We had the good fortune of connecting with Sumi Siegel and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Sumi, where are your from? We’d love to hear about how your background has played a role in who you are today?
I grew up in Pasadena, CA but was born in Helsinki, Finland. My mother, who moved back to Finland 25 years ago, is of a generation of European women who learned how to make things, not for fun, but because of necessity. She is a master knitter and sewer, just to name a few talents. When you got a hole in your socks, did your mom throw them away or put her darning skills to use? Guess which mom I had? It seemed to me that my mom could do everything, and not just things traditionally done by women. She had a garage full of power tools. Once she wrote a letter of complaint to a hardware store that had put an ad in the paper during the holiday season that said, “Get him a gift he’s sure to love”. She took great offense and I’m sure they never truly understood why. When the back corner of our house was sagging, she took a car jack, jacked it up and fixed the foundation herself. How dare they exclude her from their ad! I never viewed her as having unexpected skills for a woman to have. It never occurred me that she would be seen that way by others. I just saw her as a very capable human being. She could reupholster a couch. She could build a back porch. She could make a beautiful dress. She could refinish a wooden floor. And she made the most incredible birthday cakes. My mom used her skills to make money too. She made dolls and stuffed animals and sold them to a children’s store. She commissioned intricate quilts. She knit sweaters. Being raised by a mom like this, I was inspired to be enterprising too. Making a buck was a thrill and I was always trying to figure out ways to do it. I was the kid in the neighborhood that you’d pay to water your plants, do yard work, and collect mail when you were out of town. I went door to door, asking for work, and quickly realized that strangers didn’t take me seriously because I was a child. My solution… don’t ask! Do the yard work and do a great job. Then knock on the door and show them what you did. I know, I know… this sounds like a mafia move, but it worked and then they’d give me more to do. My favorite was to use scissors and edge overgrown walkways. And this is where my mom would insist that I tell you that she had no idea I was doing this, which is true. And this is also where I should mention that I did yard work pro bono too. You can tell when someone is struggling, by the condition of their yard. Sometimes I’d work on a yard like a phantom and never introduce myself. I wasn’t a scheming delinquent. I did what I did with honor. No matter what you do in life, that’s key. I’d like to think that this is a value that has contributed to the longevity of my business.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
The focus of my store is artisan made goods. That concept has always been a constant, but the way in which that idea is presented has evolved and changed since my store opened in 2005. My retail background goes back to the 80s, with my first go at selling handmade jewelry in 1992 in San Francisco. I learned all about gemstones and the process of jewelry making. I was in graduate school at the time, getting a multiple subject teaching credential, which I did put to use as a second grade teacher from 1998 to 2005. I enjoyed being an educator, but part of taking that detour from retail was because I felt obligated to pursue a career that required an education. In 1999, my mom (Carita) and I started Carita Viola Designs, a line of handmade textile purses. My part in this was helping with design ideas and to do all the marketing and selling. She created all the patterns and did all the sewing in her home in Helsinki, Finland. I taught during the week, and on weekends and breaks I was hustling to sell her purses. I went to arts and crafts festivals, shows, and house parties. I even sold them in the lunch room at my school. I went to boutiques to wholesale them, and eventually took a leap and did the LA Gift Show to find stores nationwide to carry her bags. When I decided to leave teaching and open a store in 2005, my mom’s handbag line was obviously going to be a featured part of my inventory. To fund the building of the store and buying other inventory, I emptied out the money in a tax shelter I had aggressively been setting aside. In other words, the retirement fund I had been building as a teacher was all put into my dream. I had zero left for a “rainy day”. The first year and a half was excruciating. I was on a block in Silver Lake that wasn’t a part of the “scene” yet. It was pioneer territory, an island. I was in a little group of 4 shops and 1 restaurant, surrounded by auto body shops and a do-it-yourself carwash. The other shops turned over 3 and 4 times each during the 9 years I was there (I relocated to Los Feliz in 2014). Despite this, in 2007, my little business was building up some momentum. I was actually making money! Up until then, I had no employees. I was open 6 days a week and closed on Mondays so that I could have a day off. I decided that being open everyday justified hiring someone. I hired my first employee to work part-time. It felt like I was really on my way… and then the recession hit… hard. The livelihoods of so many of our customers were uncertain, so sales plummeted. I couldn’t afford to buy inventory. I was thankful that I had some consignment to fill the store, but it wasn’t enough. That’s when I decided to start making jewelry myself. I had been making things my whole life, but not jewelry. I had a store that sold handmade goods, but it had never occurred to me that I had something to contribute to the actual things I sold. It took a financial crisis for the lightbulb to go off. I had modified and fixed jewelry for customers many times, so I understood how things were made. I used my American Express and nervously spent $800 on gems and the necessary findings and started to experiment. I worked at it every night and started to produce simple pieces. My jewelry cases started to fill up with my own work, and most importantly, it was selling. I didn’t tell people when they were looking at my work. I didn’t want them to feel obligated or pressured by the fact that the person showing them the jewelry was also the person who made it. Silly I suppose, but I am still that way today, more than 5000 pieces of jewelry later. The recession was a difficult time, but I’m thankful for the inspiration that came out of it. With the pandemic, times are tough again, and with that, I am thankful all over again that I have my own creative work to focus on. My store was closed for 2 1/2 months, which was really scary, but it afforded me the time to step outside of the box and try new things. I am seeing this with all the talented artists I work with. Everyone is putting their energy into new ideas and the results are jaw-dropping. It’s incredible actually. What are the lessons? Keep going. Think. Try. Change it up!
