Omoi's feature in the Philly Weekly just a few months after opening. From the week of January 10th, 2007!
A Brief History of Omoi in 3 Parts - 2006–2011
As Omoi remains a small business, and our founder Liz is currently busy with the store move, this history is written by Monk, the online director, who first began working at Omoi around late 2007 as part-time blogger and shop staff.
Center City Philadelphia was a sleepy place back in 2006. Businesses tended to close around 7pm as most of the clientele left their skyscraper office jobs and returned to their respective neighborhoods on the periphery of downtown and further. Food options were fast and few, or fancy, or smoky (hello every dive bar in the city). Food trucks were still white box trucks or small silver carts—thematic paint jobs had yet to come in vogue. And the main shopping drags seemed relegated to a few scant blocks—upscale boutiques with buzzer doors in Rittenhouse and Old City, the Gallery nestled between the 8th and 11th street transit hubs, and South Street, where the region's freaks and rockers roam/ed. Of course, record stores and sneaker shops, jewelry sellers and beauty supplies, electronics shops with flashing lights and booming speakers, and corner stalls selling trend tees dotted every street worth its salt between these more acknowledged downtown areas. But Philly—the 5th largest American city back then—kind of kept to itself.
In 2006 I was starting my undergraduate degree at Temple University, with a minor in Japanese. By 2008 I would go off for a year of study abroad to Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan, which happened to be the same exact Asian Studies program that Omoi's founder, Liz Sieber, had gone to only a handful of years earlier. Philly has a interesting Japanese connection for not having a Japanese-American population. We have the Shofuso house, we have the Cherry Blossom Festival, the area universities all offer Japanese language courses, and there are just a lotta people here that got into Japanese culture the soft power way—through J-pop and anime and martial arts (any Aikikai aikido-ka's out there?). But founder Liz was introduced to Japanese culture in a different fashion.
This is from our last Traveler's Company meetup, when Liz brought her high school IDs and planner to the gathering.
As many of our customers know by now, Omoi 「想いのオモイ」has a Japanese name that loosely translates to "thoughtful". In high school, Liz left for Kobe, Japan on a student exchange program that originated out of a post-WWII peace-building exercise between the United States and Japan. According to the many anecdotes I've heard over the years, she was apparently thrust into a Japanese high school classroom and left to figure it out from there, knowing no Japanese before arrival (Fast & Furious Tokyo Drift comes to mind but without the drag racing). It was during this time that she made friends, developed some sick handwriting techniques, and discovered the wonders of the campus supply shop and Japanese retail culture in general. After entering college to study business, Liz returned to the Kansai region for second stint. And after graduation, she opened Omoi—a pop culture boutique seeking to encapsulate and offer some of that exciting and considerate 「思いやりがある」retail experience to Philadelphia.
Omoi entered Philly's retail scene on a quiet Pine Street lined with antique stores, and was considered neither a part of the South Street nor the Rittenhouse business associations. But the local press was fond of the fledgling business, and it was through a City Paper (RIP) write-up that I first heard about a new shop selling Hysteric Glamour, San-X, Cram Cream, and other then-impossible-to-find items I only read about. This was also a time before the majority of retail stores had web sites let alone web stores. When I began to work for Omoi around late 2007, I was somewhat known for my Philly street style blog Broad+Market (RIP!). Naturally, at Omoi I began a store blog, which highlighted the stories and contexts behind the product selection. By 2010 we had a webshop powered off a hand-coded Wordpress theme and a hardworking Shoppe e-commerce plug-in.
One of Omoi's early ads. Did you ever see it?
