It was my mom’s birthday and I wanted get her something special. I remembered walking by a new shop next to Crisp in the North Williams District. Truthfully, the handmade sign in the window is what caught my eye. It said “WOC Owned” and asked people to treat the storefront with kindness. I know it was directed at people vandalizing in the area, but as a WOC business owner myself, it spoke to me in a different way and I’ve been following the shop on Instagram ever since. Time to check it out in person.
The morning sun pours through the front windows, touching all of the natural earth tones in Reclamation. Delightfully organized, the shop is a thoughtful curation of handmade items. Although everything seems to have their place, each little section features tiny gifts that invite you to take a closer look. And of course, I was most excited to see the resident tortoise Elliot strutting across the floor while Break My Stride by Matthew Wilder plays over the speaker.
As I explore all the riches of the shop, the woman behind the register asks if I need help. I ask her if she is the owner and I’m motioned to the other woman stocking the shelves. “Oh no, Elizabeth is the owner.” Elizabeth is also my mom’s name. Ok Universe. I’m listening.
I turn around and both of us are wearing our masks. We can only see each other’s Asian shaped eyes, which gives me pause. In that split second, I’m reminded of how often I’ve been identified by just my eyes.
As we talk, she sells me a bright colored flowering plant for my mom and a clever card to accompanied it. I also grab a beautiful hanging plant for my office. She teaches me how to care for both of them. I especially appreciate her advice to set my plant in water over night when I see the leaves turn inward and not to worry about over watering. It will only take what it needs. Something about her wisdom in that particular moment, leads me to ask if I could interview her for my new blog series. We exchange information and pick a date.
Due to the rise in Covid numbers in Oregon, I set up a zoom call, which happens to be a week after election day. Both of us have the same ache in our voices and sleepiness behind the eyes. The week, hell, the last 4 years have taken a toll on both of us. But I can’t wait to hear how she opened her own business in July 2019.
“We were very successful in the first six months of opening, which I wasn’t expecting,” Elizabeth explains. “It’s because of my dear friend, who is also a WOC business owner, that my shop even became a thing. She taught me how to utilize advertising, marketing, and social media. I also had to really promote myself, which doesn’t come easy for me. Word-of-mouth and the support of my tight-knit group of friends helped me a ton. It was scary as hell and I’ll admit I am winging it at times, but business has always been in the family. My father was a business owner. He worked a full-time job as an engineer and then at night he had an ice cream shop. He worked all the time, but he really enjoyed making the cakes and even eating the ice cream,” she laughs. “My love of plants comes from my grandma and mom. Growing up, my mom was always in the yard gardening and my grandmother’s little apartment back patio was floor-to-ceiling with orchids. I remember my mom taking her to these orchid nurseries on the weekends. And I didn’t get it at the time, but now I do. Look at my house.”
Elizabeth picks up her computer and shows me all the diverse plants in her home. I have never seen a living environment quite like it. For a second, I thought she was in her shop. She points out a few of the rare exotic plants and tells me stories of their survival. How most people would say the conditions weren’t suitable for growth, but Elizabeth is proving them wrong. All of the rare hoya plants in the shop are divisions off these thriving plants, but she also sells on behalf of small hobbyists and personal collectors. Elizabeth has surrounded herself with examples of resilience, adaptation and proof of her patience and caregiving skills. They are daily lessons she doesn’t take for granted. What an incredible space for healing and creativity.
Elizabeth isn’t from Portland. She was born and raised in Los Altos, California, which is not far from Santa Clara where I was born. She moved away from home and her family about 15 years ago, but shop ownership wasn’t her first career path. She worked in the veterinarian medical field while attending fashion design school, but a career in aviation was always a goal of hers. Setting her sights on becoming a commercial pilot, Elizabeth switched to flight training school and began working for a helicopter company. But in 2015 she was rear-ended in a car accident on the freeway, which left her with severe neck and arm pain. Sometimes her arm would randomly go numb and even today she still hasn’t fully recovered. This event prevented her from getting medical clearance from the FAA to fly.
“At this point, I was in a really low period in my life. I had just dumped a ton of money into flight training. I got two ratings and I was working on my third. I do have my private and instrument, but I was one check away from getting my commercial ticket. I was depressed. Creativity has always been a big thing for me. I started making jewelry as an outlet to cope and then moved to selling the pieces on etsy as a side thing. It really took off. People seemed to enjoy it. And then a good friend I met at flight school, who is like a brother to me, asked if I wanted to open up a shop together. And I immediately responded with, yes.”
As Elizabeth continues to share her story, I start to see how all these pieces map out her path to ownership. Every moment. Every disappointment. Every loss, was leading her here. Although her friend was a catalyst, she ended up becoming the sole owner of Reclamation. As she embraced her plant enthusiast side, making it a plant shop with gifts vs. the other way around, she’s garnered more success even during the pandemic of 2020. But she’s still in the beginnings of her ownership story and paying it forward is the backbone of her vision. A sentiment I understand and respect. It’s cultural. Not a give back type charity gesture, but the true multiplier of greatness in a community focused member. With four women employees hired in a tough economy, she is already demonstrating the success that can come from being mindful of people over profit.
“Everyone employed with me has some sort of creative streak and they bring it into the shop. It is who we are. We love plants. We love local art. We like small, handmade things, and community is huge for us.” Elizabeth’s voice has tremendous conviction when she tells me this part. I believe her. She goes on to share what it means to be a part of the Asian community in Portland, OR.
“We’ve always said we are a woman of color shop. The amount of Asian folks that come through that door makes me really happy. In the last 15 years I’ve lived here, I haven’t seen this many Asian people ever,” we both laugh. “It’s great. I love it. Now I’m starting to build meaningful relationships with people that come to the shop. And a lot of them happen to be Asian. I am so fortunate and blessed that I am able to see a positive note in 2020.”
Just like her father, who opened a shop to fulfill his passion, Elizabeth did the same at 35 years old. Searching her store, you get a sense of who she is and the community of makers she celebrates. It’s personal and thoughtful. There is an element of order like her dad the engineer and nurturing light like her mother and creative whimsy that is Elizabeth. Seeing her and hearing her story inspires me. Oftentimes marginalized groups are waiting to be seen by others – particularly non-marginalized groups – to feel valued. I have struggled with that power dynamic my whole life. We can’t control if they see us, but we can choose to see each other. Show and celebrate our wins. Our loses. Our gains. Grab hold of the spotlight for all of us. There is so much about Elizabeth that I connect with. After our talk, I realize that seeing her allowed me to truly see me without the preconceived notions of who I should be. And it is the growth and success of WOC owners like her that are changing the narrative for all of us. To the point that seeing each other is all we need to feel and be seen. Thank you, Elizabeth Hsia.
Feature photo by @maxine.sferra.photo