Nancy Jacobi & Jessica Mann of The Japanese Paper Place

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The Japanese Paper Place

Left to right: Jessica Mann, Nancy Jacobi

The Japanese Paper Place is a Toronto-based wholesaler of several thousand kinds of Japanese papers. The various colors, textures, and patterns of their paper is astounding, and when you see them and touch them, your creative juices start to flow. Enjoy this interview with owner and founder Nancy Jacobi and webmistress and U.S. sales associate Jessica Mann.

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Here is a transcript of the interview:

Where is The Japanese Paper Place located and how many years have you been in business?

Nancy: We are located in Toronto which is in Ontario which is in Canada. And we’re at the western edge of the downtown of Toronto, and we have been here since 1982.

That’s amazing. 1982. Wow. Well, let’s talk about your product. For someone who isn’t familiar with Japanese specialty paper, can you tell us why a creative person might want to utilize the paper in their projects?

Nancy: Sure. There are several reasons why we have — I have — focused on Japanese paper for all these years. And they’re the same reasons that creative people, I think, are attracted to it too. The first one is the range. There’s just an unbelievable range of paper that they make in Japan, and have made for many, many years. So it allows anybody with creative impulses to choose something very specific to a project or to a taste, and that’s a thrilling thing for many creative people.

The second thing is, you may have heard the word “Kaizen” applied to business practices in Japan. It’s a Japanese word that refers to the continual improvement of something. And that’s a wonderful word to describe Japanese paper because they have, this Kaizen has been the way they have dealt with the paper from the very beginning. And that beginning was 1,400 years ago when Buddist priests brought it from Korea — brought the invention from Korea to Japan. And so ever since then, they have been continuously improving and stretching the range of the paper. So I think that’s a marvelous thing. And often, craftspeople will tell us that there is nothing like this paper to cut, to paste, to fondle, to deal with as a craftsperson. It’s very obedient because it’s been refined for such a long time and the quality is really high.

I guess the other thing, and it’s something that people know about Japan even if they don’t know the paper, is their wonderful ability to combine color and pattern. So perhaps because Buddhism has been so strong in Japan for so long, and Buddhism has, as part of its tenets, this beauty, this reverence for beauty and for nature. And then art became such an important part of Buddhism in Japan. That that’s carried over to everything they do. And often, people, when they come back from Japan, will remark on just how fantastically beautiful and well-designed everything is there. So that ability to combine color and pattern I think is also very appealing to creative people. And the fact that the papers themselves are routed so far back. There’s a kind of resonance that we have for design like that, that isn’t just parachuted into the present.

But the last thing I’d like to suggest for crafters, people who are doing craft, and a reason to use it is that environmentally, these papers are really good. Many of them are made from renewable resources — plant fibers, which are grown as harvests. But even if they’re not made from those natural fibers, it’s a conserving society.

They don’t waste. They don’t waste water. They don’t waste materials. They don’t waste time. And they don’t waste energy. So even in the machine-made factories, small, usually family-run businesses, the quality control is terrific. They just don’t waste. And it’s very rare that we ever have a paper that we receive, out of the millions of papers we’ve gotten over the years, that is anything other than perfectly sellable to you. And that’s another reason why crafters won’t waste their time if they choose these Japanese papers. Sorry, that was a very long answer Josh.

Yeah, fantastic. I really appreciate the context and I think the listeners will to. Nancy, what lead you to Japanese papers and starting your own business?

Well, I lived in Japan in 1975. I taught English there. But I’ve always been a lover of paper. And it was there I discovered the paper. But it was really after that, that I started to explore the range. And you know, as a kid, I collected what we call here street car transfers. Tram transfers and bus transfers and tickets. That was my beginning. And I think I’ve never really recovered from that and a love of books. But I thought that we really… You know, although in the States and in Canada, we have so many forests, and we have a lot of potential for paper here. But especially at that time, there was so little fabulous paper around, and I thought that if I brought this paper in, that it would really encourage creativity. And I think it’s that potential for creativity that still excites me very much about this commodity.

Two women who work at LCI are Japanese, and Naomi in particular was intrigued that I was going to be interviewing you folks and she was wondering if any of your papers are imported from Japan and it sounds like many would be.

All the papers we have in our 10,000 square foot warehouse, they’re all Japanese papers. And as I mentioned, it’s because we think that Japanese papers are second to none in the world. They’re just so consistent and so wonderfully varied and refined. It’s all Japanese.

I would think there are other folks touting Japanese specialty paper that possibly aren’t even imported from Japan.

