Shiga’s Imports weathers a half century of changes on the Ave

Toshimo Shiga and her oldest son, Alfred, stand in front of Shiga’s Imports. The store has been operating since 1956 and has been run by Toshimo since the early 1960s. (Photo by Blake Peterson)

Shiga’s Imports, a gift shop dedicated to selling specialized, international merchandise with an emphasis on Japanese goods, is a gem at the heart of Seattle’s University District.

To the unassuming, the store tucked between the University Book Store and Crossroads Trading Company might not stick out on “the Ave.” The area has become known for its culturally diverse restaurants and stores.

But Shiga’s Imports is an integral part of the University District. For more than 50 years, it’s been in its current location. Andy Shiga, a businessman and social activist who died in 1993, founded the store in 1956.

“The store hasn’t really changed all that much,” said Andy Shiga’s oldest son, Alfred. He can still feel his father’s influence on Shiga’s Imports.

“My father was the creative force behind change,” Alfred Shiga said. “And with his passing, the store kind of locked in a way. My mother is very similar. So absolutely, I do still feel him in the store.”

It’s easy to get lost in the kimonos, statues, futons and other products all over the store. I found myself overwhelmed simply when pawing through the shop’s tea selection, which is so comprehensive there’s even a sign posted on a wooden beam with information on brewing each flavor to perfection.

The survival of the Shiga family and their business endeavors is even more remarkable than their commitment to providing unique goods to the public. In the near-century since the family has been in the Seattle area, the Shiga family has survived Japanese American incarceration, the competition of University Village, and the social unrest caused by the Vietnam War.

Now, they’re pushing through the threats of rising gentrification and upzoning on the Ave.

Perseverance and entrepreneurial savvy

For the entire time the Shiga family has been in Seattle, they’ve been entrepreneurs. According to the family, Andy’s father founded Seattle’s Taiheiyo Sweater Company in the early 1920s, operating for a number of years before the Executive Order of 9066 was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942.

The Shiga family in front of their Seattle home in the 1930s. (Courtesy of Alfred Shiga)

This order forced all people of Japanese descent to either be placed in internment camps or relocate. The Shiga family moved from Seattle and stored the company’s inventory in the Ichiban Café in the Panama Hotel, which was a common location for many other Japanese American business owners to put their belongings for the entirety of the incarceration.

While Andy’s father was placed in a camp, Andy was able to evade authorities by traveling first to Helena, Montana and then to Illinois, relying on friends involved with the Methodist church to aid him, according to his Seattle Times obituary,

But he was briefly imprisoned in a camp for conscientious objectors in New York. He was registered for the draft before World War II and identified as a Pacifist.

Andy Shiga and co-workers pose in front of delivery trucks for the Evergreen Co-Op in the 1950s. Shiga helped break the Teamsters’ Union ban against minority delivery drivers. (Courtesy of Alfred Shiga)

After protesting the constitutionality of the draft with a handful of others, he was sentenced for 18 months and was on bail for 3 and a half years. Despite this, he still marched on the Pentagon and the White House in 1945 following President Harry S Truman’s decision to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Andy returned to Seattle in 1950, working as a janitor at a bakery during the winter and as a service camp counselor during the summer. Shortly before opening the store, he also worked as a truck driver.

But he saw opportunity in the items stocked in the Panama Hotel by his father. So in the late 1950s, he used the that inventory to start Shiga’s Imports.

The store rose to prominence after the Seattle World’s Fair brought tourists aplenty to the Seattle area in the 1960s.

The 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle also brought Toshimo, a native of Japan who was visiting the fair. Andy and Toshimo married in 1964.

“After we married, I took over,” Toshimo told me at the shop. “He did the public work.”

Public interest became even more eminent around 1968 when Toshimo began expanding the breadth of items sold, which, to this day, includes bamboo, wicker furniture and more. She says this move was an attempt to appeal to street kids in the area.

Andy and Toshimo Shiga picking watercress in 1974. (Courtesy of Alfred Shiga)

Just as the business was experiencing expansion, though, Andy wanted to find common ground between business owners on the Ave and disaffected youths in the area. While out jogging, Andy came up with the idea of starting the University District Streetfair.

