The company's director, Ash Howard, sat down for coffee with Forte to chat business, collecting and what lies ahead.
For the last 13 years, Popcultcha has been Geelong’s premier destination for anything collectible related. Stocking everything from comic books to keychains, basically anything you could want, you’d find it there. But I’m sure if you’re reading this you already know that. Popcultcha have just moved into a new store, leaving the iconic Moorabool Street property behind, and have huge plans for developing the new space to be the ultimate family-friendly collectible destination. I caught up with Ash Howard, company director, to chat about the new store, the Collectors Gallery in North Geelong, and plans for the future.
In typical fashion, I arrived at our interview a little early, hoping to get some time in the store before Howard arrived. I flicked through the new record section, which features everything from the latest IDLES record to imported pressings of various Ghibli soundtracks. Strolling through the aisles, I was caught off guard by a FurReal Friend, I may have jumped slightly when it started barking at me, luckily no one was there to see, I think.
When Howard arrived, he appeared humbly, wearing a TOOL t-shirt and board shorts, he’d just come from the company’s North Shore headquarters and was clearly a busy man.
On the way to Cartel Coffee Roasters, he was telling me about how hectic things have been at the business.
“So much of it has been online and because we sell across the globe, and with different COVID restrictions, things are crazy.
“Say in the UK, someone goes, ‘Well I can’t go down to my local collectibles store in Birmingham or wherever, I can go to Popcultcha’.”
I suggested that Popcultcha might be the world’s collectible store.
“Yeah, something like that.”
In layman’s terms, the new store is somewhat of a perfect storm for Howard and his team.
“We’d run out of space [in Moorabool Street], and it wasn’t the greatest location for us anymore, we just wanted to create a nice new, fresh, lighter space that combines all of the different things that we do”, to Howard’s credit, he’s achieved that. The new store is bright, inviting and offers up a bit of everything that Popcultcha offers.
It’s in an unconventional space too. Rather than move closer to the shopping centres, which many businesses have been forced to do, Popcultcha moved further away than they already were. I asked Howard if he thinks that the new Popcultcha store will help revitalize the top section of the Geelong CBD.
“In an ideal world yeah, I’d hope so, but I had the same opinion when we first opened the Moorabool Street store.
“That was at a time when Bay City had just rebranded into Westfield, and all the retail foot traffic was just forced into that shopping centre.
“I thought, if we opened a cool store in Moorabool Street, surely people will notice and there are that many cheap spots that people can open stores that it’ll just build upon itself, and it just didn’t.
“So, I’m now going into this new building knowing that I don’t have that leap of faith anymore, but I don’t really care?
“There’s really great retailers that have been up there for ages, like the art store, the new yoga place, Shinto Tattoos, and there’s café’s and I think there’s gonna be a sushi train restaurant.”
Howard somewhat believes that all of this expansion and growth has happened regardless of council funding.
“Geelong, as a city, we’re investing a lot in the Waterfront, and as the city changed its personnel, one good idea – having a green spine – shifting to new personnel and that’s not a great idea anymore, it just goes round and round in circles.”
Popcultcha’s move to Ryrie street has also been prompted by more, unavoidable, and unsavoury reasons.
“Ever since I was a kid, the mall has always been a problematic area in Geelong, and I just can’t believe that we are sitting here in 2021 and the same social problems are evident as they were when I was 13.
“Largely it became a safety issue for my staff, we were getting lots of theft and robbery, a lot of aggression. As a dad of young children, I didn’t feel comfortable being down there, I could only imagine what all of my peers thought.”
The state of the mall has also been cited as the reason for Speakys, the iconic Geelong Surf and Skate shop, moving inside the shopping centre.
Rather than dwell on things, Howard took it as an opportunity to transform the business.
“We ended up buying that building up there”, Howard says, pointing towards the new store.
“I’m a lover of really old buildings in Geelong, I’ve got a passion for it, and I’ve always loved Griffiths since I was a kid. I remember going in there and seeing the floorboards, it’s a beautiful store.
“I want to see that happen in Geelong, I want to see people take over old buildings like Beavs has done just here, y’know, give them a sense of life again.”
Shifting gears to the Collector’s Gallery, Howard cites American stores like Toy Art Gallery as the inspiration for the art-meets-retail space.
