This article is part of Mochi’s Summer 2022 issue, highlighting the Everyday Asian American. Media often covers Asian Americans who are exceptional and defying odds (hey Chloe Kim!) or, sadly, when tragedy strikes the Asian community. In this issue, Mochi is switching things up and celebrating what the everyday Asian American enjoys, what’s on our minds, and what life looks like for us. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.
Tucked away on 84th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, New York City gift shop Magpie offers a trove of tiny treasures. I’ve paid visits here for many years. Recently, I spoke with Magpie’s founder and owner, Sylvia Parker, about the ins and outs of running a small business as an Asian American woman.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
CP: What inspired you to found Magpie?
SP: It was a bit of a career change for me. Before then, I was a book editor for many years. I did books on law and taxational preparation. I was just looking for a change. I wanted to do something that was creative and visual and preferably where I could work with other people. I was always interested in having my own shop but wasn’t sure about how to do it, so I needed to get some training. I did that by working at a shop that I had always admired: the American Folk Art Museum here in New York City. The shop director taught me everything I would need to know. After a number of years, through that experience and also working at the South Street Seaport Museum, I felt confident that I could have my own place. I walked by the little storefront space that you’ve been in, and it was available for rent. I thought, “Well, it’s kind of perfect.” That was 10 years ago. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary this month.
CP: Congratulations! I’m glad that Magpie survived the pandemic. A lot of small businesses — especially Asian-owned businesses, whether due to hate crimes or fewer federal loans — did not. How did you stay afloat when so many others went under?
SP: We took the opportunity to work on our website during the first couple months of lockdown. It’s still a relatively small website that doesn’t really reflect what we have in the store, but nonetheless it’s there, so you could still see what’s available while we were in lockdown. Then I set about gradually reopening. At this point, people have been long-term customers, and they appreciate that we supply gifts and merchandise that you won’t find in big-box department stores. Our products are thoughtfully made with materials that are sustainably produced. We carry a lot of small, independent companies where I may well know the owners. Many are owned by other women or fair trade companies that provide fair wages and good working conditions. This is all important to the customers in our community, and it helps keep us going throughout the pandemic.
CP: I love that all Magpie products are sustainable, fair trade, and handmade, making every purchase not only guilt-free but beneficial. What led you to make this decision?
SP: We have so much stuff, and a lot of it is not well made or it’s just the fashion of the season; it’s just going to get tossed out. I’m on the Nature Conservancy Leadership Council for New York State, and I see what happens when people don’t take care of their world, so it’s important to me for things to be well made and for the wood products that we carry to be harvested in a sustainable way. One company called Uncle Goose makes children’s blocks out of sustainable wood. These are all gifts that you can give to people that aren’t just going to get thrown out next year (I hope), and they’re beautiful: a scarf, or a piece of jewelry, or a card. If you’re going to take the time to shop for someone and buy them a gift, it should be something that they will appreciate and take care of and hopefully have for a long time.
CP: How do you find the artisans who craft Magpie’s products? Are there any Asian American or BIPOC artisans you’d like to promote?
SP: I found a lot of our merchandise from trade shows, craft shows, and flea markets. A number of our vendors also come to me. Someone will just walk in and say, “Are you interested in this product?”
One of those products is our quilling cards. They’re made out of little pieces of paper curled around a pen tip in these beautiful shapes. Then they get pasted down into a card. That’s a fair trade company, and the founder and owner, Huong Nguyen Wolf, is Vietnamese American. Huong knows how to do this craft herself, and she has three workshops in Vietnam. One of her representatives walked in off the street and said, “Would you like to carry this?” and her products turned out to be beautiful. I’m proud to be carrying them in my shop.
We also have jewelry that’s made out of 19th-century ceramic pottery shards that have been excavated. Each piece is one of a kind. The artisan, Dolhathai Srijamcharoem, is Thai and based here in New York. Her nickname is Pooh, as in Winnie the Pooh. I found her at a local craft fair. I thought her jewelry was amazing, and we’re very lucky because I don’t know that she sells to many stores.
Right now, we also carry a local candle from Sincerely, Bädé [a woman-of-color-owned business that works with women-owned farms]. She’s based in Harlem. She has beautiful flower petals that are embedded in the candles, and you can also use it as a massage oil. We’re happy to be carrying that.
CP: I respect and admire how a portion of your proceeds benefits Asian craftspeople and the communities they occupy — for example, garlands made by underprivileged women in Nepal. How did this come about?
SP: That’s a company called Giftsland. I met the owner, Prasanna Dhakhwa, and his wife at a trade show. We’ve been carrying them for many years now. He works directly with the artisans and women’s cooperatives in Nepal, and he himself is Nepali. The garlands are made out of lokta paper that’s made from a local plant. We have another company called Aid Through Trade that also makes beaded jewelry, and they’ve been working in Nepal for a very long time as well.
CP: What challenges, if any, have you faced as an Asian American woman and business owner?
SP: I can’t honestly say that I’ve faced particular challenges relating to my ethnicity. I think that my challenges would be faced by anyone running a small business. Here in New York, rent is a primary issue: the reason why there are so few businesses like mine on the Upper West Side, or just in general.
I do have to say, in the past year or two, hate crimes — it’s not something I’ve seen personally against the shop, but it’s just another thing that’s in the back of my mind: sometime in the future, we might be targeted. I’m aware that it’s something that has been going on in Chinatown. I personally haven’t experienced any particular challenges relating to being an Asian American woman, and I feel very lucky in that respect, but I can’t speak for many other businesses here in the city and across the United States.
CP: On your most difficult days, what motivates you to persevere? What do you find most rewarding about your work?
SP: My most difficult days, for the most part, are not that difficult. There’s always one customer who will come in and say, “Thank you for being here,” or “The person I gave the presents to really loved what I found here.” It makes it all worthwhile. Also, when I look around our store, it’s satisfying to know that our little bit helps the different companies we work with. I’m happy that we are doing well enough that we can share with our greater community. We donate some of our proceeds to different nonprofits in the community: Dorot, which serves senior citizens; the West Side Community Garden, which offers a place of solace and rest; and Wild Bird Fund, the only bird rescue organization here in New York. All that keeps me going. I guess I get to be surrounded by beautiful things all day long. What could be bad about that?
CP: Do you have any tips for Asian American small business owners who are just starting out?
SP: Find a mentor. I feel very lucky to have had extremely skilled teachers who passed on their knowledge to me. Try to get as much experience yourself before you engage in a new venture. The other thing is just not to be afraid. Obviously, being an entrepreneur is an adventure. Be willing to take a chance, do the things that you love, and if you have a dream, go for it.
Learn more about Magpie at https://magpienewyork.com/.
Photo credits: Sylvia Parker
Last modified: June 16, 2022