We had the good fortune of connecting with Rena Sapon-White and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Rena, what do you attribute your success to?
The world abounds with vintage treasure, but much of it trades hands with little context other than a piece’s aesthetic value. Backstory Vintage is a unique hybrid of a vintage shop and a museum where everything is for sale. My customers love that we tell a story about each piece, and that contextualization sets us apart. It’s a much more personal way to shop vintage and antiques. I love rummaging as much as the next collector, but it’s a totally different experience to be presented with that object’s mythology, its significance. Immediately that piece resonates with deeper meaning. My bliss is at the crossroads of storytelling and design, so I feel great fulfillment in being a steward for these pieces to tell their stories before they find new homes.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
Backstory Vintage is an online shop based in Los Angeles, selling vintage and antique decor, furniture, and fine art, entirely run and curated by me. Each piece in the collection comes with a story, based on some aspect of its composition, design, or cultural significance. A mother-of-pearl inlaid Chinoiserie corner chair brings with it a tale of deforestation and conservation as we explore the now-illegal material it is composed of, rosewood. A Syroco sunburst mirror tells us how advances in manufacturing informed the burgeoning interior design movement in the middle of the last century, leading to a 40-pound mirror partially made out of flour. Context is everything. And when you know the story of a piece, your perception of it changes. When you buy that piece, have it in your home, you get to participate in its mythology. I think that’s what excites folks about this shop. What they buy dials them into something bigger than themselves, during a time when so many of us are disconnected from our world. My wish is for people to find healing, unity, and introspection by engaging with relics from the past. We have much to learn from our ancestors and material objects are fascinating signifiers of the triumphs and tribulations of those that came before us. I founded Backstory Vintage during the pandemic, in the summer of 2020, when hope was in short supply and I was desperately seeking some way to reinfuse joy into my life. Because of my autoimmune disease, I was in deep isolation. Before COVID, I was on the cusp of a number of milestones in the career I’d been chasing for much of my life as a filmmaker and producer. I had that audacious feeling of “arriving”. When those expectations didn’t arrive, my creative mojo went into a tailspin. I felt trapped at home, lacking inspiration and purpose. If it sounds like a dark night of the soul, that’s because it was. But as those often go, it transformed me in the process. As someone who has worked with a lot of writers, I often wear the hat of Socratic interrogator, always probing deeper to find the story. I started to turn that lens on myself, on my life. What was this story I’d been telling myself, with such lofty expectations that made me feel entirely inadequate without them coming to fruition? Was there really a reason I couldn’t thrive right now, if I let go of my attachments to a specific outcome? I decided to treat my life like a blank slate, and that’s when the wealth of opportunities available to me came into focus. I had moved from an apartment to a house in June, and set my sights on creating a home environment that didn’t feel so oppressive day in and day out. When I realized that I could decorate my entire space without leaving the house, I started to form the idea for my own business – one that I could run during a pandemic, sharing my love of art and design and storytelling with the world I felt so disconnected from. I began the process of sourcing inventory, investigating and writing up my pieces and working to curate the first Backstory Vintage collection, which launched November 1, 2020 on its own website and Instagram. In many ways, my new job is not so different from my old job. Instead of working with writers, I now help objects find their stories. Running Backstory has brought me a lot of joy, but what matters most is still that inner peace that came just before it, when I let go of expectations and met myself in the present moment and nowhere else. It’s not a permanent state of bliss (bummer), but it is a channel I now have access to, and I like to tune in and remember that nothing really matters, in the best way possible. We’re just here to be human, and enjoy each other’s stories.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
We’re going to start very specific, with the dinner order I’m placing for us at my favorite restaurant, Bowery Bungalow in Silver Lake: turmeric fried rice, harissa potatoes, and Moroccan molasses ribs. Let’s say it was a very good week at Backstory, because we’re going more than once while you’re in town. Up next is a day trip to Topanga Canyon, where I lived years ago, to hike at the state park, buy vintage cowboy boots and hippie dresses at Hidden Treasures, and go for a sea-misted drive into the Santa Monica mountains before a candlelit dinner in the gazebo at Inn of the Seventh Ray. Day three we have red velvet and Thai tea pancakes at Bea Bea’s in Burbank, a cruise around the Hollywood Hills, and high tea at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. While we’re there, we’ll take a gander at my favorite exhibit, which features oil portraits of the Russian space dogs. No LA trip is complete without seeing a movie at the Cinerama Dome and at least three different independent movie theaters, like the Nuart, New Beverly, and the Vista. Oh, and we’ll hit the Korean spa, which necessitates eating copious Ethiopian food afterward (I don’t make the rules). There will undoubtedly be Leo’s Tacos involved throughout the week from multiple truck locations. And at some point we will see a stranger and I will tell you it’s Leonardo DiCaprio even if it isn’t, because I want you to feel the magic of LA at any cost. Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I’m grateful for my parents, Sari and Richard, who have always encouraged me to take daring leaps in the name of growth, and whose love of history, art, and travel instilled in me a lifelong sense of wonder and magic. My partner Jesse offers me unwavering support and an infusion of love into every endeavor. My heart is kept warm by my honorary mothers, Marj, Cece, and Mari. I’m very lucky to have my big brother Ari, whose brilliant mind in math and science perfectly complements my left-brainedness, but whose heart is the same as mine. I owe so much to my mentors at Dartmouth who shepherded me through my education and beyond – Bill Phillips, Jeff Ruoff, Jim Brown, and Annelise Orleck. I’ve received incredible support and guidance in my film career and for that I must thank Alysa Nahmias, Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Eyal Rimmon, and Jim Kaufman. Backstory Vintage would never have come to fruition without the spiritual guidance of so many, so in no particular order, I also extend my gratitude to Robert Anton Wilson, Damon Lindelof, Kelly Wearstler, Sinead O’Connor, Gay Hendricks, Tricia Hersey, George Harrison, and my best friend Dandan Matthews.
(for the two portraits ONLY): Shot by Jesse Beale Devine, 2021.