A Brief History of Omoi in 3 Parts - 2017—2021
Challenging Times, Challenging Possibility
Monk here. Glad to have you back. Writing about the shop in 2017 from the middle of 2021 seems like a king's age ago. In fact, it encompassed exactly one presidential term.
Right after the 2016 presidential election, we noticed a significant slump in foot traffic and customer interaction. Many Philadelphians were in shock and not looking forward to the inevitable difficulties ahead. That holiday season carried with it an anxious and somber undercurrent. It wasn't long after 45's 2017 inauguration that his administration's international trade warring and tariffs began to affect our business. For instance, BAGGU immediately had to raise their prices due to tariffs on the nylon textiles used in their Chinese manufacturing facilities...
This was and remains an era where all previous conceptions of "normal life" were sucked out the window at high speed.
2017 came and went with a much more exuberant holiday season than the year before. Despite the uncertain political atmosphere (ok, spectacle) that had taken over the airwaves, we had re-established a good momentum and were feeling positive as a business. We had Omoi Zakka Shop in Rittenhouse, the cozy originator, dedicated to stationery and small life goods. And we had our spacious Old City sister store, Select Shop 215, with its focus on home and life wares. Many Select Shop customers were keen to notice the overlaps in product selection, wondering if both stores were under our singular operation, or if they now had a copycat shop to side-eye. That got us thinking... So we could run two stores with the same name, and customers would patronize both? In this economy? In this little walkable second city?
The Pine Street shop off Rittenhouse in 2017.
The Old City shop, then known as SELECT SHOP 215, also in September of 2017.
The view from Third Street in 2017, helmed by the indomitable Bethany in those days (and peep Liz behind the desk there).
Shop duckies by Lauren Cat West.
We had been running two separate Instagram accounts for both stores, which became confusing for customers (and was too much work for one person to run).
At the turn of 2018, we moved Omoi's online pack-and-ship operations, including all the inventory that goes with it, into the Old City shop basement. This was a welcome change for the team working in the comparitively teeny tiny space of our 1608 Pine Street location. Then, a massive fire engulfed the entire corner of 3rd and Chestnut just a few days after Valentine's, forcing Select Shop to close for the forseeable future.
"160 People Evacuated, 13 Animals Killed During Old City Fire" - February 18, 2018
The waterlogged store once we were allowed inside the store post-fire.
And just SOME of the major reconstruction that was required in order for us to reopen and for the building to be sound.
"Brothers Behind Old City Hookah Lounge Fire Get 9 Years in Prison" - June 24, 2021
The fire happened in February and we reopened in August. Our neighboring businesses, which actually caught fire, didn't reopen at all.
We took this opportunity to publicize our Old City location as the bigger, breezier destination of our two shops.
From this period forward, both shops sold the same items, which several customers found hard to believe because they're so different in size!
The front table looking glorious, thanks to Jessi, our head of merchandising.
Liz will take over from here.
Old City Isn't Just a Marketing Name
Liz: For me, Part 3 is all about our time in the Old City space. It’s a beautiful historic building in an artistic neighborhood. It also has ghosts. I’m not really sure of the origin of our ghost, though I have my theories. A few years back developers dug up the corner of 3rd and Market and found the doors to an 18th century debtor's jail or something, seventeen feet under. Bethany and I followed the story pretty closely. I don’t think our ghost is from there. They also found a larger gravesite over under the Betsy Ross House. Did you know if you google “philadelphia construction unearths old city”, the top three results are referring to three different gravesite discoveries in the district??? So I don’t think that it’s uncommon that we have a few ghosts.
I first realized we had one after it helped me find something in the basement once. Like I went down and searched around two or three times, and on the fourth time I went down it was in the middle of the floor. I hadn't ever had experiences with them before, and so I had no real feelings strongly for or against ghosts. I wasn't really scared. I was more like, ok this is cool and helpful, we all seem to be co-habiting the space peacefully together. So I always will try to say thank you and acknowledge when it finds stuff, because that’s honestly the biggest help down there.
The first time I knew the ghost was serious was just after the fire. Bear with me while I tell the tale. That whole day, February 18th, 2018, was awful. I remember April was manager on duty that day and she got there early, cause we were hearing about this big fire on the news. And it sounds like even though she arrived there like six hours after it started, it was still a multi-alarm active scene when it was time to open the shop. Our store wasn't in the flames, but April called me again two hours after that and was like, “Liz, the water…” Firefighters had turned our building into a tactical pawn in the fight to douse the blaze.
I didn't even go in that day because it remained an active scene. Everything was closed off. When I went the next day, there were still fire crews everywhere. I couldn’t even get close to the store until the owner of the building arrived on scene. L&I allowed him to go in, and he let me sneak in with him, but because the structure of the building was under review we only had ten minutes.
That was the fastest ten minutes of my life, going into the building. I already said it was awful, but it was awful. Our ceilings were down in 7 separate areas due to water. Jewelry cases absolutely flooded, wooden tabletops stripped, supplies and merchandise wrecked with mildewy smelling water. All of our sales floor stationery was warped from the moisture even though it wasn't directly hit. The water reached from the top level apartments all the way down to the basement of the building, absolutely soaking the contents of each and every floor along the way. The owners of the building were altruistic, though, emphasizing that a firefighter was able to be pulled to safety onto the roof of our building, as it was deemed the safest nearby structure.