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Los Angeles is a city full of spread-out little pockets and with the traffic, people tend to stick to the pockets that are convenient. My store is in Los Feliz and I live in East Hollywood, so everything I do rarely goes west of La Brea. The very first thing that comes to mind, is an excuse to go to Langer’s Delicatessen on Alvarado and 7th for lunch. I am not a big meat eater, but their #19 is hands down, the best sandwich I’ve ever had. It consists of their own pastrami, coleslaw, and Swiss cheese on freshly baked Jewish rye bread. LA is known for tacos, so some nighttime taco truck hopping would be in order. Taco Zone parks on Alvarado in Echo Park (next to the Vons) and really delivers. LA is home to a very large Korean population, so a trip to Korea Town is a must. Lots of food options. If the restaurant is busy, that’s where you go. Dama, a Latin-Inspired Fashion District restaurant has the best calamari I’ve ever had. It’s so good that they don’t offer a dipping sauce on the side. You won’t need it. It’s also a nice spot for cocktails, with a beautifully designed outdoor space. For a little art and culture, I’d make a reservation to go to the Broad. The collection of art is impressive. What I find fascinating, is that they have a viewing spot where you can see behind the scenes into the high-tech warehouse where they store the artwork currently not on display. And the Broad is free. You gotta love that. After the Broad, I’d head to Silver Lake to The Red Lion for some day drinking. I prefer outside, in the back patio. Order the sausage platter and a couple of their big soft pretzels to accompany a few cold pints of Spaten. On the topic of day drinking, grabbing a couple tall boys (in paper bags) and sitting on the lawn at Echo Park Lake is a great time. Lots of people and dog watching. The city did a great job renovating this park. They brought back the Swan boats that you can paddle around in and the habitat they created for water birds is spectacular. And of course there are the lotus beds in the lake, which are the biggest in the Western United States. For some old LA dive bar drinking, my favorite place is Monte Carlo, on 3rd and Vermont. The term “dive bar” is way too loosely used these days. This is a real dive bar, of which there are very few left. It was frequented by Charles Bukowski back in the day, and the interior hasn’t been touched. The juke box has a decent selection of music, but it doesn’t play super loud. It’s not a scene, it’s a place to drink, period. You’ll see all walks of life there and the drinks are cheap and generous. I only go there when Mari is working, which is more often than not. She’s the draw for me. She’s fun to talk to and handles the place all by herself. Anyone misbehaving (which is rare) is asked to leave and no one argues with her because they don’t want to be banned from coming back. If you go on Xmas Eve, which I have after working the final day of the holiday season, she’ll feed you and give you a gift. It’s a beacon for people with nowhere to go. I have to say that with the pandemic going, I really miss Mari and the Monte Carlo. The neighborhood where my store is located is a great destination. On my block you’ll find Skylight Books, one of the few remaining independent bookstores in the city. Right next door, and south of my store, is La La Ling, a cool clothing and gift store for kids. For those who like to support small businesses, my street has that in spades. After browsing the stores, I’d go to my favorite Los Feliz restaurant Il Capriccio for some Italian. Their freshly made pastas are delicious, with gluten free as a option. Their bread… heaven. And if you have any room for desert, you can partake for only $5. I go for the creme brulee. To top off the night, I’d cross the street and go to the Dresden and grab a table in the lounge to see Marty and Elaine at 9 pm. Everyone should see Marty and Elaine at least once in their lives. Their fun and catchy cover songs have been entertaining people at the Dresden for decades, with Marty on drums, and Elaine on keys and lead vocals. The bartenders there make perfect martinis, super dirty being my preference.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There are several people that deserve a shoutout, but I’d like to dedicate this to my father Michael who always encouraged my creativity and offered help when I needed it and to my dad Chuck, who literally invested in my dream and continues to encourage me to keep going.
Facebook: Sumi’s Artisan Gifts