You know that weird book or zine or dress or ring or 7-inch you found at a garage sale or on eBay or in your grandmother’s attic that spoke directly to your soul and that you treasure more than anything else you own? Have you ever wished there were a whole store filled exclusively with those kinds of odd and wonderful things? Well, there is, and it’s Ooga Booga, Wendy Yao’s store in Los Angeles.
Ooga Booga’s walls are covered with work by Wendy’s favorite artists; the shelves are lined with books and zines and records and postcards and little objects; the racks are filled with clothes by independent designers you can’t find at your local mall. Each object is strange in its own way, but they’re all tied together by Wendy’s personal passions—they’re whatever she’s into at any given moment.
Wendy opened Ooga Booga in a tiny former storage room on the second floor of an office building in L.A.’s Chinatown, on a shoestring budget. From there she followed her heart to create a space that welcomes all comers but still feels like a secret.
It’s a dream life, but one that’s totally attainable, even if you don’t have a lot of resources to start with. Here, Wendy explains how she did it.
ROOKIE Can you describe what Ooga Booga is to our readers?
WENDY YAO It’s really tiny store that’s upstairs from a bakery. We specialize in contemporary artists’ books, music, clothing, accessories, and just stuff I like by people I’m interested in. It’s not that easy to put into one category.
You’ve made a life and a job out of embracing the things that you like and showing them to people, and supporting work that you believe in. It’s kind of what young people do with their blogs: “I like this thing; you should look at it.” But you’ve proven that you can actually make a living out of that—your store is almost like a blog in physical form. How did you invent this life for yourself?
I just always tried to do what came most naturally, whatever that means, even though I didn’t really know what I was gonna end up doing, or what I wanted to do. I just kept trying to follow what my instincts were telling me in terms of what I was interested in and what made me excited.
As a teenager, starting around 13 or 14, I started getting really obsessive about music, art, film, et cetera. In my 20s I took a lot of different odd jobs left and right, trying to figure out what I really wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do work that was in some way participating in the world of creative people. I guess in a lot of ways I was influenced by my experience in underground punk music, where if you were part of that world in any way, you were an active participant helping it to exist. Even if you were just going to shows and buying records, you were directly supporting the bands.
When I went to college I started to set up a lot of [punk] shows there, and film screenings and talks, because I’ve always had the urge to do stuff like that.
It seems like you’ve always had this kind of curatorial streak.
Yeah, when I was in college [at Stanford] I didn’t really feel like there was a lot around me directly, in terms of music or artistic communities. I worked at the college radio station as a volunteer, then I had my own radio show and started a radio-station magazine. I booked shows through the station, too. I guess I didn’t have the community I wanted, so I just brought it there.
In college I just ended up—of course against my parents’ advice—seeking out classes I was interested in and shaped my major around that, versus my dad’s suggestion, computer science, because that would be practical. I’m sure I would have a lot more money if I’d followed his advice.
There are a lot of jobs we could have where we’d be a lot richer than we are! But the punishment is that you end up having to think about something you’re not that into all day long.
I took a couple of computer science classes, because I kind of liked doing it, but it wasn’t my passion. I was spending Sunday nights in the computer lab watching the sun come up and eating animal crackers with clammy fingers, and I realized, This is not a life I want to live. But even a few months before I graduated, my dad told me, “It’s not too late to change your major to computer science!” He still doesn’t really understand what I do.
How do you describe the talent you have for making things happen and putting things together in new ways?
I don’t think it’s anything that special—it’s just having that feeling that you can do it, and not feeling like there’s that much in your way. I often didn’t have a lot of resources to work with, but somehow I found creative ways to make what I wanted work out. That’s been a persistent feeling for me—that something can be done even if it seems like you don’t have the means to do it.
I think a lot of our readers are constantly waiting for things to come to their towns, and feel like nothing cool ever happens near them. What’s the first step to bringing something cool to your town?
Just realizing that anything can be a show; it can be in any place or any situation. It could be in your basement, literally. In the ’90s there were lots of shows happening in parking lots and Laundromats and stuff. I’m sure they still happen now. Whatever place you feel like you can get away with can be a thing, you know?
I want to talk about your first band, Emily’s Sassy Lime.
That was my band when I was like 14 or something.
And it was you and your sister and your friend Emily Ryan?