Since 1970, the event has recurred every May, making it the longest operating street fair in the United States.

The future of the Ave

Despite widespread concerns about gentrification around in Seattle and the possibility of a major rezone in the University District that could bring high-rise apartment buildings, Alfred is optimistic about the future of Shiga’s Imports.

This isn’t the first time his family has had to contend with hardship and changing times, after all.

“I think it’s important to keep the University District as having a diverse set of businesses,” Alfred said. “And I think that the best way to do that is to keep the University District more dense but increasingly have more customers.”

Toshimo and Andy Shiga at the first University District Streetfair, 1970. (Courtesy of Alfred Shiga)

Upzoning, though, is a sensitive topic for many small-business owners on the Ave. This February, the City Council unanimously approved an upzone that will lead the University District to become the next high-rise neighborhood in the Seattle region, allowing buildings to stand as high as 320 feet on some blocks.

“The upzone is very minimal in terms of public benefits,” Doug Campbell, owner of Bulldog News, told The Daily of the University of Washington in April. “Private land is tripling and quadrupling in value, and we’re not taxing any of it back to get community needs met. I couldn’t be more disappointed about that.”

With small businesses susceptible to climbing rent, many are distressed about the futures of their businesses. But not the Shigas.

He said local changes have threatened the area. The development University Village and the opening of McDonald’s in a storefront on the Ave at one time caused unease.

But Alfred Shiga remains confident the store will weather these changes as well.

“One of the main reasons we continue to operate the store is to maintain our connection with the neighborhood,” Alfred said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. President Harry Truman made that decision. This story has been corrected.

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7 Comments

  1. I like Alfred and Toshimo Shiga very much, and I believe that they both are having a positive impact in the U-District community. Still, since this article in discussing the upzone, it should take note of the fact that the Shigas hold several prime pieces of U-District real estate, including their store.

    Small businesses who feel threatened by upzoning, are more likely to be renters of commercial space, many on short-term leases.

    To preserve our role as a cultural hub, the U-District needs to create opportunities for this next generation of entrepreneurs and also create conditions protective of our unique legacy businesses. Hopefully, we are entrepreneurs with the same perseverance and idealism that Andy Shiga had! We are unlikely to become property owners.

    The economic forces unleashed by upzoning can be anticipated if we study them. With this understanding, these forces can then be conteracted or mitigated, as needed, to preserve the opportunity for new and existing creative small businesses to survive.

    Doug Campbell
    Bulldog News

  2. Doug:

    Leave it to you to take a feel good story about all the hard work, investment, sacrifice and contributions that my family and I have made for the Seattle and University District communities and you can only take the opportunity to publicly crap on it.

    I examined the proposed Steinbruck study that you have proposed and failed to self fund. From what I have seen thus far, it is attempting to gather much already available information at significant cost.

    Savetheave.com is NOT a small business advocate. It is a thinly veiled attempt at delaying and attempting to lower density in the University District when more density, customers and residents is what the University District and our City needs.

    The King5 article states your organization’s goals quite clearly. “He’s (Rick McLaughlin – Big Time Brewery) organizing a group of business owners to push back against the new zoning regulations, approved in February, which encourage more density in the U-District by allowing taller buildings on certain blocks.”

    The University District is at the soon to be at the nexus of a multi modal transportation hub, world class University, business main street and one of the state’s largest employers. To advocate for less density in the University District and on the Ave is nonsensical.

    Small businesses need more customers, residents, families and employees in the U District. Not less.

    Thank you Blake Peterson and the seattleglobalist for taking the time to write a little bit about my family’s story.

    Alfred Shiga
    Shiga’s Imports

    “…http://www.king5.com/mb/news/local/seattle/u-dist-small-business-owners-brace-for-change/441661834

    1. Hello Alfred,

      As you know, you are out of the mainstream in wanting to upzone University Way itself to tower heights like those which are already approved by the city in the rest of the U-District. You have probably lost this battle, as I and other community advocates have lost our battle for a public square in the heart of the district.

      Losing is hard.

      But now we have the work ahead of making sure that the U Distict maintains and builds upon its qualities as a livable and workable neighborhood. So let’s do that.

      Doug Campbell

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