Every major city has its irritatingly ubiquitous landmarks. San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. St. Louis has a gigantic, habitable arch. L.A. has that place where they shot Bowfinger. Seattle is lucky enough to have two: the Space Needle and Pike Place Market, aka The Place Where Guys Throw Fish. People around the world are obsessed with the fish-tossers. I’ve seen Seattle highlighted in about a dozen travel/food shows, and in every one of them the host was forced to catch a damn fish. Listening to TV personalities and touring comedians reduce your complex city to a few quirky bullet points (also: coffee, rain, grunge and passive-aggression) can become obnoxious to a long-time resident.
It’s understandable that Seattleites might get burned out on such a place, but it’s also a shame. Pike Place Market, as you’ve no doubt heard many times over, is one of the oldest continuously operated farmer’s markets in the US (since 1907!). It’s also one of the most bizarre and mind-boggling places I’ve ever visited—and I’ve been to Europe, people. It’s way bigger than the iconic top floor with the famous sign, the tossed fish market, First & Pike News and a bunch of food and flower stands. If you dig a little deeper, yes, even deeper than the disgustingly charming Gum Wall, you’ll find some of the most idiosyncratic shops and attractions imaginable. Every time I venture into the strange depths of the Market I find something new, exiting or maybe even a bit scary. Let’s go down floor by floor and I’ll show you what I mean. And I promise I won’t mention fish tossing for the rest of the tour.
Level 5 (Street Level)
Sure, this is ground zero for suffocating crowds of tourists. But there are some genuinely cool things to be found if you stray away from the central attractions. For example, everyone likes the Can Can Kitchen and Cabaret. It’s pure Seattle weird, with a speakeasy-like atmosphere and raunchy cabaret shows like Nearly Naked Dinner Theater. I could tell you more, but I think Nearly Naked Dinner Theater should be enough to sway you one way or another.
Lodged smack in the gooey middle of the aforementioned Gum Wall is the Market Theater, home base of Unexpected Productions, a decades-old improv comedy organization. I’ve attended or performed in dozens of shows at this theater, covering a wide spectrum of quality, but I never get tired of being in this charmingly ramshackle hole-in the wall.
The first floor down features all of the quirky shops that I went nuts for as a little kid when my family came up from Yakima to visit. Back then I couldn’t have cared less about fresh fish and flowers, but I was all about the magic store. Turns out, “the magic store” is actually called Market Magic Shop and it’s been around since 1974. Employees at the MMS are often professional magicians like Jonathan Friedman, who’s worked there for three years (“but I’ve been doing magic since I was five”). Aside from having a bunch of cool tricks, gadgets, and the kind of automated fortune-tellers that have been known turn little kids into Tom Hanks, it’s one of the greatest legit magic shops around, regularly updating its stock for practicing magicians. The further up the walls you look, the older the merchandise, so, as Friedman puts it, “You can see the history of magic from the top down.” It’s a global destination for tourists, magicians and even celebrities like George Takei, who entered the store ten minutes after a customer had set off a recently purchased fart-bomb. “My memory is of him walking in and taking a whiff,” Friedman says, “and he made this face like ‘Oh! The smell of magic!’” My memories of this place are of my parents dragging me away after I’d only been in there for two hours, max.
Other highlights of the fourth floor include Golden Age Collectables—one of the most jam-packed movie memorabilia shops you’ll ever see—store after store featuring millions of tchotchkes (and nearly as many “you break it you buy it” signs), and best of all—The Giant Shoe Museum. Just a few words about the Giant Shoe Museum: It’s a wall fixture that you feed with coins in order to be given brief glimpses of historically giant shoes. I don’t know who is in charge of it and I don’t want to know. I choose to believe that it’s somehow self-sustaining. It’s so perfectly weird and charming that it almost makes me a bit misty-eyed. But then again, I’m clearly an odd man.
Deeper still, and now we’re really getting to the good stuff. Level 3 features my favorite shop in the entire Market—perhaps my favorite shop in the entire world. It’s called Rummage Around, and it feels like a pawnshop from another dimension. There’s so much stuff that it spills out into the hallway, where you might find a black drum kit with a tricycle jammed into it next to a large ceramic urn, priced to sell at $25. According to sales clerk Whitney, the owner finds this endless array of stuff at estate liquidations and rummage sales. Whitney, by the way, agrees with me that of all the weird stores packed into this vast complex, Rummage Around is “definitely the weirdest.” Her favorite item is a guitar (supposedly) signed by Metallica. My favorite item is a large bin filled with used glasses cases for $1. Why does this bin exist?
