When 26-year-old newlyweds Fatma Al Jassim and Jassim AlMass went on their honeymoon to Japan last year, they didn’t just pack suitcases full of clothes and shoes.
The Qatari couple also took along some of their most precious possessions – anime dolls.
The duo, which this week opened Qatar’s first manga store, are the new face of a growing local subculture of anime aficionados, fueled in large part by dubbed Japanese cartoons that used to air on local television networks.
“For me, this is a piece of art,” said Al Jassim, referring to her collection of anime figures. “We grew up watching anime in Arabic. Japan has always been part of our childhood. There’s just something magical in these creations and in that world.”
The store, Hobby Chan, carries figurines, merchandise and custom-made dolls. It is located in Bin Omran at the Town Center (Gate 2), adjacent to Rawnaq.
Speaking to Doha News, Al Mass said the shop is the result of around a year of planning and hard work.
“We were motivated to open the store after we visited Japan for our honeymoon (last October). From concept to branding to creating the actual store, the process took around seven months. We were very fortunate to meet Danny Choo when we were at Comic Con in Dubai last year, and he put us in touch with vendors and wholesalers for our merchandise.”
Danny Choo, the son of famed shoe mogul Jimmy Choo, is a celebrity in the world of anime and manga figurine collectors. His company, Culture Japan, has given the duo exclusive rights to its dolls for the entire region.
“We are the only store in the Middle East that carries his products. We are just waiting for a shipment of the figures and dolls, and it will go on sale soon after,” he added.
Drawing a crowd
So far, the store, which opened on Oct. 16, appears to be enjoying a warm reception. Its Instagram account already has over 1,000 followers.
Yesterday evening, more than 30 people could be observed shopping inside, most Qatari nationals. Some had even lined up outside before opening hours, while others had visited the store twice in the two days since it had been open.
For Al Jassim, this merely proved what she had long known – that Japanese culture has permeated the everyday lives of young Qataris.
“We knew we had a strong base here, but we didn’t expect the crowd we had yesterday. We couldn’t leave the counter! It was very intense,” she said.
Asma Al Binali, a 21-year-old student at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, was one of the many Qataris who visited the store yesterday.
Speaking to Doha News, she said:
“This is a dream come true. For the first time, I can buy products here instead of doing so online. We’ve loved this since we were kids, and it’s great to finally have a shop that caters to us.”
The group, whose members range from 16 to 25 years old, holds events and screenings to promote manga to the larger public.
Coincidentally, the group was founded in 2012 by two Qatari men who had attended an anime-themed event that Al Jassim organized at her alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar.
The couple has spent around QR200,000 of their personal funds to create the store, in hopes of introducing the hobby to the region, and to make marginalized geek culture mainstream.
Some of the major hurdles included wading through the paperwork needed to start a business in Qatar, and keeping in mind social norms, AlMass said, continuing:
“The whole thing was a challenge, to be honest, because we are doing something new. We were worried how society would respond. The mentality is that toys are just for kids, and not for adults, and we’re trying to break that. The legwork took around six months, while creating the store and getting everything in took barely a month.”
His wife added that it has also been tough to coax fans to come out of “hiding.”
“Most Qataris who are into this, don’t say it out loud. The fans are there, but the are quiet. They need a place where they can meet others like them. They need a place they can call home, and we hope to provide that for them,” Al Jassim said.
The duo, both graphic designers, created the store’s design and layout themselves.
“We wanted to bring an authentic Japanese feel here. We don’t just want to sell the products, but the experience too. Everything is compact because toy stores in Japan are compact,” said AlMass.
Currently, the store stocks merchandise from Japanese cartoons and games popular in the region, including One Piece, Naruto, Fairy Tail, Gintama, Attack on Titan and Sailor Moon.
In conjunction with Choo’s company, they also plan to sell bespoke and custom-made dolls and figures.
Figures sell from anywhere from QR300 to more than QR700, with smaller items like towels, papers and keychains retailing for around QR100.
The store also boasts a “pre-loved” section, where Al Jassim and AlMass sell some of their own collections, mostly rare figures that aren’t manufactured today.
Several other dolls from the couple’s collection, which consists of more than 1,000 pieces, are also on display.
“We have a room in the house for them,” said Al Jassim, adding, “On my wedding day, I ordered a custom wedding dress for one of my dolls and ensured that she wore it too.”
The store opens from 9 to 11am and 4 to 9pm on Saturday through Thursday, and from 4 to 9pm on Fridays.