Mutual Fish closing: Customers were hooked for more than 75 years

Sep 6, 2023, 11:50 AM | Updated: 12:27 pm

Gone fishin’ . . . there’s a sign upon your door

Gone fishin’ . . . you ain’t working anymore

So goes the old song popularized by Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. Unfortunately, the sign on the door at Mutual Fish Company at 2335 Rainier Avenue South in Seattle doesn’t say “GONE FISHIN,’” it says, “STORE CLOSING.”

And so KIRO Newsradio paid a visit to this family-run business which has been a local fixture since the 1940s but which is shutting down permanently Saturday, Sept. 16.

Rainier Avenue has been taking a lot of hits over the past few years. There was a deadly shooting at a hookah lounge in August. And though not as tragic as a shooting, Borracchini’s Bakery announced its permanent closure in March 2021, and then the building burned down in May 2022.

Around the same time that Borracchini’s famous sheet cake ovens went cold, locally-founded beef jerky purveyor Oberto shut down its retail beef jerky store in the neighborhood.

Businesses in general and specific locations for businesses often have lifespans, and other economic forces are also usually a factor in decisions to close down. Add to this the fact that retail is undergoing seismic change post-pandemic and in the growing shift to online shopping, as we’ve seen with Bartell Drugs and other examples lately.

It wasn’t quite business as usual at Mutual Fish on Tuesday. Third-generation owner/operator Kevin Yoshimura looked up briefly from his cluttered desk to decline an interview request and then, when asked permission, insisted that any customer interviews be conducted outside. Kevin Yoshimura also said that his father, Harry Yoshimura, wasn’t in but might be in later.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of customers were pulling into the parking lot and attempting to enter the building but finding themselves delayed by an irritating radio historian with a hand-held digital audio recorder.

Dr. Wayne Tsuji moved to Seattle 43 years ago and has been coming to Mutual Fish for almost that entire time. Dr. Tsuji, who lives nearby in Madrona, told KIRO Newsradio that Mutual Fish is a great place for fish, he shops there as often as three times a week, and, in its own unique way, Mutual Fish is also “multicultural.”

“I mean, the owners are Japanese American,” Tsuji said. “But they’ve got Greek women who come in here for branzino [a kind of European sea bass], they’ve got African American folks who come in for the catfish.”

“It’s multicultural,” Tsuji continued. “It really has been a service to the community.”

While Mutual Fish is known for supplying some of Seattle’s best-known chefs and restaurants with the best seafood from the Northwest and around the world, it was customers like Tsuji and others who were shopping for their own dinners who were most in evidence on Tuesday.

Steve Jones lives nearby and has been coming to Mutual Fish for decades. He only found out about the store closing when arrived Tuesday and saw the notice taped to the front door. Jones says the news is certainly sad, but he’s seen the changes in the neighborhood, and he understands why the owners of Mutual Fish would want to shut down now.

“This neighborhood has been hit hard with the retail,” Jones said, as he gripped a small brown paper bag he’d emerged from the store with. “The shops up and down the block are closing, and it’s kind of a mess.”

What was in the bag?

“A little King Salmon,” Jones said, which he planned to grill at home, devoid of any kind of sauce or marinade, other than, perhaps, “maybe a little butter on top.”

There are plenty of places to buy seafood in Seattle, so why did Steve Jones keep coming back to Mutual Fish all these years?

“One is the way they fillet the fish,” Jones explained. “You never find a bone in the fish. And it’s never the cheapest … [but] it’s always the freshest, and always really good.”

Where will Jones buy fresh fish once Sept. 16 passes and Mutual Fish is no more?

“I don’t know,” Jones said. “Harry said he’d give me some recommendations.”

As Jones left, he made a point to stop and greet Gus, the friendly German Shepherd belonging to Kevin Yoshimura. Gus spends his days in a spacious pen alongside the Mutual Fish building on the edge of the parking lot and loves to interact with regular customers.

It wasn’t long after Steve Jones left when a big white SUV drove into the parking lot and pulled into the spot farthest from the front door. The driver was Harry Yoshimura, and he was willing to talk, but not until after he, too, spent a few minutes greeting Gus and giving him several dog treats.

Harry Yoshimura is 80 years old. Harry’s dad Dick Yoshimura founded Mutual Fish by buying into a small retail produce and fish store at 14th and Yesler not long after World War II had ended more than 75 years ago. That location had been part of a waterfront-based business called Main Fish Company, where Dick had worked beginning in the 1930s.

The name Mutual Fish, which sounds a little bit like a maritime insurance company, was Dick Yoshimura’s idea. He pulled it out of thin air, his son Harry said, and it stuck. The shop expanded and moved to the purpose-built retail location Rainier Avenue in 1965. The architect for the building was Alfred Croonquist, the same midcentury modern specialist who designed the old Sunset Bowl in Ballard.

