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Little Otsu

Big Fun for Vegans and Not-Vegans

You don’t have to be vegan to appreciate the wares offered by Little Otsu, a cheery shop on Valencia that specializes in sweatshop-free, vegan products, though you may leave with a welcome conscious scrutiny of your lifestyle and buying habits. With the plethora of cute, affordable ethically produced goods at hand, it’s easy to question why we bother with goods that are made any other way.

Founders Jeremy Crown and Yvonne Chen opened Otsu in October 2002 at 3253 16th Street (now occupied by Needles + Pens), to provide a storefront where people could buy sweatshop-free, vegan products, zines, comics and other handmade goods. At the time, there were no other stores in San Francisco or the U.S. at large offering this specialized selection, and Jeremy and Yvonne sought to make the idea of buying vegan more palatable to a general audience.

In 2004, Jeremy and Yvonne started Little Otsu as an extension to their brick and mortar storefront as an outlet for collaborations with like-minded artists to make unique and useful products using alternative materials such as soy- and vegetable-inks and post-consumer papers (tree-free, if you will).

“Inspired by cool Japanese stationery, we wanted to collaborate with artists to do our own take on interesting paper goods, but made in an eco-conscious way,” said Jeremy and Yvonne. “As we continued making products, we came to the realization that publishing was where our real passion was.” The opportunity to move to the Valencia street space presented itself, along with an opportunity for Jeremy and Yvonne to shift concentration of their business focus from the store to production of paper goods. Since their move to the Valencia street location in May to the end of this year, Little Otsu will have tripled their catalogue.

“Otsu” is an antiquated Japanese word meaning “strange; quaint; stylish; chic; spicy; witty; tasty; romantic (it depends on the context)”, according to Jeremy and Yvonne, who found the term in Yvonne’s dad’s old Japanese-to-English dictionary. The word is really perfect for describing the sundry offerings of both the publishing outfit and the store. Latest offerings from the Little Otsu publishing branch include an adorable gift tag set by Kate Sutton, a 3-in-1 book and address book by Lart Cognac Berliner and a blank journal/sketchbook by Oakland artist Chris Duncan, featuring printed reproductions of multi-media integrations of thread, pencil and paints. Lart’s 3-in-1 book is quite amazing: pages of illustrated to-do lists that can be cut out and folded to your origami heart’s delight. This $12 book is printed with veggie based inks on 100% post consumer recycled paper in Oakland.

Little Otsu’s planners are quite popular. You can pick from Chris Duncan’s 18 month planner or Allison Cole’s Aquatic Weekly Planner. Both cost $15 and are dateless so you can start using them whenever you want. Custom covers for these planners are handmade by Hiroko Ono, whose darling fabric choices make it difficult to choose just one, but who says you have to? Pick up a couple of these $30 babies and swap at your will. randL’s $36 covers are constructed of ballistic nylon to ensure your planner doesn’t get trashed by everyday wear and tear.

Hiroko’s $20 handmade fabric wallets and randL’s handmade indestructible cordura nylon wallets ($26-38) complete the suite. randL’s designs vary from abstract to everyday -- think sewn sailboats, stars, leaves and airplanes embroidered to your heart’s content. But there are so many other choices! Racy Tracy wallets feature painted designs like a handheld, old-school video camera and sea critters on fun fabrics ($30). Rebecca Pearcy’s Queen Bee Creations of Portland Oregon vinyl wallets ($32) feature stitched cassette tapes, leaves, cupcakes, whales and birds in bright and muted colors alike. Alissa Anderson aka mittenmaker provides “faux-couture” wallets ($36) and S N A P Pouches’ vinyl laptop bags, tote bags and makeup pouches present other irresistible choices. S N A P bags are hand sewn in Portland, and the current mix of solid/perforated/creative topstitching options are numerous.

There are more choices to be made in the totebag department: Astrosatchel provides dark denim totes handmade in Vancouver ($32), as well as various fun pouches that can store makeup, coins, or whatever else you may have up your sleeve. Animal Sleep’s lime green tote bag features a cloud in a flowery vintage fabric sewn on, complete with eyes and smiley face ($37.50). Otsu is also the exclusive brick and mortar location to pick up McSweeney’s tote bags, tee shirts ($22) and post cards.

As far as clothing goes, you can expect to find cutesy, exclusive artist Otsu tee shirts in many colors and designs (one of the most popular being the octopus shirt by Susie Ghahremani) for $18 and sweatshirts for $38, all on the favored American Apparel (sweatshop-free) blanks. Each of Martine Workman’s Otsu shirts feature animals conversing; swans, gophers, foxes and more.

Craftybitch provides other innovative textiles: reusable fabric “coffee cuffs” – felt-backed sleeves for your cup a joe to keep your hands cool, plus they're treated to repel stains. They come in fun fabrics like cherries, tattoo swallows, Day of the Dead motifs, and other fun patterns ($15 a pair). Craftybitch also comes correct with coin purses made with vintage patterned fabrics ($12).

Little Otsu is a fantastic place to find unique cards appropriate for every occasion. There are plenty of crisp, artistic letterpress cards -- ranging from the birthday, baby, wedding or sympathy cards to note card sets and coasters for one to choose from. Yee-Haw Industries, Hammerpress and Sesame Letterpress were just a few of the standouts. An abundance of cheeky and pretty blank cards and stationery sets leave little excuse for dropping correspondences and random greetings.

In the journal/sketchbook world, you have plenty of options as well. In fact, the popular New York Times columnist who pens “The Frugal Traveler” mentioned “the cutesy notebooks” of Little Otsu in his account of his stop in San Francisco. Blank sheets, lined sheets, graph paper, maps, recycled vinyl record covers, old library card covers, recycled book jacket covers -- you can find it all here. Green Field Paper’s Hemp sketch books and drawing books come in medium and large sizes ($12 and $16, respectively) and are 100% recycled: tree-free (no virgin wood fibers). Jen Corace’s blank journals ($24) come in three awesome designs, each screen-printed by hand in Providence, Rhode Island. These journals are limited to 500 copies and each edition is hand numbered.

Make sure to also check out the amazing “The Time is Now” 2007 calendar ($18) done by Nikki McClure. This “X-acto knife art” calendar sells out every year and the artistry is breathtaking. Complying with the titled theme, each month features striking images paired with a single word, such as “breathe”, “congregate” and “transmit”. In the artsy vein you will also find a fine selection of comics and zines here.

Last but not least, Little Otsu carries a modest but varied selection of books for your vegan lifestyle and just plain fun books for anyone with a sense of humor. Check out the Giraffe, Giraffe and Your Disgusting Head volumes from the Haggis-On-Whey World of Unbelievable Brilliance’s “The How? Book Series”. Again, you don’t have to be vegan to enjoy all that Little Otsu has to offer, but there are some really delicious recipes in its tomes and the unique, stylish offerings are a welcome alternative from the daily grind.