Little Otsu

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It’s 11:40, a Saturday morning. I’m walking amidst the disarray that becomes Division Street on any relatively-sunny weekend. People mill about pre-brunch and post-brunch, popping into the consignment shops crowding this part of town.

Only minutes after opening, Little Otsu’s small storefront is nearly full, brimming with shoppers whose eyes catch on the colorful array of books and paper goods visible from the window. I’ve long been curious about the store, enjoying the vibrant mix of objects that are, though functional, a reminder of what analog creativity can build. My boyfriend and I pop in every so often, he on the search for the perfect pencil, considering weight and testing texture, while I find myself leafing through the collection of books, amazed and in awe at the beauty that is condensed into something I can hold.

I spoke with the owners of Little Otsu, Jeremy and Yvonne, asking questions regarding the cities that give context to their creative pursuits, the attraction of zine-making, and the developing paper goods industry. Their answers are thoughtful and articulate, all a meditation on the importance and tangible beauty of putting pencil and pen to paper.

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You started Little Otsu in San Francisco. Why did you open in Portland and how do the two creative communities differ? Were there any challenges in changing location?

The two of us moved to Portland in 2007 as we liked Portland a lot and wanted to try something new while we kept the store open in SF until the end of 2010 when we lost our lease. We haven't lived in SF in over ten years so it's hard to say, but both places have a good community of creative people who are supportive of each others work.

As for opening in Portland, we have lived in the neighborhood where our store is for over ten years now, so it felt pretty natural to open a shop here. And we actually previously had a store in Portland in 2004 (also on Division not far from our current space) so we felt comfortable with the process. The challenge in changing locations is about making sure you have a selection of products that meets the demands of the people who live and shop there and hopefully we've been able to do that the best we can.

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There seems to be a resurgence of interest in paper goods and printed material. With internet culture so significant in the sharing of art and design, why do you think people are turning to more tangible mediums?

Paper is great, relatively inexpensive (especially compared to tech), and there is a wide variety available. And there is something so natural, for lack of a better word, about putting pen (or pencil) to paper. It's a more tactile experience. Pencils especially are interesting since they change the more you use them—you are slowly breaking them down so they begin to disappear until all that is left is the writing or drawings you made and a tiny pencil stub.

You both have experience and interest in zine-making. What, for each of you, attracts you to this medium and why do you think there’s been such growth in this form of publishing?

We both started our own zines in high school—oddly enough in the same year—in 1990. This is of course before the internet as we know it so zines were really the best way to know what was happening in any sort of "underground" indie culture at the time in other parts of the country and in the larger world.

There is something so intimate about zines and that is a large part of their appeal. You know that the person who made it worked on every inch of it and most likely even stapled it together with their own hands (which as zine makers is something you don't forget).

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How do you source your products?

Since we've been around for 15 years we have a lot of brands we've been working with for a long time. But we are always searching for new ones, be it through travel, magazines, or blogs. The past few years we've found a lot of great brands in Europe, including several of which we are the first store or only store in the US to carry them.

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You founded LO in 2002. How do you think the paper goods and publishing industries have changed since then? Have there been parallel developments in LO’s evolution?

In the past 15 years the paper goods world has changed a lot and so has our store. The changes in the industry are really too numerous to name, especially since the paper goods industry is overall very trend-based and so things change season-to-season.

Most of the changes in our store parallel our personal interests, like in 2004 we published our first planner as we have always loved planners and wanted to try making one. At that time there were very few companies on our scale in the US paper goods world that were making planners, and definitely not undated ones. That started us down a path of publishing we hadn't anticipated, now some almost-14 years later with 175 different releases from bookmarks, to prints, calendars, cards, planners and books. Our publishing itself has evolved to the point where now we currently are focused on making small in-house projects printed here in Portland.

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How do you stay inspired?

It's spring right now in Portland and everything is blooming, so it's hard not to be inspired by all the colors from the flowers and trees while on our daily walk to work. But art is of course always a major influence. Through books, regular visits to the Portland Art Museum, trips to other cities and countries, random postcards we've collected, the stacks of magazines sitting on our coffee table, art prints from people we've worked with, our friends, family and of course, movies. We love movies and watch a lot of them and consider them a constant source of inspiration in so many ways.

For instance, four years ago Jeremy became super interested in the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira's movies after reading his obituary in the New York Times, which led us to take a trip to Portugal last year where we found new products for the store including a couple great Portuguese notebook companies and a Portuguese pencil company. Oliveira's movies are concerned with the history and heritage of Portugal, and it was through his movies that we became interested in Portuguese culture, including its stationery. Movies celebrate life and reflect it, the great ones do anyway, and through them inspiration rises.

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What, to you, is the importance of cultivating creativity in everyday life?

Making art is a very human act, whether it's writing in a journal or sketching things around your house. For us it's just part of who we are and what we enjoy doing. It's a way to interpret life with your unique vision and process your own experience of being alive. And if anything, it's super fun.

Do you believe that people are inherently creative, or is creativity more so a muscle that you train and work?

Going back to the last question, creativity itself is part of being human. All children draw, it's only as adults that we feel like art is only for "artists." Creativity is there for all of us, it's just a matter of the inclination and often, the time.

What is next for Little Otsu?

We're excited about a new exclusive journal we custom made with Emilio Braga in Lisbon, who's been making journals for 100 years this year! We hope to do more custom projects that are exclusive to our store and focus on more interesting regional goods. We have trips planned to Copenhagen and Taipei later this year so we're looking forward to discovering more goods to bring into the store.

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