Ming’s Zen Gallery has returned to Issaquah. The Front Street shop is like a mini museum and houses hundreds of unique pieces of art, antiquities and furniture.
The family business originally operated in Issaquah in the 1970s and ‘80s, in the building that is now the Rogue Issaquah Brewhouse. Ming’s Gallery had moved away and spent years in several other locations — Bellevue, Seattle, Kirkland and Redmond.
Now the business is located at 95 Front St. N — right next to Fischer Meats, in the space that used to be ArtEast.
“We’re thrilled to be back in Issaquah. We love this community. This is home,” said Matt Acres, operations manager.
The business moved into the new space on Sept. 8, 2019, had a soft opening in time for Salmon Days, then had a full grand opening in November. Still, the business is getting a few things in the new space set up.
Acres said all the other downtown businesses came by and introduced themselves within a week of their arrival.
“We’re excited to be in the Issaquah community. It’s a nice town,” he said. “Everyone has been so welcoming.”
The space is 6,200 square feet — smaller than some of the previous spaces — but Caanon Russell, vice president, said, “It has a better feel to it. Home charm, rustic floors.”
The business has been operating since 1966, when Jim Russell first started it in the International District in Seattle. Jim and his wife, Doreen, have owned the business together.
The couple originally met in Los Angeles, “on a fluke,” Doreen said. She was home from university and went in to get a job at a shoe company where Jim was the manager who interviewed and hired her. She said she was a scholarly, shy girl, but Jim was the social butterfly.
They are now celebrating 50 years of marriage, and they have been restoring, importing and exporting antiques for even longer than that.
The family built their home on Tiger Mountain, utilizing Doreen’s architecture degree. It is their hometown, both boys and Jim and Doreen’s daughter went through the Issaquah School District.
Doreen said she’s been in the business of restoring antiques since she was in her early teens. Self taught, she would fix vintage items and sell them to shops, then eventually the shops hired her to fix their things.
She said she’s always been drawn to art, has had a fascination for antiques, and her grandmother was Chinese. Jim said he first got into the import business after visiting Korea with a friend and falling in love with the culture and the people.
Doreen said originally she and Jim started as dealers of European antiques, then American, then Asian. Still today, their store has some European art and antiques, but mostly the focus is on East Asia.
They import everything directly from Asia. Sometimes they even export things to clients in Asia.
Doreen said, compared to Ming’s vast collection, that sometimes, “they don’t have things we have.”
Ming’s has been collecting items for such a long time, and many items were destroyed in their home countries during cultural revolutions.
“We started buying as much as we could,” Doreen said.
The family said they are one of a very rare, few places that are able to show antique Korean art pieces. Jim and Caanon said that at one point Jim was the only art dealer allowed in Korea.
Ming’s has had scholars and monks from different parts of Asia visit and buy pieces, or they ship to them. They’ve also shipped to people in New York and Australia, to name a few places.
Currently, the sons, Caanon and Acres, are taking over management of the family business.
“We’ve been trying to take over for years,” Caanon said with a smile.
Zen Gallery is filled with beauty and history — colorful items in all shapes and sizes from many cultures. The atmosphere is fun yet peaceful, filling a visitor with awe and knowledge.
Some of the many items in the store include jewelry, art, wall hangings, wood paintings, maps, figures, Buddha sculptures, deities, kimonos, snuff boxes, bronzes, furniture, pottery, porcelain, tables, chairs, trunks, cabinets, dressers, shelves, boxes, benches, dolls, and even some erotic pieces.
“We represent more than 5,000 years of history under one roof,” Caanon said. He described their selection as 60 percent antiques, 20 percent vintage, and 20 percent contemporary.
He said they have pieces primarily from 13 Asian countries, plus a few others.
“We reflect the cultures of the countries,” Jim said.
Caanon said the newest pieces they have are the jewelry, meaning the items used to make the jewelry. He estimated the youngest materials to be 20 years old. It’s all custom, made in house, and mostly uses antique or vintage jade.
“We have an outstanding array of jewelry,” Caanon said.
The oldest pieces in their collection are Persian spearheads dating back to 400 B.C., Caanon noted.
All of the items more than 100 years old are regarded as antiques and are fully certified and documented.
As far as picking the item he would say is the most iconic, he pointed to the large Chinese foo dogs in the back of the shop, crafted out of red and gold wood. The female has a baby, while the male has a globe. The imagery presents the mother as protector of the young and the father of the universe.
Caanon explained a tradition — if someone can remove the ball that rolls around inside the male’s mouth, then they would become emperor of China. But of course, the ball is carved inside the mouth and does not come out.
“Many have tried,” he said, adding that they take the pair everywhere they go.
“They’re like our mascots,” Jim said.
Another item Caanon highlighted was seventh century porcelain from Korea and China.
They also have Peking glass that Jim said were some of the first items crafted inside the Imperial Palace in China. Some of those pieces had all white bases overlaid with colorful glass. One was all yellow, which Caanon said represents gold or money and makes it more rare and more valuable.
Back in action
The whole team is excited to be getting back in full swing — Doreen, Caanon, Acres, and curator Min Shi. The family said Jim is pretending to be retired, but really he’s still there.
“I love being able to run a business with my family,” he said. “And I’m passionate about assisting patrons in acquisitions of articles throughout Asia.”
The gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays through Saturdays, and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. It is closed on Mondays.
Sometimes Ming’s throws events or hosts exhibitions highlighting different types of art. In the past they’ve even thrown street festivals. Historically they’ve partnered with other local organizations for benefits, and they’ve decorated the stages of regional orchestras.
Doreen said some of their art has even been in some movies. Jim has been featured on the radio, Doreen sometimes gives lectures.
“Everyone knows the name Ming’s,” Doreen said. But for a more modern name, and with the boys taking over, she said they’ve decided to keep Ming’s but go by “Zen Gallery.”
Doreen is now partnering with Downtown Issaquah Association, having recently joined the board. She said she is excited for events in their new space and in Issaquah.
“We feel like we’re back home,” she said.