By MARIKO LOCHRIDGE, Rafu Contributor
Edited by PHOENIX TSO, Community Volunteer
The 74-year-old Anzen Hardware store launched its first-ever collaboration with Little Tokyo newcomer CRFT by Maki on Thursday.
Both stores put together a merchandise box containing an Anzen Hardware T-shirt, work gloves and an imported Japanese seed packet, which is available for pre-sale only until Nov. 23. A portion of the proceeds will go towards the cost of restoring Anzen’s storefront windows, which were damaged by acid paint graffiti earlier this year.
This historic collaboration represents a new but mutually beneficial effort in Little Tokyo, where a tech-savvy younger generation of entrepreneurs markets a product for from a legacy business, using the brand strength of an institution like Anzen Hardware to drive sales from multiple generations of Little Tokyo community members and visitors.
When asked if Anzen had ever done a collaboration in its nearly eight decades of history, owner Nori Takatani — a man of few words — simply replied, “No.” But in a year when a global pandemic has threatened the survival of small businesses in Little Tokyo, nothing seems unlikely anymore.
Little Tokyo small businesses have shown time and time again resilience is not only their historic legacy but their greatest asset. Whether it’s economic chaos, waves of displacement, the constant threat of gentrification or a global pandemic, the J-Town entrepreneur community sticks together.
Early in the pandemic, small businesses like Cafe Dulce and Blooming Art Gallery collaborated for a Mother’s Day sale. Cafe Dulce lent its storefront to the then-shuttered Blooming Art Gallery to sell their wares. Other essential businesses such as the Fugetsudo sweet shop and Japanese restaurant Azay did the same for their neighbors like Little Tokyo Bridal and California Floral.
Nonprofits have also pitched in with collaborative projects. The Little Tokyo Community Council’s Community Feeding Community and the Little Tokyo Service Center’s Little Tokyo Eats partnered with local restaurants to feed food-insecure community members through funding from local donations and grants.
The Anzen Hardware and CRFT by Maki collaboration began with a conversation on the streets of Little Tokyo. Darin Maki, founder of CRFT by Maki, ran into Kisa Ito, creative director of Go Little Tokyo, and Kristin Fukushima, managing director of Little Tokyo Community Council. Looking to elevate legacy small businesses during the pandemic, Kisa and Kristin suggested that Darin create a community benefit project for the neighborhood. Darin’s first thought was Anzen Hardware.
“Anzen to me has always been this living, breathing, historical entity and I feel it’s so important that we support and preserve these cultural gems however we can,” he said. “Even when we were building out the CRFT by Maki store, I was thrilled to go into Anzen every day to get supplies and they usually had everything I needed.”
It also turned out that a recent series of acid paint taggings had scarred Anzen’s storefront windows so badly that they required replacing. With sales down by over half in recent years, Nori hesitated to make the purchase when he was unsure if the store would even survive 2020. Darin, with the assistance of 31-year-old Philip Hirose, a relative of Nori and a son of the family-owned business Azay, proposed using the collaboration as a way to raise funds to replace the window. Darin agreed and the collaboration soon got under way.
There were obstacles, one of which was the language barrier with Anzen Hardware owner Nori Takatani, a man who even in his native Japanese is very concise with his communications on all topics outside of boxing. The second barrier (also its charm) is that Anzen is a very analog-run business. Nori doesn’t have email and only this year learned that he could watch old boxing matches on demand via YouTube.
Thankfully Philip was ready to step in to streamline communications and the decision-making process. Nori didn’t quite understand what selling online would involve, but he could see its potential value: “With places like Home Depot it’s very hard for small hardware stores like ours to survive. I don’t use computers so I don’t really know what they’re doing, but I am really grateful that people like Philip and Darin are working so hard on this project.”
After receiving Nori’s blessing, the team got to work. “We felt that as long as I had his blessing and trust, we could move forward with the project,” Philip said. “One of our goals was to limit his commitment because we knew that it would be a lot of work for him. That and jumping on the Zoom calls wasn’t something we expected out of him.”
The team Darin Maki of CRFT by Maki, Philip Hirose of Azay, Justin Kawaguchi, a USC student and former intern with Little Tokyo Community Council, and Kyle Kawakami, a Chapman University graphic design student and former intern at Terasaki Budokan, met over Zoom and group-chatted weekly over several months to build out and execute the collaboration.
It was a steep learning curve for this team of millennials. “I learned a lot about the need for newer businesses to assume the role of a community steward, sharing their knowledge of social media, consumer trends, and marketing with our legacy businesses,” Kawaguchi shares.
For Kawakami, his graphic design skills were a great opportunity to give back. “With this collaboration, we wanted people to feel a part of the story of Anzen. We wanted the design to feel vintage, like you picked it up from the store back in 1946. If you look carefully at the design, you can find a few subtle nods that speak to CRFT by Maki, Anzen, and Little Tokyo — take a look and let us know what you think they are!”
There’s a history of small businesses in the Japanese-American community banding together to help each other out during threats of displacement. Younger entrepreneurs like Darin and Philip are experiencing a historic first when it comes to running a small business. It’s hard but this shared experience has also strengthened their appreciation of being based in Little Tokyo.
For Darin, this is more than just a great collaboration and sales opportunity; it brings awareness about who Nori is and what Anzen means to historic neighborhoods in ethnic enclaves. “If this collab encourages people to want to shop here instead of Home Depot, then we have done our job. If young guys like Justin and Kyle can get this pumped up about an old hardware store ,then I feel we can impact a whole generation of young JAs to invest more into their own community.”
While 2020 has challenged most of us, the symbiotic role of intergenerational collaborations has brought hope to new and legacy business owners alike.
The Anzen x CRFT by Maki collaboration gift box will be available for pre-order on the CRFT by Maki website until Nov. 23. This limited-edition holiday bundle featuring an Anzen pocket T-shirt, pair of gloves, and Japanese seed packet in a custom design box is available for $55. For more details, visit: CRFTbyMaki.com
Rafu contributor Mariko Lochridge is a bilingual Japanese/English small business consultant. She is also the co-creator of the website LittleTokyoisOpen.com and has a vegetable garden grown from Anzen seeds.
Photos by DAVE WU