Pike Place celebrates 100 years in business

Peter Fish

Find more of Peter Fish’s Postcard and Western Wanderings essays

It’s 6:15 a.m. and the neon sign glows in the dawn: PUBLIC MARKET CENTER. And here they come, the fish guys in orange bib pants, looking a little morning-groggy but gung-ho as they start slapping down salmon on the display-case ice.

Welcome to Seattle’s Pike Place Market, celebrating its 100th year this summer. In the words of head orange-bib-pants guy, the Bear, “You never know what you’re going to see here.”

This is true. From its beginnings in August 1907―when cranky Seattleites started a community market because vegetable prices were too high―Pike Place has become a world unto itself, covering 9 acres of downtown Seattle and drawing 10 million visitors a year.

But back to the fish, because the fish are the first thing the 10 million people want to see. This is thanks to a time-saving scheme devised by Pike Place Fish Market owner John Yokoyama in the 1980s. Why, he wondered, should we carry fish around when we could toss them like silver footballs through the air? His inspiration has gained Pike Place Fish Market international fame; it has inspired motivational books and corporate seminars, which explains why suddenly the orange-bib guys are being joined by a dozen or so well-dressed women who take shovels and start packing down the display-case ice in some kind of corporate-bonding exercise.

“Salmon!” shouts a guy in bib pants, and as the nicely dressed women watch, he hurls a king salmon at the Bear.

I hate to leave, but I need to move on to chase assistant market master David Dickinson on his morning rounds. As we run past the Athenian Inn―where Tom Hanks ate in Sleepless in Seattle―he explains that his first job is to assign spaces to Pike Place’s 300-plus day vendors. “Good morning,” he calls, in Hmong, to a woman selling daffodils. Craftspeople mill around in sweaters they've knit themselves. “I can’t sell shirts next to somebody selling shirts,” one complains. After 10 minutes Dickinson has assigned each craftsperson to a suitable 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, when rough-edged urban markets were out of style. But led by University of Washington professor Victor Steinbrueck, Seattle voters halted the demolition. Today Pike Place is integral to Seattle, providing housing for a food bank, a health clinic, a senior center, and on-site day care, as well as 500 below-market-rate apartments, in a very Seattle-like effort to live the good life with king salmon and fresh-cut daffodils, but still be really earnest about it.

Onward. It was lunchtime and I was hungry, so I grabbed a bowl of chili quickly since there were so many purchases to consider. 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 at the House of Woks and Bowls, a latte at the world’s first Starbucks, or Peruvian Inca Kola from El Mercado Latino.

The other thing you can get at Pike Place Market is lost. I decided I wanted the Inca Kola but couldn’t remember where I’d seen it. Instead I found myself at the Giant Shoe Museum. I put in a quarter, squinted into a peephole, and saw a giant shoe. Not believing I’d wasted 25 cents, I went to the next peephole, put in another quarter, and saw another giant shoe. At this point I needed a real drink and headed to the Alibi Room, a great shadowy bar perfect for beating yourself up over unwise spending. I thought about the market―why, in a world where so many venues that try to be Pike Place are quaint and unsatisfactory, it still satisfies.

“The need for a free, open marketplace goes back to ancient civilizations,” says Matthew Steinbrueck, Victor’s son, who now owns and runs Ravens Nest Treasure, an excellent Northwestern Native American art gallery in the market. “At Pike Place, everybody is equal―you can be a big shot or not, it’s still, ‘How many oranges do you want?’ ”

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

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


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