Yeah, that’s been kind of confusing over the years Josh, because Thailand, you know, grows a fiber that’s similar to what they use for a lot of the paper in Japan. And even the Japanese companies started to go to Thailand for some varieties that were much cheaper and so forth. But they just weren’t made with the same care, the same clean water, the same conservation mindedness. So it got very confusing. But we are very, very clear that we want only papers that are made by very excellent papermakers in Japan itself.

Alright. Jessica. Let’s get you involved. When did you start at The Japanese Paper Place and what lead you there?

Jessica: I’ve been here full time about four years, doing both sales and the web site, working on the web site part time a few years before that. My first interest in The Japanese Paper Place actually was when I was eight years old. I was really into Origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, at the time, and the Japanese paper place, at that point, was the only place you could really get Origami paper in Toronto and really, in Canada. So my mom took me down to the store one day and I walked in and my eyes became very wide and I fell in love with the paper on the spot and promised myself that one day I would work there. So I stayed in touch with Nancy over the years and it took a long time, between her looking for someone and me actually having the time to look for a job, at the same time for it to finally work out. But here I am, many, many years later. So it’s been a life-long passion for me.

Awesome. Great story.

Nancy: And we are so delighted to have her here, for many reasons other than her Origami skills.

Well, you guys have done a great job with the web site. It looks very Zen. It’s appropriate. And I really enjoyed looking at the “Who We Are” section and reading through the staff bios. Everyone seems really friendly, and a very nice presentation on that page in particular.

Jessica: Thank you. Thanks very much.

And can you explain the terms “Washi” and “Chiyogami”?

Nancy: “Washi” is a Japanese word that literally means Japanese paper. So “Wa” is a Japanese word for Japanese and

“shi” is one of the words for paper. So literally, it’s Japanese paper. But really, it refers to the papers, the traditional papers, that are made by renewable plant fibers by hand, virtually the same way they’ve been made for 1,400 years. Those papers are much narrower that what the terms Japanese paper refers to. But Washi are those handmade papers. And Washi — one of the reasons that we continue to promote Washi, which are these hand-made papers available mostly through art supply stores, is because 100 years ago, there were over 100,000 families who made those papers by hand. And today there are around 300. And even since I started the business 20 some years ago, it’s less than half of what it was then — the number of makers. So these papers are really in danger — the real Washi–and that’s why we also promote them. That’s Washi.

LCI Paper's selection of Japanese papers

Then the word “Chiyogami” is a very specific word. Nobody is exactly sure of the derivation of the word. One popular belief that is means 1,000 generations but that hasn’t really been documented too clearly. Chiyogami is the brightly-colored patterned papers that you have at LCI that are silkscreened by hand. The inspiration for them came from Kimono patterns. And in the 20th century, when women stopped wearing Kimonos so much, and the Kimono dyers were struggling, somebody, several people said, “Well, why don’t we just put those designs on paper.” And that’s kind of what we have. That’s how that Chiyogami grew. And today we have almost 800 patters of just Chiyogami. But we can choose from sample books that have probably 10,000 designs. They’re just unbelievable numbers.

Within your warehouse, you have a space called the Artist Resource Centre. Tell me about that, and tell me about some of the people who have been in to take advantage of the service.

That really is a center for people who are interested in art, on Washi, or who do it themselves. So we have a wonderful collection here of art. And it includes some Origami. It includes all sorts of prints and drawings. It includes boxes and books. We have three dimensional works that are stitched — a wonderful collection that we’ve gathered over the years. So this is a place where artists or art interested people can come and see what other people have done with Japanese paper. And it’s used really to inspire other people to know this wonderful commodity and to understand how to use it. And we will spend time with those people, if they need it, to explain about those papers.

How often are people actually in on the premises using the center?

Well, not as often as we would like. I would say in a week, what would we have Jess?

Jessica: Oh I don’t know. 10 to 20 people maybe?

Nancy: A good dozen? Yeah. The atmosphere here is very quiet because so much business these days is done by e-mail and by fax. So people love to come here because of the quiet. But I guess, yeah, maybe a dozen people a week. And sometimes we will have tour groups. We had an exhibition recently of books and boxes from around the world and we put that up for a group of American bookbinders who came and had a conference here. And they came on a tour to the warehouse and we showed them through the Artist Resource Center.

Jessica: It’s definitely best to call and make an appointment. We are primarily a warehouse and office. The passion for sharing these papers directly with people which has us have the Artist Resource Centre as well, but we do appreciate it because serving walk-ins can be problematic if we’re on the phone or what have you. It’s more helpful if we know when people are coming to make sure we set aside the time for them.

Now let’s talk about some of the professionals or hobbyists who do come in and use your products and services.

