All Over Town: Ooga Booga

Wendy Yao on size, artists' books, and L.A.

Wendy Yao, photograph by Anthony Valdez

Wendy Yao, a Los Angeles native, has grown Ooga Booga from a tiny store in a former storage closet in Chinatown to an internationally known name in the worlds of art and "cool." She recently opened a second location, Ooga Twooga, four times the size of the first. Everything in her stores, from artists' books and editions to clothes and accessories, reflects her uniquely Los Angeles vision. They are not to be missed on any art-sensitive tour of the city.

This weekend provides an excellent excuse to do so: on Saturday and Sunday (11am to 6pm) visit 356 S. Mission Road for the third annual Artists' Books and Cookies, an event produced in collaboration with Ooga Booga, the Mexico City-based Fundacíon Alumnos47, and my organization ForYourArt. Alongside hundreds of artists' books, cookies from SQIRL, and conversations around independent artist publishing, you'll also be able to view a stunning exhibition of Alex Katz's flower paintings and, of course, browse the offerings at Ooga Twooga.

If you're on the Westside, Ooga Booga is hosting Friday Flights at the Getty Center this weekend too. Check out the program with sound installation, performance, DJ set and dance by Animal Collective, Black Dice, Nguzunguzu, MAL PAIS, Busy Ganges, Alexa Weir, Flora Wiegmann and Rikki Rothenberg.

On this occasion, I asked Wendy about her love of artists' books and her advice for getting the most out of her enticing stores.

How did you get the idea for Ooga Booga?

When I opened the space about ten years ago the landscape for stores was really different. There wasn't anything back then that served my particular interests in music, books, art and design, so I went about creating something that did.

Are artists' books at the core of this?

I've always been interested in artists' books. My upbringing was heavily influenced by underground music and punk: I was always collecting records, and there is a lot of exchanging of fanzines in those worlds as well. As I became more immersed in contemporary art, publishing independent artists' books seemed like a natural extension of my interest in music fanzines: both are self-made, self-published, and more democratic forms of distributing cultural ideas.

You spend a lot of time in bookstores. What have been some of your favorites?

There was a store in the nineties in Los Feliz called Amok Books, run by Dan Wininger, with cultural and underground anarchist and political publications. Today I like <> bookstore in London, and Ken Kagami's Strange Store in Tokyo.

How has the interest in what you're doing changed since you started?

Public interest has grown a lot, especially in terms of artists' books: it's easier to find out about independent artists and publishers, and more stores carry this kind of material. In L.A., when Ooga Booga first opened there was only Arcana and Hennessey + Ingalls, but now there are stores in many cites that specialize in these publications. The attendance at art book fairs has also ballooned each year.

It's possible that the blogosphere, with its casual sense of self-expression, has contributed to people's attraction to fanzines and artists' books since they share that sensibility. It's a totally different experience to look at something online and on paper--both have their pros and cons--and it doesn't seem like the younger generation has lost an appreciation of that format.

You've been part of an interesting cultural shift in Los Angeles. Do you think there is an enhanced sense of civic responsibility and appreciation here?

People are getting more excited about L.A. for some reason. I grew up in the outskirts, and except for college, I've been in L.A. my whole life. It's not the easiest city to get to know, but I feel like people who are here generally appreciate it.

How was your recent trip to Japan?

In Japan there don't seem to be the same zoning rules about where you can open a business. People sometimes have stores in their apartment buildings, so businesses aren't always as clustered as they are here.

Also, the creativity and efficiency that people put into their spaces there is pretty inspiring. My original store in Chinatown (325 square feet) is tiny compared to the newer space on Mission Road (1000 square feet), but in Japan it wouldn't have been considered small. They do a lot with tiny spaces, and that's something I think about too. Believe it or not, Ooga Booga in Chinatown has more inventory than Ooga Twooga on Mission Road.

What's your advice for someone browsing Ooga Booga for the first time?

We're not the kind of store designed to be eye candy that you pass through, buy something quickly, and leave. You get more out of it having a slower browse--there are many hidden treasures and you'll be rewarded for digging deep! If you have time to spend, it's a more satisfying experience to come by, have a cup of coffee, use our Wi-Fi, and relax. We encourage people to take their time, even if they don't buy anything. Also, talk to one of us!