“In the designer toy world there were galleries, but there was never anything for sort of mainstream collectors, guys who collect Star Wars and that sort of stuff.
“The wanky e-commerce term is called showrooming, but we call it just having a kick-ass showroom to show the stuff we sell.”
In that sense, the Collectors Gallery very much represents the original vision of the Moorabool Street store when the business was first transitioning from a basketball card store in the 2000’s.
“We refocused it as an e-commerce business first, with retail as its marketing arm” as a way to showcase what Popcultcha was selling online at the time.
As anyone getting into collecting will understand, it can be a huge money-pit, with returns that are not entirely obvious to someone who just looks at the receipt.
“You can see it in person, and can kind of go, I could see that in my lounge room, or this is the piece that I need in my kitchen!”
First and foremost, Popcultcha is a Geelong owned, family business.
“Popcultcha could be a lot bigger than what it is, but we consciously chose to stay at home in Geelong.
“I want Geelong to build on itself.” A vision we can all relate to.
“It’s not like we need to go up there [to Melbourne] to do it, it’s like, we’re doing some cool shit, you wanna come see it? We’re in Geelong.”
Howard touched on the company’s relationship with American toy manufacturer, Funko.
“[They’re] a pretty big part of our business, we’ve worked with them, pretty much since the inception of their business, and we’ve grown a lot together, obviously Funko are now a listed company on the NASDAQ, they’ve grown a lot bigger than we have.”
Howard assured me there was no jealousy and that he had no plans to list the company anytime soon.
“We’re a family business, it was created by my mum and dad, and my uncle.
“I’m a Geelong boy, born and raised”, he later said.
As someone who has been gritting their teeth writing music reviews, I couldn’t help but ask about the business’s new endeavour, vinyl records.
“We’ve always wanted to sell records, it’s been a business plan for four years or something.”
Howard says he started collecting records about a decade ago, whilst he was living in the United States and have seen that industry explode, it left a spark in his head that he wanted to bring home.
“We’re still in our infancy, but you’ll see, actually this week, the gallery is getting built out with a big record store in it as well.
“They’re collectibles, just as much as they are consumable, they fit right in our wheelhouse with people collecting toys.
“I know my record collection, my son’s already eying it off,” he jokes.
We talked about our own collections for a little.
“I’ve still got the first record I ever bought, Def Leppard’s Hysteria… and the first album my dad ever bought me, Australian Crawl, Sirocco.
“That’s collecting, they’ve all got meaning, and you remember where you got the stuff.”
I asked how the store curates its selection of LP’s.
“We went and sought out some things that we really wanted to represent” Howard is certainly referring to the collection of movie soundtracks the store offers.
“With me spending so much time in the Pacific North-West, Sub-Pop records is a big thing up there, that was something we wanted to chase down, and we’re constantly talking to them about ways we can expand and improve the Sub-Pop brand”, Sub-Pop is, of course, the legendary Seattle record label who has worked with everyone from The Beach Boys to Moby, and famously released Nirvana’s ‘Bleach’.
“We’re working pretty closely with a company in New Orleans called Wax Works Records, they do horror soundtracks in a really cool way, with great colour patterns.
“We’re also working with a few local rock bands, punk bands to make sure they get their vinyl out in the public eye, who knows, watch this space, you might see some Popcultcha exclusive pressings.”
I joked about a Popcultcha record label.
“I think that’s what my son would like to see me do, and you know what, I would love to something like that, but I just don’t have the bandwidth, I’m all about biting off what we can chew, god it’s taken us four years to even start selling records!”
Regardless of what it is Popcultcha is doing at the time, it will very much remain a modern icon of Geelong retail.
“All the things we do, comics, books, records, vinyl toys, action figures, they all kind of blend into each other. If anything, this last year has shown that specialty retail is alive and well.
“We seem to be going okay, but, we’re not perfect and we’re certainly not done yet and we’ve that much stuff to tick off and finish, we’ll just keep working at it and trying our hardest to make sure Geelong people are getting what they need.”
Check out Popcultcha’s new store in the old Griffiths Bookstore at 96/98 Ryrie Street, and the Collectors Gallery at the Federal Mills Business Park, 35 Mackey Street, North Geelong.