LOS ANGELES — For 75 years, the popular gift shop Bunkado in Little Tokyo has never closed for longer than three days. That is, until COVID-19 hit.
Irene Tsukada Simonian is the third generation in her family to run the shop and, out of an abundance of caution, decided to close right after the holidays. More than anything, she misses seeing her customer’s eyes light up when they find that unique item they want to buy for someone special.
"Being here on any given day is like watching performance art," said Tsukada Simonian. "There is never a dull moment. It never gets boring, and I think especially it’s because it’s a small ethnic community like ours in a great city like L.A. It’s really amazing here."
Bunkado first opened in 1946 right after World War II by Tsukada Simonian's great-aunt and uncle, and quickly became a popular shopping spot for hard-to-find Japanese gifts, decor, housewares, books, music, and toys. Tsukada Simonian started working in the store in 1992 to help her parents manage it, and once her mother died, she took over.
"We have an amazing mix of customers here from local people who live right here in Little Tokyo to people from all over the world," said Tsukada Simonian. "It’s really fun because you hear so many different languages."
After closing for five months in 2020, Bunkado opened for the holidays — only to shut their doors once again. Thankfully, they received a grant from the Little Tokyo Community Council as part of its Small Business Relief Fund. After raising $50,000, the center distributed the funds evenly to 25 legacy businesses.
"We see Little Tokyo as a big family, and of course small businesses are part of that," said Kristin Fukushima, managing director for the Little Tokyo Community Council. "And I think they’ve always supported the community through hard times, and this is a time for the community to support our small businesses."
Little Tokyo businesses receiving the first round of grants include Anshindo, Anzen Hardware, Blooming Art Gallery, Bunkado, Du Japon Hair Club, Elite Graphics, Hair Craft, Kagura, Korea BBQ House, Korean Hibachi BBQ, Kouraku, Kuragami Florist, Little Tokyo Cosmetics, Mako Sushi, Mitsuru Cafe, Mitsuru Sushi & Grill, Mr. Ramen, Nirvana, Oomasa, Rafu Bussan, Suehiro Cafe, Sushi Komasa, T.O.T. (Teishokuya of Tokyo), Vantage Sport Shop, and CRFT by Maki. The first round of grantees included 24 legacy businesses averaging over 39 years of operation.
With an ultimate goal of raising and redistributing $500,000, Fukushima hopes they can assist as many Little Tokyo small businesses as possible. And with all the funds coming directly from the community, Tsukada Simonian is thankful for their support.
"We heard from our customers telling us that they can’t take businesses for granted anymore," said Tsukada Simonian. "They’d rather come here to Little Tokyo because they know they’re supporting businesses like mine that’s been around for 75 years, and they want it around for longer."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the name of the Little Tokyo Community Council. This has been updated. (February 3, 2021)