Business of the Month: Kimono House, 131 Thompson Street
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They say: keizoku wa chikara nari; or at least they say that in Japan, to mean that perseverance is power. If that is true, then there are great stores of power to be found in our March Business of the Month, Kimono House at 131 Thompson Street, a small, unassuming storefront in the South Village that for decades has served as a unique gateway to Japanese culture, offering a vast array of traditional garments and accessories for every occasion.
The animating force behind the Kimono House is Yumiko Sakuyama, a Tokyo native that came to New York during the mid-1990s. By that time, the business had been in operation for over a decade. It had launched just down the street from its current location in 1983 as a purveyor of vintage kimonos. Its subsequent owner, a buyer at the Japanese department store Takashimaya, then moved the business to 1st Avenue and 7th Street in the East Village, and started giving more emphasis to homeware and antique dolls. When that owner’s personal circumstances changed and he could no longer operate the store, mutual friends approached Yumiko to gauge her interest to take it over.
In some ways, Yumiko was not an obvious fit for the job. She had no experience in retail and already had a career as an educator. Before being sent to New York by her employer on a two-year assignment to run a Japanese educational institute, Yumiko had obtained a license in pedagogy and in a variety of traditional Japanese arts, including shodō (calligraphy), ikebana (flower arranging), sadō (tea ceremony), and soroban (abacus). It was her dream to share with others traditional Japanese culture, for which she felt a great affinity. And in this respect, she was not a bad choice to take over the store, and all the more so since she had grown up around kimonos. Her mother wore them every day, and her grandmother used to make them. So when the Kimono House offer came along, she took it seriously and reconsidered her career trajectory, saying:
Staying at a new country and in a new life for a couple of years is a little bit too short. “Oh maybe it’s a good idea to stay…” I didn’t think too much. That’s my story. you never know what’s going to happen in your life.
Twenty years later, Yumiko runs perhaps the premier kimono store in the country.
Essentially, a Kimono is a loose, t-shaped garment, the open front of which wraps around the body and is affixed with a sash. Its origins date back to the Heian period, which lasted roughly between 800 and 1200 AD. A regular kimono can have half a dozen parts, not counting accessories; and formal ones have even more. They vary widely in fabric, color, pattern, weight and construction; and their configuration determines their formality and the occasions for which they are suitable.
Since taking over Kimono House, Yumiko has greatly expanded the store’s selection and complemented vintage kimonos with new ones, led by her interest in kimono fashion and by her training in kimono styling, which she underwent along the way. This expansion involved research and countless trips to Japan to locate new suppliers. Thanks to Yumiko’s efforts, you can now find at Kimono House a formal, silk homōngi in which to dispense your upcoming bridesmaid duties, a cotton yukata to don as you watch the cherry blossoms bloom, and a lightweight, pajama-like jinbei that will keep you cool when you’re making yakitori on a hot summer day (whether you’re an adult or a child).
You can also now find a wide array of accessories, with which Yumiko can expertly coordinate your new outfit.
Asked how she managed to, at once, learn how to run a business and figure out how to overhaul it without the benefit of any prior experience in retail, Yumiko found herself as puzzled as we were:
That’s a very good question. Me myself also very surprised. I don’t know. Maybe I was lucky… When I start taking business, it looked easy; but it wasn’t easy. And I learned so much through my customers; and customers through years, the trends changed; and I followed.
Yumiko’s attention to the thrust of customer interests and tastes led her to gradually broaden the focus of Kimono House. When she noticed, for instance, a growing interest in anime, Japanese martial arts, and other Japanese cultural activities, she started to expand her merchandise to include accouterments for some of those activities, such as the tea ceremony. She also began offering styling and rental services, effectively turning the store into a one-stop shop for anyone attending special events that call for a traditional (and even an unconventional) Japanese touch. As a result, Yumiko now also counts among her customers fashion magazines such as French Vogue, Comic Con attendees who want to dress as particular anime characters, students who want to stand out at their graduation parties, and even folks who want to give the gift of a photo shoot in traditional Japanese garb. They come from all backgrounds, drawn by an interest in Japanese culture and in Yumiko’s expertise. Fashion stylists from throughout the country and even from abroad have over the years retained her kimono coordinating services.
The COVID pandemic posed an enormous challenge for Kimono House, because the business revolves around events and activities that declined sharply in frequency during the crisis. The contraction in tourism did not help either. Yumiko was forced to shut down her store for four months. To mitigate the drop off in sales, she tried to expand her only presence by enhancing her website with the help of volunteers and friends, and she launched a still-active gofundme campaign. Only recently, as special gatherings have resumed, has business slowly started to recover. Having survived the worst of it, Yumiko now marvels at the longevity of her store in a city where small businesses sadly succumb after a few years to the many challenges they face.
– I didn’t know that they didn’t last so long. I thought that maybe…. I didn’t think too much when I was younger. So apparently just to concentrate. So many parties… so many social… [But] I just concentrate on the store. Focus is more important. I do the best I can do, because that’s me. If you want to do something new, you really have to concentrate yourself. Otherwise it’s no good. So I studied hard. This store is not for everybody. Some people surprised: “what kind of people buy this?” That’s true. But because of the selling and renting so many different things… I’m able to….
– … to last for twenty years?
– Maybe. That’s true. Also, I’m a very patient person.
For allowing Yumiko to realize her dream of sharing traditional Japanese culture with the world and for enriching our own culture in the process, we are thrilled to name Kimono House the Village Preservation March 2023 Business of the Month.
What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc
Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month: