Cool with a Capital Q

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Q Pop owners Maleerat Panteepo, left, and Christopher Mitchell pride themselves on their selection of unique, one-of-a-kind merchandise. (Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Travel & Life editor

If there is a ground shift in the retail profile of Little Tokyo, then Q Pop has to be its epicenter.

There has been an unmistakable trend in the new stores popping up here in recent years, outlets with a focus squarely on the under-30 consumer. Shops such as American Apparel, Pop Killer and the recently-opened Illest have been attracting a younger clientele to complement the businesses that have long been established in the historic district.

Q Pop is the brainchild of Christopher Mitchell and his girlfriend and business partner Maleerat Panteepo, who were looking for an artistic outlet that could also be fiscally sustainable. The store specializes in one-of-kind art pieces and figurines, fashion, books and music with a strong Asian influence.

Mitchell makes adjustments to a display of Windy Bunny figurines, from Japanese artist Hiroyuki Matsuura. On the second shelf are Nokhook dolls from Thai designer Anukun Homala.

“I was working in animation for a long time, and after 20 years or so, I decided I needed to do something else,” said Mitchell, an Emmy Award nominee who has worked on popular shows like “SpongeBob Squarepants,” “Ren and Stimpy,” “The Simpsons” and the feature film “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs.”

“Basically, animation can be very frustrating creatively, and because I was feeling frustrated, Miki (Maleerat’s nickname) and I began talking about creating a business.”

Panteepo, originally from Bangkok, Thailand, is no stranger to entrepreneurship. A former fashion model, she first came to the United States to study English and, as she put it, “ended up” earning a Master’s degree in Business Administration from National University. In addition to Q Pop, she has also established a modeling agency and a laundry business back in Bangkok.

Q Pop has a selection of Bearbricks, including a 1000 percent version decorated in homage to the Sex Pistols.

Mitchell, who grew up in the Silicon Valley town of Cupertino, said the two met as she was working her way through school, mixing drinks at a local bar. Despite his acute alcohol allergy, he withstood the itchy rash that resulted from the drinks in order to keep visiting his favorite bartender. He said it soon became apparent that his creativity and her business savvy formed a solid foundation for their own enterprise.

As his mother, Hisae, sat in the shop sewing a new handbag on Thursday, Mitchell explained that locating their new venture in Little Tokyo was a relatively easy choice.

“We come here all the time anyway, and since I moved to L.A., this has been kind of a comfort zone for me,” he said. “It reminds me of Japantown in San Francisco. Since we are a shop that deals in a lot of Japanese culture, the choice was either Sawtelle, Little Tokyo or Melrose. There’s also a historical significance in Little Tokyo, so I though it’s cool to get more Japanese stuff into Little Tokyo.”

Among the hard-to-find items available at Q Pop are giant-sized versions of Bearbricks, the Japanese bear figurines that are customized by artists worldwide and fetch top dollar. The store is also the exclusive U.S. retailer of Super Lover, a clothing brand widely credited for helping establish fashion trends that began in Tokyo’s Harajuku district. Celebrities such as Jude Law and Britain’s Naked Chef are among Super Lovers’ notable clients.

Q Pop’s CDs include 1960s Japanese stars The Spiders, as well as Thai pop from the same era.

Q Pop also carries music that would be all but impossible to find elsewhere, including 1960s and 70s pop from Japan and Thailand.

“Not even the record shops in Thai Town have this kind of music,” Panteepo said.

Since opening last month, Q Pop has caught the eye of journalists, musicians, artists, and celebrities, from teenagers to retirees. Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel is among the shop’s repeat customers.

The shop will hold its Grand Opening party beginning at 7 p.m. next Saturday, Jan. 29, to be accented with music, food and appearances by several artists; Elisabeth Ito, Yoko Nomura, Denise Koyama, Anukun Hamala and Kevin Dart, whose mural inside Q Pop has become an attraction, are expected to attend.

Mitchell said that as an artist, he hopes Q Pop will ultimately be an outlet for his own works, as well as for friends and fellow artists to showcase and collaborate. He is proud of the uniqueness of the selection that he and Panteepo have assembled.

“Everything in the store is hand-selected,” he said. “We won’t carry just anything. Stuff has to be cool, rare or out-of-print.”

Q Pop is located at 128 Astronaut Ellison E. Onizuka Street in Little Tokyo, just across from Weller Court. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Phone (213) 687-QPOP or visit www.qpopshop.com.

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