Now, to tie this Philly–Kansai thread together a bit further, let me say that if you're from Philly, you know our customer service culture is… down-to-earth. For instance, our public transit is great in terms of service area, but in terms of actually showing up on time? Not so reliable. Need to ask for directions? Sure, go ask. But don't expect a smile. Philly was once a working class industrial epicenter, and like I said earlier, pretty sleepy (bars close at 2AM and you couldn't buy alcohol on Sundays until a decade ago). Philly people tend to expect that you're from the area and hence should already know what you're doing and where you're going, and if you have to ask a question, well get ready for an exasperated answer cause people here are underpaid and overworked (and the bus is late!). So in 2008 when I left for study abroad and found myself in a place full of maintained infrastructure and on-time trains, helpful signage, patient answers, attentive shop attendants, and fresh prepared food in the convenience stores, it kind of melted my brain. Such is the effect of cultural exchange—you don't know what the place you're from does to your expectations until you leave it. When I returned to Omoi in 2010, I too was determined to translate this experience for our Philadelphia customer base (a story for another day).
Who else remembers the Japanese toy camera craze that likely sparked Instagram itself?
The feeling in the front room, full of colorful, collectible, giftable stuffs.
It was the era of collectible vinyl toys, graphic streetwear tees, toy cameras, novelty USB drives, cute import stationery, and a sluggish recovery from 2008's disastrous economic downturn. American Apparel deep-Vs were a hipster staple, party photography websites and MySpace Top 8 were still going strong, and side-swept bangs with oversized sunglasses was a dependable hot girl look. Regulars came and spent the slower hours chatting on the steps that led to the back stairs. Kids getting out from school around the corner would come in and bug their parents to buy them another blind box toy or cute pencil. And we'd have the occasional celebrity shopping moment, like when Miss Erykah Badu came floating in after a nearby acupuncture appointment and patronized us handsomely.
The old store postcards, this one autographed "2008 A.D." by Erykah Badu!
Liz says: We always had badass customers, the Zooey [Deschanel] signature is in there, plus the square card is signed “xx, Stoya"
If you patronized the store in these early days, you inevitably spent time chatting with Liz, whose welcoming and attentive demeanor turned so many of Omoi's visitors into regular customers (self included). She says, "my favorite things to do for the shop are customer service and leading the buying. And it’s a lot of fun meeting the people who come into the shop and then growing the store around those who become shop staff and regulars."
Liz says: Cheers to 15 years of ‘working at the desk’, which era did you know me best?
Which of Liz's laptop stickers do you remember seeing when you came by for a visit?
As Omoi celebrated its 5th year in business, we found ourselves with an unforseen quandary: we were often assumed to be a kid's store, or a store that should also sell kimono and anime posters, or why was everything so expensive (it's imported!), or or or. Meanwhile, press would call us an emporium, a place for knick-knacks, and showcase our most inexpensive items for "Under $10" gift guides. We found that to many we were a place with an unpronounceable name, so it just became 'the Japanese store' that no one could exactly remember. We began to realize that these assumptions and characterzations were holding us back from where we wanted to grow. Looking at store photos now, it's easy to see how everyone thought what they did. But back then we were like, how the heck do we get our visitors to stop asking us the same questions—what kind of store is this—and make the concept behind what we sell more apparent? We knew we had to make a drastic change!
The storefront back in 2008, featuring the magic mushroom stool we all wish we bought.
Who else remembers this paper cut hanging or the trunk that used to be full of cool treasures?
The back room in 2008 full of raw denim, graphic tees, and books.
The store window in 2010, before we added the "gifts & stationery" decals, planters, and gave it a fresh coat of paint.
We sold bentos and cute kitchen goods before the concept had really established itself in our area.
The store in 2010, when the front was full of clothes!
Our whimsical ceramics were hot sellers. When they became more commercially available, we felt it was time to move on.
The back room full of Tokidoki (an Italian designer!) and Pacifica.
A boutique with a retail website in 2010 was a rare thing!
An early web shots collage of our apparel greatest hits.
We made a huge effort to import our Japanese stationery, which today is so easy to order with the click of a button. In 2010, we were so stoked to carry the now ubiquitous mt Kamoi brand of washi tape. Now you can buy copycat brands in Walmart!
Shout out to all our customers who kept us as their secret spot for cool pickups.
And here's just a few throwbacks from our early kawaii heritage.
Grace, an early shop employee (hi Grace!), making the merchandise look good.
And we couldn't move on before acknowledging the all-time favorite mascot stationery we every sold: Banana Boss. If you know—you know.