Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Timing is everything” or is it “better late then never”? Or is it both?

Since the beginning of 2009, I made it a personal goal to stay positive for the new year. With this commitment to my customers, my friends and family, and myself, I figured rather than pecking away on this new but already-beat laptop, I need to get out there and experience. Just do and be. It’s amazing when you just immerse yourself in new experiences, and remain open to the unknown, how much good returns to you when you are decisively acting on your resolution. One example was my visit to Soolip Paperie in January. Wanda Wen, the owner of this wonderful store, in Beverly Hills, was so generous with her time and resources as we discussed the present economy and what we are going to do to combat the gloom and doom. Our conversation, while enjoying her pasta was pivotal in cementing a relationship and direction for the future. Please visit her store if you are in the LA area-her unique sense of taste and presentation will inspire you as well. Next, off to Japan again, infused with energy to show the same hospitality as received in LA to my super neighbors and students. Unready for the unexpected, which is how it should be, these super folks totally got me with a surprise birthday party. Their timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I was shocked, overwhelmed and highly touched! How do they know me so well?! My absolute favorite, made-from-scratch, homecooking; filled with love.

Soon after the surprise party, I headed to Kyoto and North of Kyoto to the “Tango” (love that name, because I love the dance too) area of Kyoto Prefecture. I met some of the most generous folks ever, all coincidental or not? and as a bonus, I arranged to meet the Tanaka family, who make some of the most scrumptious, Tango Washi (now stocked at Paper Connection!)

                                              Another fruitful planned event was participating as a vendor at the  annual Southern Graphics Council Conference (SGC), this year held in Chicago.

It turned out this was the IDEAL city to be in for SGC, even in a down economy. It was the highest attended show in the history of SGC- 1600 people! This conference is always so informative, especially this year, where we received so much great feedback about our papers. Who knew Paper Connection’s world-class line of handmade, sumi paper is great for etching!?! Our exclusive Kumohada Unryu papers, originally used as wallcovering, are now a favorite for intaglio… Many thanks to Steve Woodall at the Columbia College for Book and Paper Arts, as they helped us host our Chicago soiree in honor of Aiko’s and paper lovers everywhere. The space was just right, and the opportunity to meet some our new (and                                                          previous) clientele from Chicago was priceless.

Most recently (May ’09) we returned from the NAMTA (National Art Materials Association) Show, this year held in Louisville, KY. The people of Louisville, or as they say it, “Looahvul,” showed us their true Southern hospitality. The show reception was held at the Kentucky Derby Museum, where we could happily reunite with old friends, who we may only see once or twice a year. Most importantly, we learned what makes a thoroughbred. Man! That Mind That Bird really had amazing timing – record-breaking in fact.

Los Angeles, Tokyo, Kyoto, Barcelona, Toulouse, Louisville, and Providence. Some of the many places Paper Connection has been just in the past 5 months. It’s not necessarily glamorous, but rather compelling when we meet the individuals there who feed off our resolve. We feed off theirs too. I took advantage of opportunities to meet and see many interesting people and places; the importance of face to face meetings well outweighed the monthly blogging about it. All of these meetings were at the right place, at the right time, yet mostly unscheduled. All lead to unforgettable conversations and friendships; human to human connections through the common language of paper. It always seems to start and ends with paper, probably because I unconsciously craft the time that way…. Stay in the paper zone.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last day of 2008: Out with the old, In with the new...attitude.

As we approach a new year, I feel a sense of relief, hope, and eager anticipation.

I’m excited to move into 2009. There are several things lined up, shows, meetings, lectures, new papers, more travel, however, more importantly, I am looking forward to confronting obstacles with a renewed attitude. Obstacles? Let’s say challenges.

With relentless news reports from our economist experts foreboding the worst, it’s easy to freeze up with anxiety over the unexpected. And no, I am not naïve, nor in denial over the realities of what’s going on right now. It’s just that I refuse to give in to any negativity that can stagnate my progress in this paper business, or in the “business” of life!

