Interview by PHOENIX TSO
Translated by MAKIKO HIRATA
The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on Little Tokyo’s small businesses. Cafes like James Choi’s Café Dulce have had to reduce service to takeout and delivery, while retail stores like Naoko Ikeda’s Blooming Art Gallery have had to shut down completely. Many small business owners don’t know if they’ll be able to survive Los Angeles’ “safer at home” order, or the expected economic recession when the order is lifted.
But Little Tokyo’s small business community is looking out for each other, and as part of this collaboration, Blooming Art will debut a special display window at Cafe Dulce for Mother’s Day, and sell some of their handmade Japanese gifts there.
“Every dollar is crucial for the survival of [these]businesses,” said Choi in a socially distanced Q&A that he and Ikeda participated in for The Rafu Shimpo. Read all about their upcoming collaboration and what Little Tokyo is doing to ensure its economic survival.
Why did you choose to do this collaboration between Blooming Art Gallery and Café Dulce?
Naoko Ikeda: In the beginning of March, I brought back so many cute items from Japan, but I’ve completely lost my opportunity to sell them. Now thanks to this collaboration with Café Dulce, I feel extremely grateful. I am grateful for the heartwarming and wonderful neighborhood.
James Choi: Nikki has always been such a friendly face in the neighborhood and always brings a warmth and calmness to our part of the community. We love being able to look across the way to see her beautiful shop create a special environment for our plaza. Being that we are such close neighbors, when the idea was brought to us, it was a no-brainer.
Naoko, is Mother’s Day usually an important holiday for your small business? What are popular items for you to sell?
Ikeda: Every year, in anticipation of Mother’s Day, I prepare many special gifts from Japan. But this year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am not able to sell anything. This has been really tough for me. Mother’s Day is truly a special holiday and so I sell handmade items from Japan that no one else has, such as origami crane earrings, cosmetic bags made from upcycled kimono materials, hand mirrors, eyeglass cases, aprons, furoshiki and other items that a mother could use and enjoy.
Choi: We are so happy to sell Blooming Art’s amazing products like the wonderful crane earrings, aprons and the funny big-toe socks and bring more awareness to the neighborhood and how we are all helping each other out.
How has COVID-19 and “safer at home” affected your small business?
Choi: Because of the “safer at home” ordinances, we do not see the usual foot traffic in the Japanese Village Plaza, so our sales have suffered quite a bit. Initially we saw days that were up to 80% lower in sales than before. Some days are still 70% lower in terms of sales, but we have slowly picked back up as our usual supporters and the community have really come out to support our cafe.
Ikeda: It has been 24 years since I opened my shop in Little Tokyo. Gulf War, L.A. Riots, Lehman shock, economic recession, 9/11 — no matter what emergencies and disasters, we have always been able to push through, protect our small businesses and survive. But during COVID-19, my shop has been closed for a long time and while there is no income, my bills arrive every month as usual.
I am a bit panicked. Can I pay? What will happen in the future? It is very difficult to manage anxiety and fear by yourself. I’m having a hard time because I don’t know how to apply for all the grants and loans quickly. But then when I started to get help from the community — just the warm support from the Little Tokyo Service Center and other volunteers has really made me feel a little better.
Do you remember the first time you met each other? Tell us about it.
Choi: I honestly do not remember the first time I met Nikki… It honestly feels like I’ve just known her forever.
Ikeda: I met James nine years ago in front of my shop when he was opening his first Café Dulce. At that time he was still single and it was great to have such a handsome young man in the neighborhood. Truly a son that any mother would be so proud to have!
I have been so very pleased that a wider range of age groups have been coming to Little Tokyo. I think that is partly due to the increasing number of young owners like James who are passionate about their work. As a community that is over 100 years old, we are looking forward to the continued development and growth of Little Tokyo. For the future, it is important to me to create a special spot and continue to protect the history of Little Tokyo and share Japanese culture. I am so grateful to everyone for their kindness and continued support.
After “shelter at home” is concluded and it’s back to business as usual, what do you hope for?
Ikeda: The experience of this COVID-19 emergency has been a big loss both financially and mentally for all of us, but there have been many things gained from this experience. It made me realize once again that I am part of the Little Tokyo neighborhood that warmly reaches out to work together and support the local community.
Choi: We fear that there are stores that might not open right away or will not open altogether, because people are not returning to what used to be normal before the pandemic. We hope that people will return to normalcy after this is all over. We can’t wait until we see the hustle and bustle of Little Tokyo once again.
The Mother’s Day collaboration between Café Dulce and Blooming Art Gallery will continue until Sunday, May 10, at Café Dulce’s Japanese Village Plaza location. Stay in touch with both of these wonderful small businesses via Facebook and Instagram: @CafeDulceLA @BloomingArtGallery
Photos by ANTHONY MARSH/LTSC