”
With their new delivery model, Chiong-Bisbee said she’s also occasionally organized to drop orders off at people’s houses when it’s more convenient than mailing. She laughed, “Even though we’re dealing with the internet, there’s this intimacy, too. I’m actually going to their house.”
While it’s been a tough year for KOBO, Chiong-Bisbee said she gets excited every time she gets an order. She knows there are so many other business owners in harrowing positions, and she expressed that she’s been trying to do as much as she can to support neighboring restaurants and shops. With urgency, she encourages people to do what they can right now.
“I want to name everyone in the International District,” she said, listing a few of the businesses that she loves to support. She included, namely, a few of her neighbors, Kaname Izakaya and Shochu Bar, Trichome, Maneki Restaurant, Panama Hotel and Tea House, and more.
“Support your local businesses,” she stressed. “It’s so easy to buy from the bigger companies, but it just takes a little more effort to do some research and find those small companies and more obscure places. You’re doing so much for them … It just takes a little bit more work but you can help so much by being, I guess intentional and just looking for things. Just spend a little more time with your computer and help the little ones, the small ones.”
You can support “the little ones” by checking out this year’s Intentionalist Holiday Gift Guides! You’ll find KOBO in a few of them including Gift Guide for Foodies, Gift Guide for Teachers, Gift Guide for Cards, Gift Guide for Kids, Gift Guide for Bookworms, and the Gift Guide for Last Minute Gifts.
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