I look back over what I accomplished this past year. Of course, there are the errors, the not-so-great decisions, (I knew we should have ordered more metallic gold lokta..) Despite those mistakes that I could easily obsess about during the lost hours on the flight back to Japan, I instead turn my thoughts to how Paper Connection grew. One pivotal moment occurred back in April of this year (2008).

As many of you paper lovers know, we said goodbye to a forerunner of the washi (Japanese paper) business, Aiko’s of Chicago, who closed their doors after 55 years of unparalleled service to the paper community. The first washi store in the nation, Aiko’s was a pioneer in bringing handmade Japanese papers to American artists, who unquestionably appreciated the papers and created beautiful and wonderful pieces with them. You couldn’t just label Aiko’s as “retail”, because it was so much more than a store, but a place where all the intangible happenings of inspiration, community, and beauty transpired.

As a colleague and supporter of Aiko’s, Paper Connection has gratefully accepted the baton of privilege and responsibility to provide the papers to their customer base. Their loyalty has steered us in a direction that has opened up even more avenues of expansion and still keep the legacy of Aiko’s alive and well.

Their customers have been amazing, which underlines the dedication the Aiko’s staff put in to assisting them over the decades. It makes me appreciate what I do have, and not bemoan what I do not.

Ok, so Paper Connection is not 55 years young, I am not 55 years young! But we do have quite a great “fan base” ourselves, if I do say so myself. Where would we be without our loyal customers who maintain the integrity of the independent retailer, and their loyal customers, who relish our papers? See!?, we all need each other. It is all about communication, loving what you do, and appreciating and respecting the people who help you continue to do it. Ok, to sound cliché, it’s all about the people.

During the Thanksgiving holiday, as I craved turkey with cranberry sandwiches on a roll, I hosted a dinner party in the little café called Titika, I frequent in my neighborhood in Japan.

I wanted to show my support and appreciation for the woman and her daughter (Tomiko and Fumiko Tozuka, owners of Titika Café) who share their passion for food and community (what better combo is that?). Plus give “thanks” to my new Japanese friends and neighbors, who have supported me as I slowly become integrated into my Japanese life. I thought a party with my favorite group can only bring in more patrons to this cozy café. Good folk attract more good folk; this is what is truly important.

By the way, 2008 is its 3rd year in business, and Titika Café now has the momentum to make it through the down turn in the ecomomy. The word is spreading through the town and business has been brisk!

Thousands of miles away, my staff put on the annual warehouse sale. Another success! It was great to see the familiar faces, and their delight to visit us, get their hands on discounted paper, and chat.

There will always be challenges in this business-as well as in 2009. Unexpected events, perhaps beyond our control-it happens. However, with the individuals who continue to look ahead with the same renewed attitude, I am sure it will be a divine 2009.

Friday, November 7, 2008

No, it’s not rice paper. We eat the rice, make the paper.

If I had to pick the most FAQ in this business, it would have to be:" Do you carry rice paper?"
My initial inside reaction is a back and forth inner dialogue of whether or not to enthusiastically educate the customer, or to sarcastically quip the title of my sophomore blog.
Feelings aside, it is easy to just say "yes!" but with so many types of papers out there that mimic what the customer is really looking for, I ask a couple of more questions to discern what the customer really wants.
If we had time and a couple of cups of chai, there is the philosophical one, "What is rice paper to you?" Since we do not have that luxury, but the fear of a long silence on the other end, I just proceed to the next one: "What are you using it for?" This return question is of course a set-up to spread the word about washi, Japanese paper, the important commodity that is so near and dear to my heart- the child I never had, and the product industry I have dedicated my whole career to promote.
Since I split my time spreading the word between two countries, it does not allow me to field every rice paper-question. So I leave it to the faithful paperwomen back in Providence.
When a customer calls in asking if we carry rice paper, I have trained my staff to read said customer’s mind and think of three basic papers they may be referring to. One is a plain white or natural printmaking paper with no visible fibers. The second is a lightweight sumi paper- usually white and used for brushstroke painting and calligraphy. The third and probably most recognizable, is called "unryu", seen right, which is a traditional Japanese paper with long, unbeaten fibers embedded into the sheet. Unryu literally means "cloud dragon", and you can see why as you gaze upon random, sinewy pieces of…something…that seem to dance on the paper. But what is it? Part of a branch? Tree bark? Rice?

