BAD DAY MAGAZINE
ISSUE 7, SPRING 2010
To most young people with an active interest in contemporary culture, Wendy Yao and Ooga Booga are no secret. In the six years since Wendy first opened her store, Ooga Booga has become a non-institutional hub within the Los Angeles area; a go-to place for it's selection of books, multiples, fashion items and accessories. Outside Los Angeles, Ooga Booga is an icon of independent entrepreurship, participating in Art and Book Fairs, opening temporary satelite stores, creating online resources for independent publishers (print-resources.tumblr.com) , and organizing events in various venues. While Yao insists that the store's success could not be possible without the support of the store's participants and local community, as well as the help of interns and staff, Ooga Booga is nevertheless an incredibly small and personal operation: Wendy Yao and her (tiny) storefront.
ASHERPENN: What were you doing at the art fair last week in L.A?
WENDY YAO: How was it?
AP: Well, what was it?
Wendy: It was an art fair that someone in LA puts on every year. They asked me this year to organize a little section-- a large room with publishers and then a little lounge area with events-- performances, bands, readings, film screenings, DJs÷.
AP: Were you doing this as Wendy Yao or as Ooga Booga? Both?
Wendy: I guess both. I always avoid talking about those sort of technicalities. Those details are important to some people but I always forget to figure them out. So I don't even know what it was actually.
AP: You're involved in organizing a lot, in terms of art fairs.
WY: The Art Swap Meet, High Desert Test Sites....
AP: Yeah. It seems like you do a lot of projects like that.
WY: I guess so. They are fun to do. They can be really exhausting too. It's in my instinct to do things like that though. When I was younger, in school, I used to book shows and also organize book readings and film screenings.
AP: You used to book shows?
WY: Yeah in college. I'd book a lot of shows for the school. I worked at the radio station.
AP: That was something I was wondering about that; do you consider your background to be DIY?
WY: [laughs] Yeah, sure÷I mean÷as opposed to Not DIY?
AP: Yeah as opposed to some one who starts out corporate...
WY: Yeah I guess. I mean it would be pretty weird to be starting out corporate as like a teenager though.
AP: That's fair.
WY: Most teenagers start off DIY in some sort of way or another.
AP: Is that how you got to Ooga Booga? Was it a continuation of those practices?
W: I would definitely say it is. Being part of an underground punk scene really informs a lot about how you think about community existing in the creative world. The idea of having a store÷ I don't really know anymore what I was thinking. It seems like a really long time ago. I definitely wanted a place to participate in and support the community I was a part of, and the artists and musicians that I knew. And hopefully have fun while doing it. In the years before that I had always had that inclination: to organize things, shows, for free. It seemed like this was what I already enjoyed doing even when I wasn't even making any money. Why not try and do this for work? Even though, when I started [the store] I wasn't doing it for my income either. I was working other jobs.
AP: You were working other jobs when you started Ooga Booga?
WY: At first the store was open only Wednesday through Saturday. Slowly I expanded the hours more and more because it was taking more and more time. At the beginning of a store it's not really that possible to make any money, to pay yourself. So I was just doing whatever freelance jobs I could do on the side.
AP: When did you start the store?
WY: I started it in 2004
AP: At the beginning was it pretty open-ended?
W: I didn't really have a super grand scheme. I wanted to be in the moment: do something I thought would be interesting and fun involving people that I believed in. I wanted it to be casual from the start and I guess that's still how that's still how I feel. I wanted it to be flexible as a store.
AP: You've stayed in the same location the entire time, right?
WY: When we first opened we were in the same building, but we were two doors down. In a room that was half the size. Then everyone in the upper floor did a musical chairs switch at one point. The travel agent across from me wanted to downsize in to my space. I took the space above the stairs instead. It's slightly bigger. But, yeah, I've been pretty much in the same space the whole time. People ask me a lot about when I'm gonna get a bigger space or a store front. I'm sure there are a lot of good things about doing that. I think a lot of stores want to upsize to a bigger foot print gradually and go into more central locations. Maybe that's why I'm not a good business person! It's just not exactly my highest priority. I like to stay small.
AP: It's interesting because Ooga Booga, despite that, has like expanded. You participate in fairs, you curate exhibitions÷.
WY: We've been lucky to have the chance to do other projects in different places. For me it's my way of compensating for being in a such small location that's a bit hidden and out of the way. Instead of simply moving to a bigger space or a more central location or trying to open more branches, I just try to do little portable satellite projects. You kind of spread out in these ways that are more temporary and shape shift a little bit more easily. We're so small and operate on the tiniest of budgets, so we try to have that kind of flexibility, where we can move around and try different things. It's fun to be able to take on short residencies in different locations at different times.
AP: I was looking on your website, and I noticed there was no "about "section on the website.
WY: (laughs) Is that something we are supposed to have?
AP: No÷ Maybe it's something not to have÷
WY: I mean I'm sure it's good for people to have-- it's helpful. I guess I didn't want one.
AP: It's funny cause I was thinking "What is Ooga Booga÷ Is it an art object store? Is it a boutique?" Could you categorize Ooga Booga?
