There’s a sense in West Hollywood that everything is corporate, shiny, and shellacked. Heading into the Fairfax District near WeHo or the stretches of Beverly and Melrose that have been adopted by streetwear brands, boutique fitness studios, and high-end clothing companies, it’s hard to find little outposts of the past that reveal the neighborhood’s true character. But there’s still one joint holding strong, and even expanding in 2020, and emphasis on the word “little” can’t be stressed enough. Pygmy Hippo Shoppe — which is named for a real creature/phenomenon — has been Eminé Avanessian’s calling/avatar for almost ten years. Eminé (Emi for short) was first inspired to open after a visit to Japan shifted her approach on how retail space can function.
“In the summer of 2010 I had spent some time in Japan, and all of the stores were so tiny,” she remembered when we met up at her miniature store one Saturday morning earlier this month. “I didn’t understand the layout, I couldn’t grasp the concept. It shifted my brain a bit. Without even thinking about it, being at a crossroads in my life, I was getting coffee in the neighborhood one day, and I saw a shitty little sign that said ‘100 square feet for rent.’ Then I walked back and I was like wait a minute, ‘think of all the stores in Japan, why the fuck not?’”
Over the course of the next several years, Emi established herself and her store as a haven of all things delightfully weird and thoughtfully charming. Already a collector and creator of strange, surreal art with her previous project, a jewelry line called Cloven Hoof featuring material like real gold and insect wings, and well-connected from a past job as a buyer at a natural history store, it didn’t take Avanessian long to turn her tiny storefront int a buzzing neighborhood staple.
“We actually named it after our English bulldog at the time, because she looked like a little fat hippo,” Emi laughed. “It was this idea that something that should be big is coming in a small package.” In the early years, Avanessian was offering tiny trinkets and vintage magazines, packing out the store with $1 and $5 tchotkes, and helping shift buyer’s perspectives on what a storefront in Fairfax could physically and spiritually feel like. Along with her partner in life and work, Nathan Cabrera, the couple made their tiny shop into a beloved, locally-owned fixture in the looming presence of Erewhon and the other corporate interests that line the corner of Beverly Blvd and Stanley Avenue.
For those who haven’t made it to the physical store yet, perusing their online offerings will give you a taste of what Emi’s style is: From nameplate astrology necklaces ($24) to World’s Best Pussy statues ($34), local handmade cross-stitch pieces for $70 (“Go Fuck Yourself,” reads one, “Big Dick Energy“ offers another), and plantable seed paper ($6), there’s a quirky and original gift for everyone in your life — or laughably tender treats for yourself.
And even if you do purchase online, as has become the fashion du jour, make some time to take a pilgrimage out to the space itself, too. Not just because it’s a perfectly curated space full of rare wonders, but because the spot also recently expanded immensely — which means it’s still small, but now much bigger than 100 feet. Gaining access to the more additional space behind her tiny storefront in 2016, Emi has been experimenting with expanding into that back area — playfully called “the big top” — over the last several years.
After using it for private events, weddings, Christmas markets and more, at the beginning of 2020 it was time to incorporate the extra room into the full-time store itself. “Finally I just had so much inventory, and was seeing so many great things, it was time,” she explained. “I was really itching to get back to curating an experience of locally made good, vintage things that you won’t see elsewhere and aren’t overpriced. “I dream it and Nathan designs it and improves it. “He’s such a talented dude, and adds more than I could ever even dream of.”
Now that the shop is a bit bigger, Emi has seen her customer base expand and grow — moms with strollers can now enter the space, it’s always been wheelchair accessible but now there’s more room to maneuver, and even grown men, who might’ve shied away from such a tiny shop before, are making their way in to browse through the decidedly feminine but always weird and eclectic goods. Heading into her first year with a full-size shop, Emi is happier than ever to pour her heart into something that she runs strictly for the love of it.
“It’s not easy, but there’s nothing better,” she explained. “It’s not easy, but there’s nothing more rewarding. I’m a working class woman, that’s my background and I don’t aspire to be anything else, so I’m not saying money doesn’t matter. But when you’re doing your own thing like this, if there’s no love, if there’s no passio — if it’s not like actually what you want to do — you’re going to feel it and you should move on quickly. You know you’re in the right thing when the heat is on, the pressure’s on, and you’re still down.”
The Pygmy Hippo Shoppe is officially turning ten this year, so keep your eyes peeled for more details coming soon about their anniversary party this winter. And next time you have a couple hours to kill in West Hollywood, head over to Emi’s store to shop locally and support a small woman-owned business that’s thriving, regardless, at the heart of corporate interests.