To resolve this issue once and for all, here is a brief lesson in the components of selling or buying handmade paper, or washi:
The paper that most people think of when they refer to rice paper is actually mulberry paper, made from the inner bark of the Asian paper mulberry plant, or as we in the paper world refer to kōzo. Here is the secret ingredient that makes up these papers. This shrub is lovingly grown, boiled, beaten, dried, and turned into a beautiful sheet of paper for you to enjoy. Naturally, there are thousands of variations of a finished piece of kōzo paper. And naturally, we stock at least hundreds of varieties. However, it truly can blow you away when you consider the effort put into what was a humble shrub to an intricately designed silk screened paper, such as seen below. No trees are harmed; nor have they ever been.

Kōzo, seen freshly clean and boiled below, is of one of three main papermaking bast-plant fibers. The other two are gampi, known for producing silky paper, and lastly mitsumata. Both gampi and mitsumata are included in the daphne family of plants. I also have to mention the important ingredient used to ensure the incredibly strong and often thin sheets- tororoaoi. That is your new Scrabble word of the day.

Ok, perhaps I am losing the focus of all you black thumbs, but for a paper lover, it is vital to know these key elements. As we see everyone going green, and rightly so, it is comforting to know that washi has been a green, tree-free paper for centuries! The papermakers we represent at Paper Connection, and cheer on, have been among this treasured group, who have been faithfully supporting their surroundings and creating beauty at the same time.

There is such a thing as rice paper, by the way. Made from rice straw, this is not the "rice paper" that people usually think of. But I will save that for another blog. Because, lastly, but certainly, not in the least, there is the rice paper that is my favorite: used to make spring rolls, wontons, etc. I’m getting hungry.

Next time: It’s the annual Paper Connection Warehouse Sale, December 5 & 6th: The familiar faces, the paper deals, and the guilt-I won’t be there to help!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Yet another trip to Japan-not as glamourous as you would think!

Welcome to my first attempt at this thing called "the blog."
As everyone is online now, I figured, why not share my stories as well? It does get a round of chuckles from my staff as we take our late lunch sushi break.

I am the owner and founder of Paper Connection International, a handmade paper company in Providence, RI www.paperconnection.com Although based here in this quirky town, I did the inevitable thing all complicated, independent women do to further complicate their lives-get married! And not only that, get married to one Seiji Sugita who lives on the other side of the world, Tokyo, to be exact. Running a company, a Japanese paper company at that, from another continent is pretty complicated. However, I somehow manage with a supportive husband, faithful staff, and frequent flyer miles!

Flying nowadays has its necessary aggravations, and the flight is long, almost as long as the list of things I have to do before I pack! Meet with my accountant, forward my mail, attend a webmarketing seminar, overnight that limited edition kozo that jewelry designer so urgently needed for her show. You see, I go back and forth from the United States to Japan every 10 weeks. 10 weeks, that's right. Saying you're bicontinental may roll of the tongue with such ease and glamour, but when you are taking the taxi on a cold, rainy Wednesday at 4 a.m. to catch that United flight to O'Hare, and the driver even refuses to carry your laptop, you are wishing you never renewed your passport.

So by the end of this month, I will be back in little Abiko, Chiba, on the outskirts of Tokyo. My neighborhood here is like the parallel world of my other home back in Edgewood, that is, yes, on the edge of Providence. Everyone seems to know each other, or as all of you Rhode Islanders who are reading this know, went to school with someone who did.

I am excited, I have to admit, as I look forward to autumn in Tokyo, relishing real sushi, and discovering what is new in the world of handmade papermaking in Japan. My mission has been to keep this amazing craft alive by bringing these beautiful papers of the East to artists and paper addicts of the West. I have been doing it successfully for nearly 20 years. And that has been a truly rewarding journey, with or without the frequent flyer miles.

Next up: no, it's not rice paper. We eat the rice, sell the paper.