WY: First and foremost it's a store.. For some reason people often refer to it as a gallery and I always have to go, "No it's not a gallery it's a store". I'm not really sure how else to categorize it. It's just a little store.
AP: When I was younger I would read fashion magazines and see pictures of these really immaculate boutiques. They were these empty spaces that seemed they had nothing in them. I remember going into Ooga Booga and thinking it was countering that sensibility in a very direct way.
WY: Ah ha ha, like grandmas closet.
AP: Well it looks to me like you actually do operate in some form of reality where you do have objects and you do sell objects and you share them. You're not a boutique, you're a store. What kinds of decisions or attitudes create that situation?
WY: The store for me is like one of those things where... When I was a musician sometimes we'd have these bands and it'd be like, "We're in a Led Zeppelin tribute band!" And it probably didn't sound anything even close to Led Zepplin. But you kind of have that in your mind. You think that you can do it. In my mind I was thinking, "[This is] a store÷Just put some stuff there and sell it."
AP: Was there a store that you went to when you were younger that inspired you?
WY: I think there were a number of them. There was a store in LA that we use to go to when we were teenagers called "Amok." It was literally countercultural literature. Other stores I went to would just have cool things going on like film screenings or whatever. Bookstores like Shakespeare and Company, which was Sylvia Beach's store in Paris nearly a hundred years ago. Obviously I'm not trying to compare myself to her. There's just a community spirit and a belief in supporting artists. All these different influences tie together in my head. I'm not thinking about them day to day or anything like that. There's inspiration in precedents too in the simple idea of a small independent shop that supports the interests that you believe in or the artists you believe in. It's just a mix of those things.... In a shitty cover band style sort of way. (laughs)
AP: When I was a teenager I used to think the definition of counterculture meant cool stores that sold subversive items. I lost the actual literal definition of counter culture being against dominant culture. Where do you think that counterculture is in the form of stores standing today?
WY: The kind of stores I was familiar with when I was a teenager don't seem to be around as much anymore. Instead-- there are like a lot more other kinds of stores, newer versions with more current ideas that didn't exist before. There's also this new kind of the corporate culture store. I don't even know what to call it÷ I can't call it counterculture ÷
AP: Like Hot Topic or Urban Outfitters?
WY: Yeah, Hot Topic, Urban Outfitters, even American Apparel. It's very modern. I guess Urban Outfitters was around or started to get more national when I was in high school. But definitely when we first heard of it or saw what it was-- me and everyone we knew were just-- thought it was the cheesiest thing we ever saw. I mean I have some opinions about it that I also feel like it would be interesting to hear more of the opinions of people who are really growing up in this generation now and see how they perceive it as well.
AP: Could you talk a little bit about your mixing art and non-art objects in your store?
WY: I think the reason why I put all those things together was probably because of the people I was around and the world I was inhabiting. I felt there must be all these other people that must feel these things all relate to their lives in some way. And if there was one aspect they didn't already engage in, maybe it would be interesting to have it there for them to check out. Because maybe the fact that I'm interested in these things means that it would be interesting for someone else too. I thought it was a natural connection but also one that I felt I wasn't seeing that much of. At the time that I started the store I thought it might kind of fill some kind of gap.
AP: Since you started the store I imagine you've kind of like witnessed some cultural shifts.
WY: It seems like art zines have gotten a lot more popular. I'm thinking to when I was younger and zines were not so...like the art zine wasn't as big a thing as the zine where like you write music reviews and what you had for lunch that day and maybe your political statement. I think those are still around, but it seems what people are really making tons of now is visual art zines. I think Nieves in Switzerland probably had a lot to do with it. It seems like a lot of them follow that format.
AP: One of my favorite things about your store is the presence of brands like Slow and Steady Wins the Race and Bless: independent companies that function with the same kind of freedom as artists.
WY: One of the core ideas probably in my head for what I want to present in the store since it started is to really show that independent creative culture can exist and thrive as it's own network of people's ideas, without having to rely on corporate culture-- where people can choose to work with corporate culture when they want to, or when it helps them, but without needing that necessarily. That we can really succeed and thrive on our own terms. Also to casually include whatever your friend makes that's fun. Like a friend walks in wearing a necklace they made, and they weren't trying to be a brand or to sell their thing, but then we talk about it and it becomes a thing, like the Sara Clendening necklace that we sell. I think it's a crossover of the larger idea of wanting to support this network of creative people.
AP:What are the qualities you look for when you're stocking an item for your store. What are you looking for? What are you like trying to steer clear of?
WY: I don't know if I'm trying to steer clear of anything in particular. I don't have any checklist in head. I just have to go with the feeling of what's right at the moment. What could kinda like balance out, or add a nice addition or perspective to the store. Maybe if I try and steer clear of anything, it's because I want to kind of provide a somewhat diverse range of perspectives, not wanting it be to heavily weighted towards one type of thing: one style or aesthetic over another. I don't want to go so far when it'll just suddenly be this total accumulation of everyone who ever did something like that. Other than that, it's just what makes sense.