The basement ceiling just after the fire.
The building is a historic structure with lots of nooks & crannies in the sales floor that go directly to the basement. The previous tenant conveniently hung linen tarps in the basement rafters to mitigate dust, but nothing that would prevent the cascade of water from multiple firetrucks. My first trip down to the basement, it was not good. The ceiling was actively dripping. It was too much to deal with in that moment. I ended up going home, calling insurance and then simply sitting, trying to absorb all what was going on. Will we find out we had lost everything?
The block remained an active fire AND crime scene. The store had to be left unlocked at all hours while city and ATF officials required access to the property. We weren't allowed to even go in and touch or move anything until the initial crime investigation was complete, but they ultimately determined that our property was separate and we could go secure the area and grab any of our belongings.
So now the ghost. I was already kind of prepared to see again the massive amount of mess and damage once we were officially allowed back in. The landlord was fantastic about handling the restoration and communicating it with me, so I was already mentally prepared to understand that the restoration work would take months. I knew it was going to be emotional, even though this was only a loss of “things”. But when I stepped down into the basement and cast my eyes across the shelving units housing our entire backstock inventory, it was… bone dry. Absolutely not a drop of water, not even a whole lot of dust. Other areas of the basement were drenched, but somehow, the area of the basement housing our inventory was just fine and totally unbothered. How could this be? I’m still puzzled to this day. All I can do is be thankful and say “good looking out” to the ghost.
Jessi and April in the basement on our most recent inventory day
Thank you for taking care of our shop, ghost. (Not you, Daruma, although thank you as well for helping us accomplish our goals.)
Our block of south 3rd Street, between Chestnut and Market here, has had a long recovery back. Right when the fire struck, it was shaping into a neigborhood pocket with multiple shops, bars, cafes, and new restuarant perfectly positioned across from the just-opened Museum of the American Revolution. Several of those properties were absolutely destroyed, and nearly four years later, the entire northeast corner of 3rd and Chestnut is still heavily under repair.
We have been so lucky to have attentive and supportive customers and neighbors who made sure that, despite disaster, we had a busy holiday season that year. Throughout 2018 into 2019, we focused on our growing ecommerce and packed Pine Street shop, while also rebuilding our customer base in Old City, with customers realizing we were open after having our street and sidewalk closed for construction cranes and scaffolding for so long. [Monk: I remember us all cheering the day they finally took away the dumpster that sat directly in front of our storefront.] Everything was looking rosy for 2020~~
The shop chalkboard in September 2019 says "see into your future" for 2020 planners. Ho hoo...
To be honest, I am not ready to talk about 2020 yet, though one bright spot for our hardworking and resilient team was winning a Best of Philly - Best Place to Trick Out Your Home Office, and the wonderful, patient customers who made sure to go out of their way to support us. It really means more than I could express in words.
Liz during one of our TRAVELER'S Company meetups, which we began hosting after reopening in Old City.
See all the different ways people use their Traveler's Notebooks.
This was a fun meetup!
The requisite stack of Traveler Notebooks at our very first meetup.
Even in the winter, we still had a nice gathering.
Liz's planner from her first study abroad trip in Kobe, Japan
The group photo from our last meetup in October 2019 before the pandemic hit.
What the Future Holds
As Liz implied, we were feeling pretty cute heading into 2020. We were recovering from the fire, we had unified the shops, refreshed the branding, had custom bags made, put planters in front of the shop windows, we we're doing it. And we did. Of course, everyone knows what transpired in 2020. Global pandemic. Global protests against mishandling of pandemic and its front-and-center exposure of systemic inequalities worldwide. Local uprisings to defund the police and fund the needs of our city's struggling and underfunded, undervalued citizens rather than punish them. Attemped insurrections and regime changes. Workers strikes. Billionaires setting their sites on expanding resource extraction to outer space while Mother Earth tries to get our attention on more immediate concerns. The list goes on.
It's a historic time to be a small business, to say the absolute least. We here at Omoi are very grateful to be in business, thanks in no small part to our beautiful, interesting customers. In 2021, with the pandemic still raging, we decided to set our sights on what's possible, rather than trying to hold on to what was. In April, we bid a fond farewell to our original Pine Street location, and finally did move our whole base of operations into the Old City basement. It's only the middle of August. As in years past, we're gearing up for our Back to School and Holiday seasons, wondering how will this year be different, how can we offer a meaningful experience for our customers, how can what we provide be thoughtful and useful?
Our name means thoughtful daily use goods.
Thank you for reading.
Did you ever see our store zine from 2019?
A rare quiet moment in December 2019 at the Pine Street shop.
The big Pine Street chalkboard with a cameo from Samirah.
Our annual Liz in front of the store shot this past November 2020.
Bittersweet feelings just a month or so ago, dismantling furniture from the Pine Street store after moving into Old City. There's Liz's Dad aka Mr. Sieber helping out.
Now we concentrate our energies on making magic in Old City
The 5-person capacity signs are gone, but we're taking precautions. Here's to taking care.