By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
In the International District (ID), on the corner of South Jackson Street and Sixth Avenue South, sits Momo—the Asian- and Scandinavian-inspired clothing, jewelry, and home goods shop. Long viewed as a must-visit destination by locals and tourists alike, the shop will soon come to a close after 13 years of operation.
For Lei Ann Shiramizu and Tom Kleifgen, the wife-husband duo that owns and operates Momo, the decision to close up shop actually happened much later than anticipated.
Momo opened in the ID in November 2007. Named after the word for “peach” in Japanese, Momo offers clothes and accessories for men and women from international fashion hubs like Japan and France, as well as homegrown offerings from the Pacific Northwest. The boutique’s interior design features aesthetics influenced by Hawaiian and Scandinavian cultures—an homage to Shiramizu and Kleifgen’s respective upbringings. For Shiramizu (who’s Japanese American) and Kleifgen (who’s white), the store is a physical manifestation of their combined “hapa” or “Scandinasian” identity.
When the shop first opened, its location was seen as no man’s land in the ID—there weren’t many retail shops on that stretch of Jackson at the time, said Kleifgen, and many people questioned their decision to open a store there. Still, the duo viewed the location as an accessible one, and saw an opportunity to become and serve as a concierge for the ID.
“We entertain and engage with people from around Seattle and the world,” said Shiramizu.
“We really do have an international flow of people come through—not just because of Momo, but because of the ID. We welcome visitors and share information about where to go. Momo acts like a gateway for the rest of the neighborhood.”
She credits travel books and crowdsourcing sites like Yelp for informing out-of-town visitors about the shop, while local media and the ID itself brings in locals.
“This neighborhood’s very engaging,” said Kleifgen of the ID. “The community comes in, engages you, and people ask if you’d like to get involved.”
And get involved they did. Over the course of their 13-year run with Momo, the two were involved with several initiatives supporting the ID, including fundraiser and cultural events, community activism, serving on nonprofit boards, art selection for points of interest in the neighborhood, organizing the summer festival Hai! Japantown, and more.
When it came to community activism, it was important that they played an active role to represent the sub-neighborhood of Japantown in the ID.
When the City of Seattle wanted to add a streetcar to Jackson Street, ID shop owners were concerned about the potential disruption to their businesses. Kleifgen served as director of a community group that pushed back against the city’s plans, and worked closely with engineers to help them understand the neighborhood’s needs and concerns.
This led to Kleifgen’s involvement with the decoration of streetcar stops and switch boxes in the ID. Kleifgen, who has a background in design, worked with the city as part of a subcommittee to decorate the neighborhood’s switch boxes in a way that celebrated the various cultures of the ID, while ensuring the addition of them looked less garish. He also sourced artists to decorate them. The efforts resulted in four decorated switch boxes in the ID.
As a small business, it was also important to Kleifgen and Shiramizu to lift up and amplify the voices of fellow small businesses.
Shiramizu has long been a fan of local establishments in Japantown, including Maneki, Panama Hotel, and Tsukushinbo among many others. Because of her connections to local media, Shiramizu often leveraged coverage of Momo in Seattle Magazine to increase awareness of other businesses in Japantown. She noted that the success of these businesses isn’t because of Momo—rather, Momo served as a starting point to discover and frequent new businesses in the area.
She was also invited to sit on the boards for the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Association and the City of Seattle’s Small Business Advisory Council. Both groups focus on providing resources to small businesses to help them thrive, as well as advocating for public policy and planning issues. More recently, Shiramizu started a Facebook group for female-focused small businesses in Seattle. Representation across these small business-focused groups has forged connections not just across the ID, but also across the city.
Initially, Kleifgen and Shiramizu imagined Momo would stay open for 10 years before the two moved on to new pursuits. But their deep ties with the ID community and the city kept them open longer than they could’ve imagined.
Now, though, the two are ready to pivot to their next chapters in life. Kleifgen’s ready for retirement—a “much deserved one that’s been long time coming,” said Shiramizu. As for Shiramizu, she plans to search for her next, big creative project in addition to spending more time with her elderly parents.
Although the shop’s closure is a bittersweet one, the two expressed deep gratitude for the experiences and the relationships they’ve forged over the last decade.
“We’re very lucky,” said Shiramizu. “Our shop’s tagline is, ‘happy. lucky. life.’ And I feel like we’ve really enjoyed that here. We’ve lived up to our tagline.”
Momo will be open Fri.–Sun. from 12–5:00 p.m. until its closure on Sept. 30. For more information, visit momoseattle.com.
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.