While this blog often serves as a personal outlet, I want to begin featuring some of my favorite Philly shops and eateries in the hopes that both Philadelphians and visitors can experience this awesome and diverse city’s culture.
Omoi Zakka (read about the name here) is a Center City treasure trove of giftables and goodies, many of which are of Japanese origin or Japanese design-inspired. But Hello Kitty-obsessed and manga collectors should go elsewhere for their kitsch: owner/curator Liz Sieber and her team have created a more nuanced glimpse into Japanese culture with a heavy emphasis on stationery and paper goods.
I stopped in last week to chat with Liz about the way she picks her products and how a high school sojourn in Japan turned a girl from the suburbs of Philly into a “cultural ambassador” and shop owner.
While most of us think of Japan as the ultimate tech-savvy country (and Liz assured me that their cell phones are way more advanced than ours), I was surprised to learn that the culture still relies heavily on paper for a variety of transactions (even at the bank), creating a need for high quality and visually attractive paper products. Paper products and stationery are just one area of Japanese design that Liz swooned over during her stints studying abroad in high school and college in the Kobe and Osaka area. But this first love is evident at Omoi, and the store succeeds in covering the essentials and catering to the more frivolous wants, carrying desk and pocket planners as well as cheeky cards for every occasion.
The store’s inventory has evolved in the eight years since it has opened and will continue to do so. “As trends change, and I’m getting older, I can shift the store in a more sophisticated direction,” Liz says. Aside from trends and personal preferences, other external forces, including a recession and cultural differences, have also influenced Omoi’s collection of products.
As Liz explains, “Young people in Japan generally have a lot of spending money. They often live at home until they get married. I used to sell apparel and people would come in asking about certain brands. I would tell them, ‘I can get those brands, but it will be $500 for a pair of jeans.’ ” The store still continues to provide an array of accessories, from sunglasses to scarves to edgy necklaces.
Omoi’s diverse inventory also includes chic incense cones packed in sleek gold containers, bento boxes, baby bibs, a variety of notebooks and calendars (hello, mini hamster-shaped calendar!!!) and magazines and books ranging from topics such as Japanese carpentry, Buddhism, even green living tips from Japan. Not all of Omoi’s goods are of Japanese provenance: there are tons of U.S. brands represented, from larger names such as Baggu bags to letter-pressed cards, handmade cocktail syrups by The Bang Candy Company, and handmade bath and beauty products from Meow Meow Tweet in Brooklyn (which Liz just stocked up on herself). And that’s not to mention the Korean notebooks and a gravity-defying planter made out of recycled plastic from New Zealand.
The store’s products are all chosen by Liz, who explains, “I like having a small, little store because it allowed a big learning curve.” She prides herself on personally creating and maintaining relationships with often hard-to-approach Japanese brands, as well as going to trade shows and finding products on social media and then further researching them. The result: Omoi Zakka is the sole U.S. outlet for several brands and an enviable spot when looking for gifts that are unique and thoughtful.
Liz also often relies on her talented staff to check the pulse of some of her product decisions, citing web manager Maggie (a fellow fan of Japanese culture and Omoi Zakka employee since 2008) as a prominent second voice and opinion. Maggie maintains the shop’s accessible and informative online store, and the shop’s blog contains plenty of beautiful pics and holiday (or any day) shopping inspiration.
The result of all these talented and creative voices is a fun, visual oasis that packs in tons of goodies without seeming random or cluttered. It’s rare to find a store where you can find something that would appeal to friends and family of every age, but Omoi manages to offer something for every occasion and gift recipient. Funky cast iron bottle openers? Check! Garden trowel that will look as cool hanging on the wall as it does digging in the dirt? Check! Planners and calendars for every person you know? Check! Sunny yellow teapot for even the smallest apartment hotplate? Check!
I’m excited for my next visit to Omoi Zakka: there should be plenty to salivate over since Liz and her crew are constantly scoping out new products and having fun with the process of choosing the next go-to gift items. When asked what surprised her most about creating and owning her own store, Liz laughed and said, “That I enjoy it so much. I opened the store in 2006. It’s like a math problem that I keep wanting to solve.”