A Conversation with Pygmy Hippo owner, Emi Avanessian.
FC: What’s your Name?
Emi: My name is Eminé but everyone calls me Emi because it's easier, just E-M-I.
FC: Was it always the plan to make a small store, or did you just find a small space, and then decide to make it a small store?
Emi: Well, I've worked in gifts and retail for most of my life and I was able to spend some time in Japan the summer before I found this space, which was super inspiring and motivating. I had always wanted to go to Japan and as a teenager I collected “FRUiTS” magazine and all things Japanese. I had a totally different idea of what it would be like, but once I got there I was like, everything is so tiny! Then you quickly realize it’s really out of necessity because there’s not a ton of space, and so people build up, and build small.
I grew up in a very tiny apartment, and I have always lived in a small spaces so it wasn’t that crazy to me to open a tiny shop. I have always wanted to have a retail space and I live in the neighborhood, so when I walked by and saw this spot, I was like, all right, yeah, let’s do this!
FC: How long ago was it? When did you open?
Emi: I got the space in August of 2010 and spent a few months building it out with my partner in crime, Nathan Cabrera who is a design genius and understands me and the aesthetic ideas for the shop perfectly. It will be our 6 year anniversary in December and it's just been a total dream.
FC: Where did you grow up?
Emi: A few miles down the road in East Hollywood.
FC: So – You’re born and raised in LA.
Emi: Yeah and that’s also why it feels so great to have my growing business here, because when I was a kid Melrose was actually really cool- like in the late eighties and well into the nineties- that feeling of walking around with my older cousins (who were supposed to be babysitting me!) and not even realizing like all this culture and weirdness is just right here- like so close but so far. So I really hope that Pygmy Hippo leaves that sort of impression on people young and old, like you can start something unconventional and it may not look like everything else, but you can make it work, you know what I mean?
FC: What curates the store? And what’s the turnaround of that?
Emi: The store is super small, so that helps with buying in the sense that I only like to buy in small quantities because it allows me switch things out frequently. New things come in every week and there is a monthly turn around on original art, accessories, and home decor. People often ask why we don’t have blow-out sales or participate in things like Black Friday, and it’s really because we don’t mark things up for the purpose of putting them on sale. Everything is priced fairly and if something has a high price tag it’s not posturing, it’s truly because of the work went into it, so it’s the difference between being expensive and overpriced, and we’re never overpriced!
As far as curating, it's all about incorporating the right amount of nostalgia with current obsessions. There’s nothing more satisfying then when someone is in here and immediately makes a connection to an item with out having to explain anything about it: I remember this! I had this! Where on earth did you find this!
FC: Do people come and bring their products to you as well?
Emi: Well, now they do, which is cool and unexpected, but can sometimes be tough as well, especially when artists don’t write or call first, haha! Anytime people ask if they can submit their work or goods, I always say if what you make is fun and kitschy and you stay away from trends, you may have a place in here! But seriously, if any potential vendors happen to read this, don't show up unannounced with your look book or products, always send us an email first!
FC: And where else do you find things? On your travels, do you just grab stuff?
Emi: Oh I am an obsessive collector and am always on the hunt for new and interesting goodies! My house is set up like a museum and if it wasn’t meticulously organized, you could maybe say I was a hoarder, so it's just in my nature to be constantly hunting and looking for new and unusual goodies.
FC: Are you on Twitter or on Instagram?
Emi: Instagram is my jam! Twitter not so much only because the shop is such a visual experience that it’s hard to get the cuteness across in 140 characters or less, but we’re still on there too. Social media today was not the same as it was even just 5 years ago, so it’s been really interesting to see the amount of reach an app like Instagram can have. The dream was to have neighborhood gift shop in my hometown, so to have customers and fans go out of there way to make the trip here from Sauda Arabia to Spain to a small town in the US, all because they've seen the shop on the internet or on an app is incredible.
FC: How big (how small?) is the actual store?
Emi: 100 square feet. People sometimes get intimidated coming in because of how small it is, and I get it, maybe it feels too feminine for some, or maybe people are shy, or maybe it just comes down to people being freaked out by what they don’t understand, but at the end of the I hope it changes how people think about small spaces. I don’t think it’s uncomfortable or awkward at all, it really is the perfect amount of space and has everything needed to run a fully functional retail business.
FC: Do you have to have a business plan?
Emi Absolutely! 100 percent! You don’t need a strong business background to branch out and do your own thing, but you need to write a business plan and crunch your numbers, otherwise it’s just a vanity project or a hobby, and that’s fine I guess? But that’s not what I’m about. I always tell people who don’t have a ton of recourses but wan’t to start their own business to check out www.sba.gov, because that site is a total gem and a huge help for me.
FC: Are you particularly business savvy? Or are you just a regular gal?
Emi: Both. I grew up seeing my mom and her sister run their garment business out of a two-car garage in the back of our apartment, so I’d say growing up around that environment had a huge effect on my work ethic and also made the concept of starting your own business very tangible. I could see with my own eyes that it takes a tremendous amount of hard work (literally around the clock!) especially when you don’t have anyone backing you financially, but with that I also learned first hand that the rewards of running your own business are immeasurable.
FC: Last question: Where did you get your (amazing!) glasses?
Emi: The one and only l.a. Eyeworks! They’re just down the street from Pygmy Hippo on Martel and Beverly, but their original location is actually on Melrose and Martel, and both deserve a visit. They have been an LA institution since ’79, and I remember flipping though Paper Magazine as a teen, tearing out all the L.A. Eyeworks ads that featured everyone from Grace Jones and Paul Reubens to RuPaul and Joey Arias, and plastering them on my bedroom walls! Gai Gherardi (who co-owns and started the company with Barbara McReynolds) is a huge fashion inspiration for me, she’s always wearing these bold matching waxed cotton ensembles and has this perfectly paper-white hair, just casually rollin’ through town in her white vintage Jaguar; She’s the ultimate LA style ICON to me!
306 N Stanley Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036
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