Japantown San Jose is one of the last three such historical Japantowns in the United States. With a legacy 125 years old, the area has seen a new group of young entrepreneurs opening clothing boutiques, galleries and other creative businesses in the past couple of years. One such indie creative is April Gee, who opened Petite Galleria in 2013 with the motto: “Precious and rare, more tortoise than hare.”
On a recent Friday evening, Japantown’s Jackson St. was lined with pristine classic cars hosted by urban streetwear shop Cukui for the Japantowtown Second Friday Art Walk. A few doors down, Petite Galleria featured a new exhibit of silkscreen prints by Giuliana Maresca. When I asked Gee how her night was going, she laughed and said: “Great! Who knew my audience were lowriders?!”
Although it’s the size of a Hollywood celebrity’s shoe closet, Petite Galleria features hundreds of items by over 50 artisans on any given day. Gee carefully considers each artist she brings in based on their aesthetics and high quality. The factory-made doesn’t appeal to her at all; “I like the idea of supporting people doing what they love,” Gee says. “And I like the idea of gifts that are treasures, less because they are made of gold and diamonds, but because they are handmade by people that love making these things.”
The artful gifts Gee carries include hand-printed cards, jewelry with unique details, up-cycled utilitarian wares such as wallets and magnets, hand-sewn ties, soy candles, tote bags, original paintings and limited-edition prints of varying sizes. Everything in her boutique exudes a certain charm that’s seemingly simple, but obviously the product of an intense labor of love.
It’s good nights like this that make the gallery “minimally sustainable” on its own. “To me, the gallery is like nurturing a garden,” says Gee. The boutique has steadily grown a fan base for the two years it’s been in operation, but still requires a bit of Gee’s personal income made from her other creative pursuit: music.
Musically, Gee is known as ContainHer, a name that conjures different interpretations in different people. “I like the idea that half of the people think it’s negative, like I’m trying to be caged; and the other half think ‘Oh, it means that you can’t contain her.” (Gee hears it as a one word poem.) In addition to writing and performing original music as ContainHer, she’s discovered that her special blend of synth-pop mixed with folk music is well-suited for video games; in the last five years, Gee has composed and performed several video-game soundtracks, and recently did voice-over work for a video game.
Between catering to customers throughout the day, Gee spends most of her time at the gallery working on her new album (and then works some more at home, after the gallery closes). But the best part of running the gallery, Gee says, is the human connection. “I love everything in here and I like meeting creative people,” she says. “Anytime you put yourself in a circle of creatives you just learn a lot more about everything. Each artist has their interests and you can learn a lot from them. They love what they’re doing and it’s great being around that kind of energy.”
Gee has no desire for a larger space at this present time, but she does have plans to expand the frequency of hosting solo exhibits, as well as her offerings of limited-edition prints. She’s also working on a more prominent online presence so she can tell the artists’ backstory and show their craft. “There’s a sea of information out there [on the internet], and my challenge is, ‘How do I get them to shine?'” Gee says. “But I don’t think about the obstacles. I think that wherever you invest your time, and if you put a lot of quality into it, it’ll grow.”
With Gee’s dedication and nurturing spirit, expect big things from San Jose’s tiniest store this year.
Petite Galleria, at 205B Jackson Street in San Jose, is open Tues.–Sat. from noon–7pm.