"I started off as the new business in this area," says Eric Nakamura, proprietor of Giant Robot and GR2 Gallery. "Ultimately, I'm now the old guy in the area." Giant Robot opened in 2001 on Sawtelle Boulevard as a retail extension of the groundbreaking Asian and Asian-American pop culture magazine of the same name, which ran in print until 2011 and recently resurfaced online at Giant Robot Media.
Nakamura has long-standing ties to the neighborhood. His parents actually met on Sawtelle and he grew up coming here for daycare, Japanese school, Buddhist temple, and to visit his grandmother who lived nearby. Nakamura envisioned the store as the next generation of the toy shops where he would shop, the kind of place with such an awe-inspiring selection of goods that it sticks in your memory even after you're an adult.
Getting the store open wasn't easy. "When I first moved in, it was really sleepy," says Nakamura of the neighborhood, which was officially named Sawtelle Japantown in 2015. "That's why there was this worry of this new element coming in, which was me." In fact, Nakamura's first attempt at leasing a space was denied for that reason. But, when it did open, Giant Robot was a hit with its mix of arty toys, cute stationery, unusual reading material and casual fashion. It became a one-stop spot where you could pick up anything from art postcards to Uglydoll plushes, hip sweatshirts and blind box toys.
Two years later, the GR2 Gallery opened down the street and quickly developed a reputation for showing up-and-comers and established artists with strong, narrative styles. Nakamura opened the gallery to host the artists that he knew and cultivate a vibe that was different from what people expect in the art world. "I wanted to create a space that was super welcoming, more comfortable, even though I still think there's a barrier between people and galleries," he says. "I still see people hovering by the door, and I say, 'Just come in.'"
GR2 is perhaps best known for the annual "Post-It Show." Every year in early December, hundreds of artists create thousands of tiny works on Post-It Notes. Whether the artist is pop surrealism star Audrey Kawasaki, Simpsons mastermind Matt Groening, or someone barely out of school, the pieces are all priced the same. "Post-It Show" draws long lines of people - some even camp out the night before the event - trying to score low-priced surprises.
In the 12 years that it's been running, "Post-It Show" has become the art event for which GR 2 is best known. But, it's not the only thing. GR2 has hosted shows from artists like Luke Chueh, kozyndan, Yoskay Yamamoto and many more. They also spotlight video games with the regular events. At GR2, art is anything from paintings to games to toys. Nakamura estimates that about half the artists that work with the gallery are local and a good amount of them work in animation in addition to making their own art. Nakamura says that he frequently tells young artists, "If you live here, this is the place to be for what you're trying to do and if you want to continue what you do. This is absolutely the right place."
And for Nakamura, Los Angeles is the perfect place for his businesses. "I think L.A. is actually the best city for what I do, for Giant Robot, both the shop and the gallery. I could say especially the art gallery," he says. "There are all these art scenes all over the place, but ours is very unique." Giant Robot's collection extends outside of the store and gallery too. Nakamura has put together multiple museum shows, including the Giant Robot Biennale at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo and the 2016 show Silent Wonderment: Exploring the World of Giant Robot at the Vincent Price Art Museum in Monterey Park.
Today, Giant Robot and GR 2 are cornerstones of a bustling street scene on the Westside of L.A. The historically Japanese and Japanese-American neighborhood has become a food destination. It's also drawn more travelers. "I see people pulling bags, literally pulling luggage and I'm always wondering if they just got here or they're just about to leave," says Nakamura.
It's been a long time since Nakamura was the new guy on Sawtelle. He still gets a lot of the original Giant Robot customers, although he adds, some are coming back with their kids now. He goes with the flow as the neighborhood around him changes, bringing in items to appeal to multiple audiences who head to Sawtelle Japantown. "I can't only cater to my original audience," he says. "If you're in a small business, you have to change to your environment because everywhere in L.A. has changed in the last decade or more."
Plus, Nakamura has gotten involved in the local neighborhood council. He's part of the Outreach Committee. "I always take that seriously and I take it to heart so I try to promote the area as much as I can," he says. "I'm not necessarily guiding them to the neighborhood council meetings, but I'm trying to make them feel welcome in West L.A."
2015 Sawtelle Blvd, Los Angeles 90025
2062 Sawtelle Blvd, Los Angeles 90025
Balconi Coffee Company: Located on Olympic Blvd., Balconi specializes in Siphon Method brewing. "It's got to be one of the best coffee places, at least around here," says Nakamura.
11301 W. Olympic Blvd., #124, Los Angeles 90064
Tsujita L.A. Artisan Noodle: This wildly popular ramen shop is known for simmering its broth for 60 hours. Nakamura gets tsukemen - "the dipping ramen," he explains - when he eats there. "I think that's the most popular restaurant in this entire area, but it's just so good and it's so original," he says. "I go and eat it maybe once a month or else it's too much. It's just so rich."
2057 Sawtelle Blvd. Los Angeles, 90025
Tempura House: "It's kind of unknown," says Nakamura of the bento shop located on Sawtelle not far from GR2. But, he adds, the small eatery has been around for a long time and it is run by an elderly couple. "That shop is amazing because it feels like that's one of the last places like that in this entire area that feels like it's straight out of the '70s," he says. "There aren't many of those left and that's one of them. I think it's really special."
1816 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles, 90025
Japanese American National Museum: "I tell people to go to Little Tokyo," says Nakamura. "It's big brother to this area, but it's still quite different and there's the Japanese American National Museum." JANM is where Giant Robot has held its massive Biennale art show. Currently on view is New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei, an exhibit that chronicles the life and work of the Star Trek, LGBTQ and social media icon. There is also a permanent exhibition documenting the history of Japanese Americans. "I think that museum has become more important than ever because it's hitting all levels, not just Japanese American people," says Nakamura.
Hollywood Bowl: Nakamura says that he likes events that are "social" and that's true for the picnic-and-concert tradition at the Hollywood Bowl, where sections range from box seats to benches and a lawn. "With concerts when you're standing, sometimes it's less hanging out - [at the Bowl] you're sitting or you're hanging out in seats," he says.
Dodgers Baseball: Nakamura points to the L.A. Dodgers as integral to local culture, with the blue baseball caps and iconic LA logo popping up on heads all over town. "That's part of the life," he says. "It is a lifestyle brand, the Dodgers." An L.A. native, Nakamura says that even though he has grown up with the Dodger logo, he still loves seeing it. "The LA logo feels like it's not just baseball, it's the city," he says. "It's more than baseball."