Opening the door for local designers
Caroline Boquist has a gift for making people feel welcome. As the co-owner of Vancouver’s Walrus home boutique, that’s how browsers quickly become loyal customers, and customers soon become friends. She’s a passionate cheerleader of local designers and artisans, who are welcomed not just as suppliers, but as part of the family.
We know firsthand, because we’re proud and grateful to be part of that family. Walrus has stocked hk+np studio jewelry since 2010. We’ve always admired Caroline for her warmth, grace, and the quiet strength she brings to the sometimes-challenging business of retail.
Caroline is also a wife, the youngest of four sisters, and a mom of two. In honour of Mother’s Day, we plied her with wine and cheese and asked about everything from design to family memories to raising confident kids.
Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Vancouver as a first-generation Canadian. I grew up in a really tight-knit family. My sisters and I all have kids that are within a year apart and three out of the four of us live just five minutes away from each other. So, everyone’s really quite close. We’re very lucky.
Where did your parents come to Canada from?
My dad was ethnically from Goa, but he was born and raised in Hong Kong, and my mom is from the Philippines. My parents met when they were just teenagers. My dad was in the Philippines for an international Boy Scout Jamboree and they became pen pals. They wrote letters back and forth and sent these amazing black-and-white photographs. I think they saw each other just once more before my dad proposed – in a letter.
Clearly, she said “yes.”
She did. They were married in the Philippines and then moved to Brunei. My dad had been studying mechanical engineering in England, and one of his first jobs was working for the Sultan to maintain and operate his fleet of helicopters. They lived an expat life and my two oldest sisters were born there.
Around the same time, my dad’s siblings moved to Vancouver and were encouraging him to relocate to Canada as well. After my grandfather (who was also here) had a non-fatal heart attack, my dad agreed – but they started in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. My mom remembers walking with my sisters in waist-high snow. She wasn’t impressed. So, less than two years later, they moved to Vancouver.
How did your parents’ experience as immigrants influence you?
My mom didn’t have a lot of relatives here. It was mostly my dad’s side, so we grew up as a really close, extended family. I know my parents went through some tough times, though, and my dad experienced a lot of racism.
But our family really expresses culture through food. That’s how you show love; by feeding someone! We ate dim sum, South Asian dishes, everything. And my mom made all our meals from scratch. At 78, she’s still a force in the kitchen.
My dad worked for the government for many years, before taking what was considered early retirement, at age 60. He died not even a full year later. I’m sure he enjoyed his job sometimes and it provided us with a good life, but it made me feel determined to pursue work I loved. Now, I get to help other people to do the same.
How did your career start to unfold?
My husband, Devin and his friend, Tyler, had a small, contemporary furniture line. They needed help selling the pieces, so I cold called Inform Interiors and (co-owner) Nancy Bendtsen was kind enough to give me an appointment. We met with her, showed her the line and, incredibly, she agreed to take it on.
When I dropped off the furniture, she offered me a job. Inform was my first introduction to the world of design. Nancy and her husband, Niels, are so knowledgeable and they really shared their passion for design. It was a huge eye-opener for me, and I fell in love with that whole world – the storytelling, the history, all of it. I loved the lighting, the furniture, but I really loved when she’d bring in these quirky accessories and small lines, often during the holidays.
That’s where you met your business partner, Daniel Kozlowski, right?
Yes. Daniel had been at Inform for several years. He’s from Switzerland and has that high-quality design aesthetic in his blood. He had also gone to pastry school and we bonded over a shared love of food.
When did you decide to start Walrus?
It definitely wasn’t a straight line. I left Inform after about two years to open a little coffee shop with a friend. Then I started working as the sales manager for a local design and production studio called molo. As the company grew, we needed to bring in more people. I suggested Daniel. Soon we were going on overseas business trips and after one especially difficult show in Milan, Daniel and I realized we had spent almost 24/7 together and we still didn’t hate each other! We decided we should build something of our own.
We asked ourselves, “what do we love?” Food was the obvious first choice. We looked into opening a small, Euro-style café, but it was too daunting. When we travelled together, though, we always sought out small accessory shops, like museum stores and beautifully curated boutiques. In New York, I would spend a good chunk of my money at the MOMA gift shop – and there really wasn’t anything like it in Vancouver at the time.
How did it all come together? And what was your intention for the store?
We wanted to open a store that had interesting, well designed pieces with great stories behind them. We also wanted to offer a variety of price points. We worked on our business plan for several months before we found our space here on Cambie Street. That was October 2008.
Wait – that’s right when the global economy took a nosedive. How were you feeling?
We definitely heard “are you guys crazy?” a lot. My mom is amazing, but even she said, “Caroline, have you heard what’s happening? Maybe you should sit with me and watch the news.” But, she never told me not to do it.
Daniel and I felt like it was a now-or-never moment. If we could open then, we felt like we could handle most other challenges. We were also very realistic. When knew what we had to invest and what it would take to dig ourselves out if we failed. This wasn’t a dreamy, airy idea of being shopkeepers, nor did we imagine we’d become millionaires. We took it one step at a time.
This wasn’t a dreamy, airy idea of being shopkeepers, nor did we imagine we’d become millionaires. We took it one step at a time.