Nancy: I’ll mention three groups. The first one is graphic designers. And they’ve always been great users and lovers of the range of paper because they can create a truly customized look for their clients. And at LCI, you offer a big range of our papers. And so even on your web site, people can mix and match and create something that is really quite personal to them. So graphic designers will sometimes specify it for an end sheet in a book or for division sheets in pamphlets for advertising something. They will often use it as photo backgrounds. Textured papers become spreads in magazines. And even with just black ink, you can create something quite wonderful without having to go to the expense of your color printer. These days, of course, they are many self-professed graphic designers because you can use a lot of the text weight paper on your printer at home and I know that a lot of your customers would be doing that. And that’s a wonderful way too, to get words onto the paper.

Interior designers are another group that’s… I feel this is fairly unexplored, but the possibilities are just huge for interior designers to use the translucent paper to let light through. So, to put it into shutters, to make folding screens, to just hang in a window, a small window on a piece of bamboo, doweling…all sorts of ways to use it that way. Chiyogami itself, speaking of Chiyogami, that is used particularly in England. We have a customer in London who sells it quite often for wallpaper. I don’t know if you know the chef Gordon Ramsey?

Yes, haha.

Haha, everybody seems to know him. And his restaurant uses Chiyogami as the wallpaper.


And we have another store in London — two stores — that use it to really make arresting wallpaper. But because those papers, incidentally, were originally designed to be used for paper dolls and small house accessories, so the scale of the patterns often works better when they’re used in small ways. That’s why they’re great for invitations because you can make a little border and it just…the flowers peek out, or the design. Or you can use it for an envelope liner. The scale is just right. I find maybe wallpaper — I haven’t actually seen it used like that but it sounds like a bit much, doesn’t it? A bit too much of a good thing maybe. Maybe a small wall…

Then, the other group I wanted to mention are printmakers who use Japanese paper really a lot. And the first printmaker who ever used Washi was Rembrandt. And many, many, many of his etchings in Holland, in the 16th century…the 16th century? I think so. I’m not sure…used Washi Kozo paper from these natural plant fibers for his etchings. So he was the first one. Today, Yoko Ono chooses it to…she has John Lennon’s, a lot of his drawings silkscreen printed, and she chooses different sizes of the natural papers to print them on. But printmakers in the States use them a lot for layering. So you have a thin piece adhered to a heavier, western paper. And then the print is done on an that, on a Chine-colle. And that’s a very big, big group of users. So those are some of the, the of the main users.

Jessica: And what’s also remarkable, and a lot of people don’t realize, is just the breadth of uses you can put it to, which is something that frequently astonishes people.

Let’s talk about your presence in Toronto. Tell me about some of the workshops… Well, we covered those. Or maybe there’s more to it. Exhibitions, charities, and awards shows that The Japanese Paper Place has been involved in.

Nancy: Ok. Well, let’s maybe start with the plum, which was this year in June. We organized a very big event called the World Washi Summit. And we invited three papermakers from Japan. We invited our customers, like you, from all over the world, to come and have a look at the potential of Japanese paper. And we had the papermakers do demonstrations. We had all kinds of workshops on how to use it. We had a bazaar where people who used the paper in different ways sold their things. And it was a really wonderful event. And we organize things like that to try and keep the papermakers in Japan feeling good about what they’re doing because they’re under so much pressure to stop doing it. And so this really helps to create awareness of Washi and a great respect for it. We had 50 galleries, I think, who showed works on Washi during that time. And that was really, really a wonderful, wonderful way to get it out there.

We also have regular workshops in bookbinding and lamp shade-making…

Jessica: Printmaking…

Nancy: Printmaking, Jess has done the odd one on Origami. But from the beginning of the business, I realized people… It’s so different, this paper. And people needed instruction on what to do with it. And that continues. It’s always a great challenge for us to help the world know what to do with it.

The summit just sounds amazing. How was the response to that?

It was just terrific. All of the workshops were sold out weeks ahead. There were huge, big crowds and everything. It was just wonderful. We got a lot of press here, and we’d like to do some more things like that, maybe in other cities to help our customers there — the stores that we sell to and the businesses — develop their market more thoroughly.

I’ve heard great things about the cutting, that there’s just no fault at all in any of the papers we receive. The cutting and the packing — everything comes perfectly as ordered. Would you like to talk about that, and possibly talk about any customer service notes that are important?

I would love to talk about that, Josh, because I think we have a really incredible staff here. And I think the reason that our customer service is good is that most of the staff — there are about 12 of us here — really love the paper themselves and they use it. Many of them have university or art college backgrounds and they are, in the rest of their life, they are working artists, in a way, some of them. So, they want, they want more than anything else for other people to know the pleasure that it gives to use these refined and very special papers. How much pleasure it is, and how great the results are. That’s what drives us I think. You know, we’re driven more by our absolute respect for this material and for the people who make it in Japan and for the potential that it has.

