Momo is a boutique shop in Japantown, in Seattle’s International District. They recently celebrated their 10-year anniversary. “Momo” means peach in Japanese. The shop carries beautiful Japanese goods, as well as a diverse range of products from around the country and the world. “Hapa,” a Hawaiian word, is a very important concept for Momo given its owners’ roots. The International Examiner caught up with one of the owners, Lei Ann Shiramizu, to talk about her history, the shop and her hopes for the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
International Examiner: Please tell me [about] your roots and personal history.
Lei Ann Shiramizu: I am Lei Ann Shiramizu. I’m the owner of Momo in Japantown. My heritage is Japanese American. …a lot of my family was originally brought to Hawai’i, where I grew up, for purposes of working on plantations and farms. So, on my father’s side, he is a direct descendant of people who worked on a plantation. He was raised on a plantation, and my mother – her family [was] also plantation [workers], but she herself was raised in the city, in Honolulu.
IE: When did you come to Seattle?
LS: I came to Seattle in 1979… to attend the University of Washington and study communications. And I graduated from the University of Washington and stuck around Seattle and moved to Chicago for five years, came back Seattle because I love Seattle, and I did a number of things before I opened Momo.
IE: Why did you decide to make Momo a “hapa shop” and what inspired the concept of Happy • Lucky • Life?
LS: Well, if you ever met my husband, you would know that he is a Caucasian man from Minneapolis and I am a Japanese woman from Hawai’i. And in Hawai’i, there is the concept of “hapa,” which means half Asian and half Caucasian. So when we decided to open Momo, we thought, “What else we would more fitting than to open a ‘hapa shop’?” One that is half Asian, half Caucasian; half man, half woman; half personal, half gifts; half old, half new (my husband’s the half old, and I’m the half new). And it all came together in what we now call Momo: the Happy • Lucky • Life destination.
So, Happy • Lucky • Life came from my thinking–my husband and I were sitting around thinking about a tagline, something that would encompass what we are trying to purvey at Momo. And I said, “Happy go lucky life” because in Hawai’i we talk about people being happy go lucky or carefree. And my husband, being the person he is, said “Happy • Lucky • Life – that’s good.” And I said, “No, that’s – yeah, I like that. Let’s keep it Happy • Lucky • Life.” And so, our tagline came to be.
IE: Why did you choose to open here, in the International District?
LS: Well, I love the International District. I used to have an office upstairs when I was a freelance writer. It was in the upstairs of the Jackson Building… the offices there are very cool. There’s obscuring glass, and there’s leather in the hallways. It’s like Sam Spade meets Kate Spade – real secret, secret wonderful offices. So, I always knew about this downstairs space, and when the store next door closed, which I helped my landlord clean up, he told me that he would give me any space that I wanted for my dream to come true of opening Momo. And so we ended up this corner space which is a lots smaller than the Higo space.
The reason I chose Japantown to be in – even as freelance writer – is because [it] really reminds me of Hawai’i. It reminds me of the Chinatown in Hawai’i because of diversity, because of its abundance of rice and noodles, and just because I feel very comfortable being in this environment and it’s really close my heart.
IE: How do you select your products? What qualities do you look for in products for Momo?
LS: What do I look for in the quality of product for Momo…. I would say it has to be fun and interesting. First of all, it has to appeal to either myself or my husband because we wanted a store full of things that we ourselves like and appreciate. And once we find something, we need it to be available for us to purchase in the quantities we need to purchase (which is not that much, but still a decent amount that we’ll always have something for our customers). We want it to be very well made, we want it to be good value, and we want it to be something that is useful in life, not just something that’s here today, gone tomorrow–trendy has no place at Momo.
In our clothing, they’re stylish but not trendy. We want you to love and wear and wear and wear the clothes that you get from Momo. And we go pretty far afield: we go to shows in different states, we have gone to Japan (I would like to go to Japan more), I approach people on the street to find out where they got their wonderful jacket or sweater. We’ll do what we have to do to bring the best things to Momo.
IE: Please tell me one of the happiest moments between you and a customer.
LS: I was thinking about your question of the happiest moment between myself and a customer. You know, honestly, I couldn’t think of one particular happy moment, but there are many, many little happy moments. And a lot of those moments of one to one interface come when I’m ringing somebody up at the register, and a lot of times at holiday when I’m wrapping their gifts, because it’s all paid for, their shopping’s done, they’re feeling relaxed, and I’m doing them the favor of wrapping their things (thereby saving them time and energy, and making it look good).
So during that time, I talk to people, and that’s one way that I met Lexi’s [former employee] step mom, while I was wrapping her present – I remember talking to her about things. And yesterday I wrapped gifts for a woman and she told me how she comes back to Momo every year to buy her presents. Those little moments are so warming because they’re not about selling, they’re not about buying, they’re just about sharing human interaction and joy. And those are the best moments for me.
IE: What has been the most difficult thing running a small business?
LS: There are many, many challenges running a small business these days, especially in Seattle. One is that our city government does not make it easy to have a small business. I think they’re more in favor of large businesses. Putting in place the $ 15 minimum wage – though it’s a good idea, the way it was implemented was not so easy a transition.
But aside from that, some of the most difficult things are the flip side of some of the most wonderful aspects of running a business, and that would be the people. Whether it’s the people who work for you, the people who come to your store. You know, that human interaction is what makes life so wonderful and so challenging at the same time. But without it you definitely could not have a small business.
IE: If you were going to give advice to another small business hoping to reach 10 years, what kind of advice would you give them?
LS: To show up. I would advise somebody who wanted to run a small business for 10 years to just keep showing up, just keep trying. Keep yourself out there, keep your doors open. When you say you’re going to be open, be open. And following up on what you promise to your customers – either that or don’t promise, because if you can’t fulfill your promise it’s as good as not promising at all. You have to keep your word. To me, that is the basis: the credibility. If you say that you are going to do something, then do it. That means opening your doors every day so that people can come and do business with you.
IE: Please tell me your hopes for Momo in the future.
LS: My hopes for Momo in the future are that Momo will continue to be Happy • Lucky • Life, and that perhaps one day, somebody might come along who wants to be a permanent part of Momo and maybe I could teach them everything I know, and then they could have Momo in the future from my husband and me. That would be the best legacy that we could have.
IE: So for Momo to continue for many years even after you [and your husband] aren’t the owners?
LS: Yes. I’d like to see Momo continue, or some form of Momo continue, long after Tom and I aren’t at the helm.
Momo’s opening hours are Mon – Sat: 11:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. and Sun: Noon – 5:00 p.m. Momo is located at 600 S Jackson Street in the International District. If you want to get shop information more, please check Momo’s official website. http://momoseattle.blogspot.com/