Did you know how to play an instrument when you formed the band?
No, not at all. Well, I knew how to play classical piano, ’cause we were all good Asian daughters. [Laughs] So we probably had some sort of basic sensibility for music structure, but we started wanting to play other instruments. So we would watch the bands really intently at shows to see how they were doing it. We watched the way they were playing and tried to figure out how it worked. At first we were going to other people’s houses and borrowing their instruments. We had to hang out with kind of wack skater dudes just to be like “Um, can we just borrow your bass for a second? We’ll give it back tomorrow.” [Laughs]
Were you performing in public before you really knew how to play?
Yeah. We didn’t even have instruments or amps. Our parents didn’t want us to be in a band, so they didn’t know we were doing it. We had to write songs over the phone. There used to be tape-cassette answering machines; we would call each other and record our part on the answering machine, and then the other person could play it back over and over again and figure out their part.
Our parents didn’t want us to be friends, because they realized we were doing music stuff together. So we’d sneak out of the house and tell our parents we were doing a math study session or something, then go to a show, where we’d huddle in the bathroom and try to figure out our new song together acoustically. Then we’d borrow another band’s instruments and play the song onstage together for the first time. [Laughs] That was when we were like 15. It was so embarrassing. But we actually thought it was hilarious. At that age it was just about getting away with as much as you can.
We were lucky. We got away with a lot. One of the first times we went to this all-ages punk club in L.A. called Jabberjaw. It was after the last day of school our freshman year. We went there with another friend, and their parents found out that we went there and flipped out because it was in, like, a bad neighborhood. The parents came to the club and yelled at the club owners, yelled at the band—which was Bratmobile—and yelled at us. They told us we were never allowed to go there again. We were supposedly banned from then on from that club, but we went back two weeks later. [Laughs] Even now, whenever I see the people in Bratmobile, they’re like, “Remember that time your parents came and yelled at us?”
What bands are you into now?
I like this L.A. band a lot called Crazy Band. They’re all these girls and one boy who are really good friends and hang out with each other all the time. They’re super fun and kind of have their own weird vocabulary that reminds me of when I was a teenager, with my friends. They’re a really good band, but they also just have a lot of fun.
If a girl makes a zine and wants lots of people to see it, what can she do to get it into a store like yours?
Just reach out to people, contact them, and send them images from the zine, or a sample if you made enough that you can spare one. Also, be patient. I think some people think they’ll hear back within a few days of sending something out. But a lot of times people get so many submissions, and it’s not the first order of priority in terms of running a business to go through submissions every day. So don’t get discouraged if you don’t hear back right away. It doesn’t mean they didn’t want it. Also, check in again. Being persistent does help, because it’s not always that people aren’t interested in hearing from you; they’re just juggling so many things. Don’t be overly sensitive or too discouraged, because not hearing back isn’t necessarily bad news.
It just means that the people you’re submitting to are overwhelmed! Also the case at Rookie, by the way.
Exactly. And even if someone doesn’t want to carry your zine, it doesn’t mean you suck, anyways.
Let’s talk a bit about the business side of having a store. You opened it in 2004, right?
Yeah, it’s been about eight years now.
How long did it take for you to actually make a profit?
I think it took a couple of years. I was doing a lot of other stuff on the side all the time [to make money]. I started the store all by myself, with very small overhead, as a very small operation. It was just me, so I didn’t have anyone to pay. The store was about half the size it is now, and it’s still very small. The rent was like $160 a month.
Oh my god!
It was crazy. It wasn’t supposed to be a storefront, because it’s the second floor of this mini office courtyard above a bakery. Previously the room was being used as storage by a Chinese importer. I had some friends who had just finished architecture school help me build stuff, and other friends who just wanted to help out. It was very much a community kind of effort. We did as much as we could ourselves, aside from electrical work and that kind of thing. We figured out ways to do everything as cheaply as possible. We started really small, with low rent, and just got friends to put their stuff on consignment, which means that you don’t buy the stuff outright—you just pay when it sells, and if it doesn’t sell you can return it. Starting small definitely helps if you don’t have a lot of financial resources to start with. I would say start small, and keep your side job if you have one. I still do little jobs on the side for money.
Why’d you choose to make a store instead of a gallery or something else? Is there something about shopping that appeals to you?
