SEATTLE » Somehow, on four visits to Pike Place Market over three decades, I failed to learn where the brothel was. Nor did I hear how the first Starbucks did business for years in this neighborhood before selling its first cup of coffee. Clearly, I was missing a lot.
Like millions of tourists every year who approach this hillside warren of shops, stalls and eateries, I charged around sniffing flowers, appraising fish, listening to buskers, tasting produce, glancing at Elliott Bay or the Olympic Mountains and savoring the vintage magazine ads in Old Seattle Paperworks ("More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!"). It was a sensory riot and that was enough.
My fifth trip was different. In late August, Times photographer Mark Boster and I spent four days in the market, and this time I met more people and heard more history and backstage chatter.
First, the Pike Place Market Historic District is 9 acres — bigger than you thought, right? Besides its many stalls, which house a rotating cast of farmers (about 80) and artisans (about 225), its 20 buildings hold more than 30 restaurants and 250 stores, four fish merchants, a senior center, a health clinic, a food bank and a child care center. (That child care center, market officials say, is one reason marijuana will not be part of the market’s offerings any time soon, despite Washington state’s vote to legalize weed in 2012.)
Most visitors "never see it for what it is," said Mercedes Carrabba, a second-generation market vendor who runs Ghost Alley Espresso and leads tours. It’s a city within a city, she said.
Carrabba likes to point out that more than 400 people live in the market district, that its first mortuary is now occupied by an Irish pub (Kells) and that Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, lived in a shack on this hillside until her death in 1896.
The old brothel, Carrabba reports, did business in the LaSalle Hotel in the 1940s and ’50s when madam Nellie Curtis handed out business cards reading, "Friends made easily." It’s a residence for seniors now, just upstairs from the market.
If you’re a visitor, one obvious place to start is on the eastern side of Pike Place, where you can find the neighborhood’s biggest commercial success stories.
One is the first Sur La Table cookware store, opened in 1972. (By the way, you can’t see it from inside the shop, but just upstairs there’s a jaw-dropping 1,400-square-foot loft apartment. For $1,500 a night it’s yours. For details, consult the Inn at the Market next door.)
The even bigger story is Starbucks, which was born a block away in 1971 as a purveyor of coffee beans and equipment and moved to its current district spot in 1976. Management finally got around to selling coffee by the cup in the ’80s. Also, at some point on the road to global domination, the company re-drew its logo to make the mermaid more demure. But the Pike Place location still uses the topless original.
There are plenty of young businesses in the market, as well. Not far from Starbucks and Sur La Table is Steelhead Diner (opened in 2007), a sleek lunch and dinner destination that shows off its Black Witches and Green Butt Skunks (fishing lures, not cocktails) in museum-style displays. Just downstairs, Rachel’s Ginger Beer (opened in 2013) brags about its Moscow Mules and Porch Swings (cocktails, not fishing lures). Radiator Whiskey, an upstairs den for dinner and spirits (not necessarily in that order), has done gangbusters business since opening last year.
And, of course, you’ll need to linger at Pike Place Fish Market, where wisecracking mongers draw crowds with their hardy fish-flinging and order-hollering. John Yokoyama, its owner of 49 years, has a healthy side business in motivational books and speeches, and his guys also speak that language.
"If you’re short with people and you don’t love them, they’re going to go down the hall and spend their money," fishmonger Jake Jarvis told me. "If we’re really having fun, people feel it."
When I asked to buy a copy of Yokoyama and Joseph Michelli’s book, "When Fish Fly," Jardin leaned back and hollered, "One Johnny book!" Then the mongers swarmed, and seven of them signed the title page.
Some locals grumble that the market has become too touristy, especially when the cruise crowds shuffle through in summer. But I didn’t hear visitors complaining. Most seemed busy basking in the market magic.
Which isn’t magic at all, of course. It’s highly curated capitalism. To change the color of a fixture or stock a new product, tenants often need permission. Street performers annually renew permits to circulate among 13 designated spots (look for the symbols of musical notes painted on the pavement). To ensure turnover, the limit is one hour in a spot.
In fact, Pike Place’s birth and rebirth were both cases of government intervention.
In 1907, Seattle first set aside a patch of Pike Place as a farmers market because consumers were complaining that middlemen were inflating the price of onions and other produce. Once direct-to-the-public sales began, developers rushed in to put up buildings.
By 1971 many shoppers had turned to the suburbs, and privately owned Pike Place buildings were starting to fall apart. That’s when a citizens campaign to stave off demolition led to voter approval of a rescue plan.
City officials created the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority to set rents, approve tenants, keep out non-native chains and enforce a set of restrictions that has grown to 48 pages. These crowded aisles might be the most carefully managed chaos this side of professional wrestling.
By Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
PIKE PLACE MARKET, THROUGH THE YEARS
With consumers howling over a spike in the price of farm goods, Seattle officials earmark Pike Place, a newly planked street near the waterfront, as a spot for farmers to bypass middlemen and sell to the public.
Rushing to capitalize on public demand, developer Frank Goodwin constructs and opens a building next to Pike Place with 76 produce stalls. Above, in 1910.
European and Asian immigrant farmers fill many of the stalls; in fact, most of the farm vendors are Japanese-Americans. City Fish, the market’s first fishmonger, opens.
Some 627 farmers sell at the market, drawing 25,000 shoppers on a typical weekday.
Two dramatic neon Public Market signs are added.
After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. orders Japanese-Americans into internment camps, including more than half of Pike Place’s farm vendors. More than a third will never return to Seattle.
An urban renewal plan calls for demolition of the market area, but a preservation campaign gains momentum.
Starbucks opens at Western Avenue and Pike Place, offering whole beans and coffee-making equipment.
Seattle voters approve creation of Pike Place Historic District and a public agency to preserve its buildings and character. The city buys 14 buildings.
The market, now managed by the nonprofit Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority, begins a decade of upgrades, including construction of five buildings.
The state starts construction of a tunnel and surface streets to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct (Washington 99), the double-deck highway that looms between Pike Place Market and Puget Sound. Completion target is 2016.
Sources: Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority, www.pikeplacemarket.org/history; city of Seattle registration form for National Register of Historic Places, www.bit.ly/1x3AjOa; Washington State Department of Transportation, www.1.usa.gov/1mVJa3U