Jessica: Yeah, we all have a bit of a passion for it, hahaha, which sounds a little strange, but I mean most of us who came to work here, you know, we came here not because we were going to get paid the most of any potential job or any other particular reason other than that we really love the paper. And it’s just such a joy to be able to bring that to other people, as best we can, so, that sounds really cheesy but it’s true.

Sounds like it works.

Nancy: But I think, you know, another example of this is that Peter, who is one of the two fantastic packers that we have, he’s an art college graduate too. And he, amongst other things, he makes violins. So he uses those same skills that it would take to make a violin with such great care, he applies that to every single box that’s made for orders that go out. Most of them are custom made for the orders so they don’t jiggle around, and that’s why they come to you so perfectly, and we’re happy to know that. And Walter, Walter is our cutter, and we are sorry we’re not recording this, because Walter is the most precise person I think any of us have met in our lives.

Jessica: Yes. His art is cutting. It’s amazing. He’s just incredible the way he knows every paper and a lot of them can be quite difficult to cut, some of them at least. You carry one called Sukashi which can be very slippery. But he knows exactly the way to intersperse it with pieces of cardboard and how to press it so that you get an exact, precise cut every time. It’s really remarkable to watch, hahaha.

Nancy: Walter is very, very proud of his cutting and so he’ll be so happy to know that you mentioned it.

We are recording this, so he’s gotta hear this.

Oh good.

Jessica: That’s true! That’s a good point!

Nancy: That’s right! Oh yeah, that’s right. This isn’t just a telephone conversation, hahaha.

Jessica: You can tell we don’t do this very often.

And let’s see, there’s just… Any notes about the relationship with LCI? You’ve been very kind with some comments, so if there’s nothing more, that’s fine. But I want to give you the opportunity if there is anything.

Nancy: Oh yes. We wouldn’t want to miss this opportunity. You know that we are coming up to our 5 year anniversary with you guys. In January, it will be 5 years since we started to deal with LCI. And I like to think of you as a model customer, seriously. You are steady. You are very open to our ideas, and you have good ideas of your own. And you’re willing to ask us for special requests that will make your business grow. And after all, that’s what we both want. And so, you know, sometimes you make us peddle pretty hard there and we have to turn around those orders lickity split to get them out to you. But we respect that. We respect the fact that you run a tight ship there. You’re a pleasure to deal with because of that. We know that we’re not wasting our time by racing around lickity split here, that you know what you’re doing.

And the other thing that I have had tremendous respect about is that for several years, we have met Larry, your owner, in Frankfurt, at Paperworld. And we know that you travel the world to find the best papers. So we’re honored that we’re amongst those. You know, there is a lot of paper out there and we know that you’re not just shopping the local markets for the paper that you’re selling. You’re looking for the best in the world and that’s a marvelous thing.

And the last thing that I’d like to say, I’m sure Jess has comments about this too, but we think that we have a story to tell. I didn’t tell you that this business began in the trunk of my car 30 years ago or something like that. And it’s been an interesting journey along the way. We had a terrible fire in 1993. We were completely wiped out by fire after 11 years in business. But because everybody who works here is doing it because we believe in it, we survived. And somehow we were able to grow after some tough times. Anyway, I could go on and on but we do think it’s an interesting story and we’ve been interviewed by newspapers and things before, but you’re the first to ever ask us about that story to go on the web and I think it’s fantastic and thank you very much for asking us.

Jessica: I would love to say a few more words about our relationship with LCI too. We’re a fairly tight-knit group here, which is why Nancy knows so much about our relationship with you guys. But I’ve been your customer rep for three years and also have nothing but good things to say. Nancy covered a lot of the points. But I did want to add that, A, it has been a pleasure to watch the relationship grow and specifically to see you guys emphasize cut paper. You’ve grown a real niche, out of all of our different customers that we resell paper to, on having cut papers that are really easy for people to take and use right away. And watching you develop that line and really make it your own and work very hard to find papers that work best for your customers in particular has been something that, A, it’s been a pleasure to work with you on, but, B, it’s been really good to watch you care that must about your customers. And to speak to the speed with which you guys make us work sometimes, I appreciate that because you, in turn, are very responsive to your customers, and you guys also have a very fast turnaround time to your customers. So it’s nice working with people who care for their customers as much as we care for ours.

Nancy: We hope that in these times that are not easy for anybody, that people will choose quality… maybe take more time to choose. I’m thinking of your customers. And so this kind of interview where quality is emphasized, hopefully will help people to say, “Ok, we’re only going to get married this once (I think) so I should choose real good paper.”

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