When I was in high school, my sister and I used to spend a lot of our free time at stores. At lunch we would not spend our lunch money—we’d mooch off someone else’s tater tots so that after school we could go to the record store and buy a 7-inch. We’d hang out a lot in record stores and bookstores, and just look at stuff and talk to the people who worked there. It was a really important experience for my upbringing, living in a suburban area and needing desperately to find inspiration and a connection with likeminded people. I felt like music and art and film were saving my life, in a way. So stores were a huge thing for me. I know that it may not be the same for teenagers now because they have the internet, which is a huge outlet to connect with the world, but I still really value that experience.
The internet is an incredible resource, but I think teenagers still crave physical spaces. And galleries can be so intimidating when you’re young—like, how many 14-year-olds are hanging out at art galleries? But a record store you can just go and loiter in for a long time.
I was definitely not hanging out at galleries at that age. I was hanging out in stores! There were people there who would open your mind by being like, “Oh, do you know this record?” or “Have you read this book?” I love it when we have teenage kids come in [to Ooga Booga] just to use the bathroom, and they see stuff and are like, “Oh, this is collage—I just heard about this. I’m gonna go make some this weekend.” And they come back and show it to me. That still happens, and I love that. I love having a place where all kinds of people can come, whether they’re 12 or 80, rich and poor, whatever. It doesn’t feel too precious or exclusive, hopefully.
Do you feel like college was necessary for you to be doing what you’re doing?
[Laughs] No, not at all. I mean, college was useful for other reasons. It’s definitely helpful to develop your thinking, and you learn other things there. But the most useful experience I had in college in terms of what I do now was working at the radio station and setting up shows and other events. That made me less intimidated to do that sort of thing after college. Although I also booked shows for our band when I was in high school, so it’s not like I needed college to learn that, either. I have friends who have PhDs and friends who didn’t graduate high school—I think if you’re really engaged in stuff, you’re gonna learn either way.
So what was important for you was having experiences where you were curating stuff and enforcing your taste, and figuring out ways to connect with a community?
I don’t really consider myself a curator, although that word is often used to describe what I do.
What do you call yourself?
Just a shopkeeper. The idea of the store comes out of the tradition of the mom-and-pop store, where each store is a reflection of who the owners are, what their personality is in some way, what they want to share with the world. [Ooga Booga] is more about individuality and eccentricity, versus me putting forth a template of lifestyle or good taste that everyone should consume. I just want people to be invited in to check out what they like and discover new things they might be into. A lot of things now are trend-forecasted and focus-grouped and researched, and almost too flawlessly cool. That’s not really what I’m going for. There’s some pretty random stuff in the store.
Is there something about the art community in L.A. that you especially love?
What I like about L.A. is that because it’s very decentralized as a city—as opposed to New York, for example, where everything is really dense, and the media is centered there as well. I feel like people can kind of do their own things and be less self-conscious about every move. There’s something nice about that. It gives you a certain kind of creative freedom. Good art or good music often comes out of the moments in which people feel like no one’s watching, and they freak out and do even weirder stuff. Then people notice it and think it’s really cool.
There can be secrets.
Yeah, and there’s less pressure on everything you do, so you can experiment and fuck up and be lame, even, too.
Tavi wanted me to somehow sneakily steer you toward talking about how you used to be pen pals with Seth Bogart of Hunx and His Punx when you guys were teenagers. So this is me doing that very subtly.
[Laughs] Oh, wow. At some point, probably in 10th grade, our band was getting letters from a lot of people all over the country, and we started getting frequent letters from this guy who had really cool handwriting, called Seth Bogart. He interviewed us for his zine—I think it was called Puberty Strike—and he would call us sometimes. We were all just bored teenagers, so we would be writing each other and calling each other all the time. I had very few friends at school, so I would come home and check my mailbox.
Was this the late ’90s?
This would probably be mid-’90s. We didn’t have email at the time, so we would just write each other letters. A lot of those people ended up being in bands, but back then we were all just a bunch of teenagers dying to get out of whatever our small-town or suburban-town reality was. Seth was definitely a very memorable one. It’s funny knowing him before he hit puberty, then later being like “Oh, wow.” Discovering each other in a different way. ♦
(Interview conducted by Anaheed.)