Allison Lizotte spends ample time at Rummage Around searching for action figures and “disintegrating ventriloquist dolls” when she’s not working at the nearby Pipe Palace Smoke Shop with her “work wife” of twelve years, Sarah Hopgood. A comedian and Annex Theatre volunteer in her off hours, Lizotte has spent over a decade working in the Market’s caverns, “and now I don’t have a soul anymore.” Working in a big, crazy tourist destinations can take its toll, and even though she eventually confessed that she loves it down there, Lizotte’s customers can run the gamut from charming to scary. Her biggest pet peeve, however, is people who ask where they can find the Market (“I’m like, ‘you’re soaking in it, Madge!’”).
Hopgood is a lifer, who started working when she was very young: “At that time it was much scarier for me because I was a very shy person, but working here has definitely helped with that.” Indeed—while she’s quite warm and friendly, she also has the kind of “take no crap” demeanor common to most of the Pikers I spoke with. People who work at the Market clearly love being there, but they need to get tough to survive. They’re a lot like New Yorkers.
At least, that was the narrative I was forming in my head when I wandered into Chin Music Press, an independent book publisher staffed with enthusiastic, bright-eyed, young poetry types. What the hell is this place doing in Pike Place Market? I thought. The little team loves their locale, even as they recognize how anomalous they might seem, wedged in among the doo-dads and carnival atmosphere. They specialize in “Asia-leaning” literature and art, according to publisher Bruce Rutledge, much of it produced in the Northwest. “We want to show people that this part of the world [Cascadia] actually has a thriving indie press culture,” explains Rutledge. “It’s there, even in the shadow of Amazon—we’re creating quirky new books, working together to try to get people’s voices out there.” Products range from books of photography and fiction to art from local folks like my hero, Ichimasu Mari.
Level 2 might be off-limits to civilians. Or maybe there are a whole bunch of stores in there and I just wasn’t able to find the entrance. The place is nothing if not a baffling labyrinth.
Level 1 is street level again, a couple blocks southwest of the much more famous Level 5. I suspect most people don’t even know there is a Level 1—the stores there tend to be a bit more specialized. Take, for example, Mobeta Shoes, easily the most…adventurous part of my adventure. Mobeta Shoes is a specialty shoemaking shop for “difficult to fit” people. The proprietor and sole employee is Walter DeMarsh, who reminds me of the kind of character you might see in an old Western—a single-minded, laconic professional with little need for pleasantries and pomp. In a biopic of his life, he’d be played by Sam Elliot. He’s tall and lanky, probably in his late 60s or early 70s (he declined to be photographed), and he is very passionate about making shoes. His shop is filled with ancient leatherworking devices, cobbling gear and wooden foot forms. “Once the shoe fits, the form is correct and then the individual owns the form, from which subsequent shoes are made,” he says.
DeMarsh is one of those guys who just wants to focus on his craft, which folks around the Market assure me he is very good at. He tolerated my presence, but I think our conversation can best be summed up by this exchange:
Me: How long have you been doing this here?
DeMarsh: I got here about 10 o’clock.
Me: [nervous laughter]
DeMarsh: I’ve been here since 1979.
Me: Oh, so pretty much since the beginning.
DeMarsh: Beginning of what?
Me: I don’t know. I’m not sure what I’m talking about.
I highly recommend checking out his website, which is written in the terse, no-frills manner in which he speaks. I also highly recommend having him make your shoes if you have misshapen feet. He’s the best there is.
After I left Mobeta Shoes, I was relieved to conclude my tour with a familiar face, belonging to my friend Rosalie Gale, who co-owns the craft shop Ugly Baby and La Ru. UB&LR sells handsome and often hilarious handmade art as well as craft kits made by other artists. Rosalie’s shower art has been featured in popular TV shows and my parents’ bathroom. She’s been in the Market for four years and has yet to tire of it. “I walk to work every time I come here,” she says, “you see the big sign and you walk across a cobblestone street, there’s crowds of people and five dollar flowers and a crazy bakery. It transports you into a totally different world.” That’s exactly how I feel.
Tourist traps are supposed to be bland and safe, but I always feel like anything can happen when I venture deep into the Market. It’s only a matter of time, I suppose, until I see a ghost. Like the one Rosalie witnessed in the bathroom on Halloween, soon after she first opened up shop. “The toilet paper holder just started spinning by itself at a crazy-fast speed,” she says, “and I’m just staring at it in shock until all the toilet paper is gone. And then I finished up, walked out, locked up the store and ran down the street crying.” There’s a lot more to that story, by the way, but I don’t want to spoil it. You’ll have to go the store yourself and ask Rosalie to tell you the rest. Make sure to start from Level 5 and take the long way down. There’s quite a lot to see.