What was your vision for Walrus in those early years?
We imagined a clean, modern space that still felt approachable. We wanted people to touch and engage with the pieces and not be afraid to experience design. It should be playful. We kept outward elements, like the logo and the signage, simple and timeless, but it was important for the store to feel warm and tangible and really engaging. Even today, there are dogs and kids in here and people with ice cream cones. We hope there’s a happy and welcoming vibe.
How has the store evolved over the years?
In the beginning, we had a fraction of the stock we have now, and we realized that some people were intimated to open the door. They saw this white space with barely anything in it, in a very down-to-earth community like Cambie Village, and that was a challenge. Once they came in, they realized we were friendly, but we had to work with that contrast.
When we opened, not many Vancouver shops were carrying local design, yet we knew people who were making interesting things and had nowhere to show or sell them. We wanted to champion people who are doing what they love, which ties back to the lesson I learned through my dad. Today, the city has so many incredible, locally-focused stores, but that wasn’t always the case.
We’ve also learned so much about what works for our customers. But that’s the great thing about being a small business. You can be agile and shift with your consumer. We’re always trying to figure out how to strike a balance between the pieces that simply speak to us and what will sustain the store.
You have a mix of long-established brands and work by up-and-coming makers. How do you choose what to carry?
It’s really what we’re drawn to and what we love. We feel very strongly about supporting talented people and building relationships with them. We want to tell their stories with pride.
We feel very strongly about supporting talented people and building relationships with them. We want to tell their stories with pride.
It’s tough, though, because we have limited space. We do have to be selective.
Let’s talk jewelry. What do you love?
Personally, I’m drawn to understated, architectural, and geometric pieces. I grew up in a family of five women, and we’re all into classic jewelry. My mom never bought much costume jewelry, so maybe she passed that on to us. Daniel always teases me and says, “Caroline, you’re such a dude.” I’ve never been very classically feminine in my tastes, or very trend-driven.
Your Twist Series is also one of my favorites. I love the pendant. I also love the Aurora series, and I get really excited when I tell people about who you are, and when I share your story. It makes our customers excited, too. They can feel good investing in such perfectly-crafted pieces.
Stop! We’re blushing. Can you tell us more about your mom’s jewelry?
My mom has some beautiful pieces, and they all carry different stories. For example, she always wore diamond stud earrings. One year, my dad worked a lot of overtime, and for Christmas, he gave her a larger set. I was in my late teens, so I remember that really well. My mom was pretty overwhelmed, and they the earrings she still wears for special occasions.
Years after my dad was gone, she bought a beautiful ring in Italy. It has loose, raw-cut emeralds inside. She told us that we would open it up and make it into four rings, for each of her four daughters. We haven’t done it yet, but I was really touched by that idea.
That’s lovely. What’s the most meaningful piece of jewelry you own?
My wedding ring is the only thing I wear every day. Devin researched and chose it on his own – I didn’t pick it with him or even give him any suggestions. That’s what makes the ring so special. It was his choice for me, and it’s the one constant piece in my life. It’s part of me now. I think it’s perfect, because I love what it represents.
There are other meaningful pieces in my collection, too, like a small diamond ring that my eldest sister and her then-boyfriend, now-husband gave me as a graduation gift. It was so thoughtful. I’ve also inherited a signet ring from one of my dad’s sisters. Enduring pieces have a story or a sense of history. So much can come and go, but you really hang on to jewelry. There’s a physical and emotional weight to it.
So much can come and go, but you really hang on to jewelry. There’s a physical and emotional weight to it.
Speaking of family and emotion, you have two beautiful (and nearly full-grown) kids. What has been the most surprising part of being a mom?
How strong “nature” is in the nature / nurture equation. They’re born with so much of who they are – both the good and the not-so-good parts. I feel like it’s my job to work with them on the challenging stuff, and to help them open up to possibilities.
What has been your most rewarding experience as a mom?
Watching them grow into the people they are today. I’m proud of who they are, and helping them to become confident and self-assured individuals has always been extremely important to me. I think if they have a strong sense of self, they’ll be okay.
What have you learned from your own mom?
My parents were always about family. It was never about material stuff. My sisters and I would fight sometimes, and we’d all have our moments, but they made it clear that your family will always be there for you. That’s what matters most.
Last question. You’re a role model for many local designers and entrepreneurs – especially young women. What would you tell someone who wants to open a business or take a creative leap?
There’s never going to be a perfect time. If several pieces are lined up in your favour and you’re making an educated decision, go for it. Not everything is going to be ideal – and I say ideal, because I think that’s what we’re all striving for, but it’s not realistic.
I feel grateful that I had my kids and opened my business before Instagram. It feels like there’s a new level of expectation, exposure and comparison that women, in particular, face now. I think we all just have to chill right out and do what’s right for us. Try to tune out the noise. Look at what inspires you, what excites you, ultimately, and do what works for you.
There’s never going to be a perfect time. If several pieces are lined up in your favour and you’re making an educated decision, go for it.
Thank you, Caroline!
Jewelry : infinity pendant and infinity earrings by hk+np Studio