Even on a dark and stormy night, Seattle's Pike Place buzzes with life.
It was raining in Seattle, hardly unexpected weather, but there was a bright surprise in store for the city. A small convoy of farmers with wagonloads of produce lumbered down a stretch of planked roadway, hauling fresh vegetables to a destination overlooking Elliott Bay. The procession was a protest and an effort to circumvent price-gouging middlemen by bringing fruits and vegetables directly to consumers. Yet the farmers were uncertain whether anyone would show. Even the most optimistic couldn’t have forecast the throngs who swarmed them when they reached the city’s downtown: scores of eager shoppers in a boisterous turnout on a wet August morning 100 years ago. In the following decades, Pike Place Market grew. And this summer, as it commemorates its centennial, the market stands as an emblem of Seattle in all its variety, a vibrant slice of civic life. From the original location at Pike Place and Pike Street, it has absorbed 23 buildings and eight city blocks. Its street-level arcades and subterranean corridors form a honeycomb of commerce, with nooks occupied by eccentric merchants and artisans displaying handmade wares. Produce stands are still a large part of the mix, but farmers have been joined by fishmongers, florists, and fortune-tellers, along with a smorgasbord of businesses from brasseries and bakeries to barbershops and bars.
"It’s a whirlwind here almost any day," says Don Kuzaro Jr. of Don & Joe’s Meats, who took over the 40-year-old family butcher shop from his father. "You’ve got noise and colors and aromas and excitement. You’ve got people hustling around with a purpose, and others just standing there, soaking it all up. You know you’re definitely not in a mall."
Every year, some 10 million visitors pass through Pike Place. But for all its growth and guidebook recognition, the market remains a commercial center that embraces small business, outlaws large chains, and honors the people who have saved it from the wrecking ball. Its sidewalks are a stage for street performers, a stumping ground for speechmakers, and a showcase of the city’s culinary and cultural range. Perhaps its strongest draw lies in the motto proclaimed by a large sign on its central building, meet the producer, inviting shoppers to buy blueberry jam from the farmer who jarred it and honey from the beekeeper
"Come on, folks, it ain’t getting any fresher!" calls a man from behind the counter at City Fish Co., which was established by the city in 1917 to offer subsidized seafood to Seattle residents (salmon had soared to 25 cents a pound). Now privately owned, City Fish is one of several shops, including Pure Food Fish Market and Jack’s Fish Spot, where display cases shimmer with seasonal bounty: Copper River salmon in the summer, local crab in winter, and oysters in the crisp months of fall.
The most famous seafood stand is Pike Place Fish, one of the market’s many must-stop shops. On any given day, throngs of patrons pause here, if not always to buy, then at least to appreciate the show (or to snack on a sample of house-smoked salmon). The extroverted employees manage to turn salesmanship into spectacle as they bark out orders, sing sea chanteys, and throw fresh fillets to customers. Their flourishes with seafood have appeared on the sitcom Frasier and on more postcards than anyone could count.
If renowned fishmongers are the market’s public face, businesses such as DeLaurenti (a gourmet food store) and MarketSpice (specializing in coffees, teas, and spices) are its backbone. MarketSpice is a Pike Place institution. Every day, it offers customers free samples of one of its delicious house-blend teas, a generous gesture that reflects the spirit of Pike Place. At most stands in the market, vendors let you try before you buy.
The Main and North arcades were among the market’s first permanent structures. Today they shelter a wide assortment of stalls, shops, and restaurants. The Main Arcade was built in 1907 by Frank Goodwin, a gold prospector who saw potential fortune in farm-fresh produce. It was followed by the Sanitary Market (so named because horses were banned from its interior) across the street, the North Arcade, and the Corner Market.
The multistory Main Arcade has something of a fun house floor plan, and wandering its lower levels (collectively called Down Under), with their warren of narrow passageways and stairwells, you can feel like a prisoner in an M.C. Escher lithograph. Payoff comes in discovering delightfully quirky stores such as the Magic Shop where, for 75 cents, a mechanical Elvis will tell your fortune. If counsel like "Look to the dolphin as your special animal, it can teach you about joy" doesn’t sound particularly helpful (or at all like something the King would have said), that doesn’t mean the experience isn’t fun.
Deeper in the bowels of the building, Tom Gardner, left-handed owner of Lefty’s World, cuts the figure of a lovable curmudgeon who’s stubbornly opposed to doing things right. For southpaws like himself, he sells merchandise including spiral-bound notebooks, scissors, and bumper stickers that read left on!
Small businesses, so essential to the market’s character, might not have a place here if certain local players had had their way. Almost from its inception, Pike Place was threatened by politicians and developers. In the 1920s, Mayor Edwin Brown proposed replacing it with an auditorium and a radio station. A 1950s plan called for replacing it with a parking garage. But in each instance the public came to the market’s defense. Mayor Brown, for example, was quickly voted out of office. And in 1971, the city passed a ballot measure establishing the market as a historic district whose design and use would be preserved.
In keeping with the ethos that inspired it, the market today remains off-limits to chains. The two prominent exceptions are Starbucks and Sur La Table, both of which opened their first retail outlets in Pike Place, before their brands became well-known names. Actually, the "original" Starbucks, with its weathered but familiar-looking facade, isn’t really the original. That store, which opened in 1971, stood half a block farther north before being displaced by commercial development and relocating to its current spot at Pike Place.
Most days, street musicians perform in front of the landmark coffee shop, while pedestrians crowd the sidewalk, snacking on savory eastern European pastries from Piroshky Piroshky. The fresh-from-the-oven cabbage and mushroom concoctions are worth what is often a long wait in line. Along cobblestone-paved Post Alley offerings range from winetasting to Thai food to the truffles at Rose’s Chocolate Treasures, where Rose Gustafson turns her favorite food into edible art. Her dark chocolate with rock salt is a sweet-and-savory combination that will spoil you for more conventional confections. A short way down the street, at the Pink Door, diners can satisfy their appetite for superb Italian food while enjoying a live performance of, say, a trapeze artist swooping overhead. At the Pink Door, the evening’s entertainment can be difficult to predict.
Once, over half of the market’s stands were operated by Japanese American farmers, many of whom were interned by the federal government during World War II. Pike Place pays tribute to their role in the market’s history with a mural beneath an iconic 1927 neon clock.
The mural is a colorful addition to a market that has undergone some necessary upgrades but retains its original rough-around-the-edges look. At Pike Place, after all, the quality of the products has always taken precedence over appearances, which helps explain the market’s long-standing appeal. The public has been generous to Pike Place. But it also works the other way around. On a busy Sunday morning, with the fresh fish flying and shoppers swarming the produce stands, you sense something special in the color and the chaos. You appreciate people’s attachment to Pike Place. And you understand why Fred Bassetti, a local architect who helped preserve it, once described the market as "an honest place in a phony time."
Photography by Catherine Karnow
This article was first published in March 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.