The big ”Mutual Fish” sign on the building, also likely Croonquist’s handiwork, with its stylized fish and unusual one-of-a-kind font, has been a landmark for passing motorists for more than 50 years. Turns out it’s not exactly Harry Yoshimura’s favorite.

“I think it’s dated now quite a bit,” Yoshimura said as he stood, craning his neck and squinting and considering the distinctive graphic identity of his family’s landmark business. “Everything’s different, and trees are covering it a little bit and what-not … so, yeah.”

Vintage (or “dated”) sign notwithstanding, one thing that becomes clear talking to Harry Yoshimura is that the decision to close Mutual Fish happened kind of fast.

“I don’t know, it’s kind of a quickie decision,” Yoshimura said, still standing in the parking lot. “We’ve been thinking about it for a few months, and then finally said we’d do it because of all of the homelessness and people getting shot up the street there and what-not.”

“And, you know, the City Council’s not doing anything for us anyway,” Yoshimura continued. “We pay the taxes and everything else.”

Inside the shop, Dr. Tsuji was still browsing. He and Harry greeted each other like old friends, talking about a marathon Dr. Tsuji had run years ago with Mutual Fish as a sponsor and about Dr. Tsuji’s time as Dick Yoshimura’s physician.

Harry’s said his dad Dick Yoshimura came to work every day until he died at age 98 back in 2012. A framed photo of Dick Yoshimura adorns the wall of the store, high above the cash register, refrigerated display cases, and open bubbling tanks where lobster and shellfish are kept.

Harry Yoshimura didn’t mention until he was asked in a follow-up call later Tuesday, but he readily acknowledges that Dick Yoshimura was incarcerated at Minidoka, the government prison camp in Idaho, from 1942 to 1945. Though Dick was born in California and was a US citizen, that didn’t stop the Roosevelt Administration from locking up him and more than 100,000 other West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II. It’s one of the darkest chapters in 20th-century American history, and Seattle was the scene of some of the most heartbreaking forced removal of citizens and subsequent losses of homes and businesses.

Thus, for Harry Yoshimura and his wife to return to Seattle from Minidoka in 1945 and launch an enduring business just two years later is a pretty amazing story. It could and should be called a quintessential Seattle story, a quintessential West Coast story, or just a plain American success story.

“Some people were lucky because people held onto their things for them” while they were incarcerated, Harry Yoshimura said. “Others lost everything. [My father] put a lot of effort into his business” and got help from his community, Yoshimura continued.

“He worked in the fish houses down on the waterfront,” just after the war, Yoshimura said. “At that time, there was a company called Main Fish Company, which was one of the only Japanese-owned seafood businesses in town. When they moved [from that 14th and Yesler location], one of the partners said, ‘Well, you should buy it.’ So he did it.”

“They did it through hard work and good friends, basically,” Yoshimura said.

Harry Yoshimura, his son said, didn’t dwell on being incarcerated.

“Guys in that generation didn’t talk about it very much,” Yoshimura said, referring to wartime incarceration. “All the conversations about that came out later.”

Math isn’t always a strong suit for radio historians, so after some quick subtraction (as in 2023-80=1943) and a second follow-up call to Harry Yoshimura, he confirmed that while his mother and father were incarcerated at Minidoka, he was born there.

“Yeah, I was born there,” Yoshimura said matter-of-factly. “A lot of my friends, that’s where they were born, too.”

Harry Yoshimura is a kind, humble and thoughtful guy who seems genuinely surprised by the depth and intensity of the reactions that the announcement of the impending closure has generated.

He said it makes it that much tougher to shut down Mutual Fish after 76 years.

“It does,” Yoshimura acknowledged. “It leaves you with a lot of mixed emotions and feelings like that. We only put the sign up on Saturday, and one of the workers put it on Facebook. I didn’t know until after.”

As Yoshimura processes the decision to close, he’s not exactly sure what he’ll do next. They own their building and real estate and haven’t made any decisions about the property. Along with Yoshimura and his son Kevin, about a dozen employees will be affected by the closure; Harry says he’s working to find new jobs within the industry for as many of them as he can.

As he stood near those bubbling tanks and the conversation about his uncertain future was wrapping up, Harry Yoshimura seemed to dangle a little bit of bait, maybe a shiny bit of hope, that somehow Mutual Fish might rise, or maybe “jump,” again.

“Maybe we could resurrect it or something or do something, you never know,” Yoshimura said. “I don’t know yet, just kind of leave it open a little bit and see what happens.”

In the meantime, plans are for Mutual Fish to close permanently Saturday, Sept. 16. Yoshimura said he’s not sure what the last day will look like.

“We’re just kind of winging it, you know,” Yoshimura said.

One thing is pretty certain: for the farewell party, there won’t be a big sheet cake from Borracchini’s.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Mutual Fish closing: Customers were hooked for more than 75 years