You know that someone in your life who has a certain style that you’re just in awe of? Not only do they have great taste in clothes and shoes, but each accessory and detail of their outfit reflects their character. She always has a delicately dyed scarf artfully tied around her neck, and he has an understated but painfully cool watch, the likes of which you’d never find at a department store. She scribbles her notes on a slim, classic day planner, and he has a bundle of multi-colored Japanese wooden pens kicking around the bottom of his bag. These friends of yours, the ones with the keen eye for design and fashion, they probably shop at Omoi Zakka Shop, a lifestyle boutique nestled into a welcoming storefront on 16th & Pine Streets in Center City.
The shop, which roughly translates to “thoughts and ideas” in Japanese, opened in 2006. Owner Elizabeth Sieber, who grew up in the Philly burbs, seeks out and imports a staggering array of goods from around the world. From subtly scented Saipua soaps, Baggu leather
totes, and uber hip European sunglasses, each item in Omoi serves the function of making life a little bit more beautiful. With recent accolades (including Philadelphia magazine’s 2012 Best Of winner for “Best Office Accessories”), and a whole new slew of merchandise for the holidays, Omoi is a primo destination for holiday shopping.
We recently met up with Liz and Maggie Ricco, Omoi’s webmaster to talk entrepreneurship, struggles, successes, and their mutual obsession with stationery.
Femme & Fortune: How did you first encounter Japanese culture, and what made you take the leap to opening your own shop?
Liz: When I was in high school, I studied abroad in Kobe, Japan. Even though I went to public school at home, I ended up living in a wealthy neighborhood and going to an all-girls private high school there. It was like Heathers – crazy and a lot of fun. The girls would always take me shopping instead of sightseeing, so I got to learn all of the shopping districts in the area. I spent a lot of time exploring the lifestyle and would spend hours in stationery stores, which are just perfect and complete. There are so many things that you never know existed – cute little things. If you’re going to buy a notebook, why does it have to be from CVS? In Japan, the response would rather be ‘here is something that has a sweet sentiment on it and…a cute bear!’ Even the candy was cute.
When I went to college, I studied business with an emphasis on marketing and international business, and started to learn the difference between rolling out a product in the US versus in Japan. I really got into product development, the differences in the cultures, and the differences in the spending habits of people. I went back to study in Hirakata City in Osaka and had a great time. I did an internship importing product from the US and England to Japan. When I came back I worked for a big retailer and kept feeling like I could do this myself and get all of these things here. I’m always surprised why those items don’t make it over here in the States.
The concept came first: I had this experience in Japan, and an affinity for stationery and smaller items. At that time, people here were starting to learn about Japanese pop culture through Gwen Stefani and the Harajuku Girls and I always wanted to tell them “It doesn’t start and end there! That’s just a tiny piece of their pop culture!” So I wanted to be an ambassador between the two cultures. I just want to show people how much more there is out there in the world.
Femme & Fortune: How did Maggie come to work here?
Maggie: One day I picked up the City Paper and saw an article that talked about this store that sells all these Japanese brands that I had known about. My reaction was, “Oh my god! There’s a store selling stuff from Japan that’s not a Hello Kitty store, I have to go there!” I was an anime nerd, but went beyond into all kinds of Japanese pop culture and scholarship of Japanese literature. So I started to shop at Omoi and would find interesting stationery, books and magazines – I thought everything was awesome. I was pretty good with web-related stuff and offered some help to Liz. I started a shop blog and it grew from there. Also, I studied in Japan in college.
Liz: Yeah you studied at the same school that I did in Japan without us even knowing!
Maggie: Yes! So I went to Japan for two semesters, came back and said to Liz, ” IT’S JUST LIKE YOU SAID!” I was re-obsessed and I understood even more the items we carried in our store and how it got here. I was so happy. After I graduated from Temple and working as a freelancer, Liz offered to hire me full time. Now I’m the Web Coordinator for Omoi. I manage the website, social media, product copywriting and photography.
Liz: I worked for a lot of small businesses in a lot of positions. I’ve always liked doing the work and the managing details. I like having a lot of control. So when I worked for a larger company and seeing how things fit together, I just kept thinking “I can do this.” I like the challenge of learning how to develop a business. At first I just wanted to get some product and see if it would sell, and at some point I learned that there is an art to buying and an art to the business. I feel that it’s like starting a band: At first you’re a garage band playing for your friends in small bars, and then one day you have to figure out how to be the band that sells out at bigger venues. It also really helps to have really supportive parents. That support system drives me to make this succeed.
Maggie: I feel like we’re both really observant of the climate in the culture we’re in, and we’re able to, with just the resources we have as a small business, put ourselves out there in professional ways. We can do almost as much as companies with multi-staffed specific teams.
Femme & Fortune: What are some challenges you’ve experienced since opening your store?
Liz: Sometimes what is attractive to me about bigger cities is that there’s so much cool stuff that you just don’t question it. Automatically you’re thinking, “This is great! I’m going to tell my friends.” But in Philly, there are only so many things to go around and everyone wants to come in and give their opinion. I’m so grateful for all the support we’ve had here over the past six years, and we’ve met a lot of really cool people along the way who see the value in Philly. There are also people who have lived in Japan who come in and see that we aren’t a stereotype.
Maggie: But there are people who come in and expect this very orientalized experience. People call and ask if we sell kimonos or ninja swords, and there’s the Japanophile who comes in expecting their version of Japan to be sold here. We’ve had to deliberately position ourselves that that is not the type of store we are. We’re not the airport gift shop.
Liz: Yes, that’s our biggest challenge. How do we reconcile what we want to sell with the people who think we’re all Kid Robot toys? So what we’ve started doing is positioning ourselves as a store who sells great stuff from all over the world. But as it stands, we’re both massive fans of stationery, and Japan and Korea are killing it lately, which is why we have so much stuff from there.
Femme & Fortune: The store has been open for 7 years. How has it changed since you opened your doors in 2006?
Liz: Well, the store itself has evolved. When I started the store when I was 25, I didn’t have my own home. So I carried a lot of stationery and smaller things. Now that I’m older and have my own place, we’ve skewed more towards items for the home, housewarming and hostess gifts. So the store is maturing with me…it’s more finessed now. It’s kind of cool how Philly has grown with us. And maybe we’ll take some people with us on the journey and maybe we’ll all be better at the end of the day for it.
Photos by Celestine Fabros for Femme & Fortune