Pike Place celebrates 100 years in business

Find more of Peter Fish's Postcard and Western Wanderings essaysIt's 6:15 a.m. and the neon sign glows in the dawn: PUBLIC MARKETCENTER. And here they come, the fish guys in orange bib pants,looking a little morning-groggy but gung-ho as they start slappingdown salmon on the display-case ice.

Welcome to Seattle's Pike Place Market,celebrating its 100th year this summer. In the words of headorange-bib-pants guy, the Bear, "You never know what you're goingto see here."

This is true. From its beginnings in August 1907 ― whencranky Seattleites started a community market because vegetableprices were too high ― Pike Place has become a world untoitself, covering 9 acres of downtown Seattle and drawing 10 millionvisitors a year.

But back to the fish, because the fish are the first thing the10 million people want to see. This is thanks to a time-savingscheme devised by Pike Place Fish Market owner John Yokoyama in the1980s. Why, he wondered, should we carry fish around when we couldtoss them like silver footballs through the air? His inspirationhas gained Pike Place Fish Market international fame; it hasinspired motivational books and corporate seminars, which explainswhy suddenly the orange-bib guys are being joined by a dozen or sowell-dressed women who take shovels and start packing down thedisplay-case ice in some kind of corporate-bonding exercise.

"Salmon!" shouts a guy in bib pants, and as the nicely dressedwomen watch, he hurls a king salmon at the Bear.

I hate to leave, but I need to move on to chase assistant marketmaster David Dickinson on his morning rounds. As we run past theAthenian Inn ― where Tom Hanks ate in Sleepless in Seattle ― he explains that his first jobis to assign spaces to Pike Place's 300-plus day vendors. "Goodmorning," he calls, in Hmong, to a woman selling daffodils.Craftspeople mill around in sweaters they've knit themselves. "Ican't sell shirts next to somebody selling shirts," one complains.After 10 minutes Dickinson has assigned each craftsperson to asuitable stall. "My brain hurts," he says.

Naturally, given that Pike Place is historic and irreplaceable,it was almost torn down. This was in the early 1970s, whenrough-edged urban markets were out of style. But led by Universityof Washington professor Victor Steinbrueck, Seattle voters haltedthe demolition. Today Pike Place is integral to Seattle, providinghousing for a food bank, a health clinic, a senior center, andon-site day care, as well as 500 below-market-rate apartments, in avery Seattle-like effort to live the good life with king salmon andfresh-cut daffodils, but still be really earnest about it.

Onward. It was lunchtime and I was hungry, so I grabbed abowl of chili quickly since there were so many purchases toconsider. I could buy a copy of Corriere della Sera, from Milan, or the Nome Nugget, from Nome, Alaska. I could get a wok or bowl atthe House of Woks and Bowls, a latte at the world's firstStarbucks, or Peruvian Inca Kola from El Mercado Latino.

The other thing you can get at Pike Place Market is lost. Idecided I wanted the Inca Kola but couldn't remember where I'd seenit. Instead I found myself at the Giant Shoe Museum. I put in aquarter, squinted into a peephole, and saw a giant shoe. Notbelieving I'd wasted 25 cents, I went to the next peephole, put inanother quarter, and saw another giant shoe. At this point I neededa real drink and headed to the Alibi Room, a great shadowy barperfect for beating yourself up over unwise spending. I thoughtabout the market ― why, in a world where so many venues thattry to be Pike Place are quaint and unsatisfactory, it stillsatisfies.

"The need for a free, open marketplace goes back to ancientcivilizations," says Matthew Steinbrueck, Victor's son, who nowowns and runs Ravens Nest Treasure, an excellent NorthwesternNative American art gallery in the market. "At Pike Place,everybody is equal ― you can be a big shot or not, it'sstill, 'How many oranges do you want?' "

That was as good an analysis as I'd heard. I finished my drinkand stepped outside. The market sign flashed pink in the dusk,ready for a second hundred years.

INFO: Pike Place Market (FirstAve. at Pike St., Seattle; 206/682-7453)

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