When Carlos Morera, his uncle, and a few cactus enthusiast friends opened a diminutive and unassuming plant store in Los Angeles's Echo Park neighborhood, it quickly became a local gem. Despite almost no advertising or marketing (lacking an official name, it's referred to as the Cactus Store), the shop has nearly 13,000 devoted followers on Instagram and a loyal and diverse clientele. Megan Amram is an L.A.-based comedian and writer (she's the author of the parody book Science… for Her! and her TV credits include Parks and Recreation and Silicon Valley) who became well known through her prolific and darkly hilarious Twitter feed. Meeting for the first time here on The Thread, Megan and the Cactus Store crew chat about cacti collecting, how not to be a brand, artisanal toilets, and selling out.
“I think about my brand pretty constantly. I even wanted to sell cattle brands of my face so my fans could brand their big ol' butts with my profile picture.”
Hello Carlos, Jeff, Max, Christian, and Uncle Johnny! The Cactus Boys!!! That's what I'm calling you now. You're the CACTUS BOYS.
It's so nice to "meet" you all! You run a kick-ass store in Echo Park with one of the best websites I've ever seen: hotcactus.la. First and most important question: What is a cactus? I've heard rumors that cacti exist but never seen any proof IRL. Is it like a small dog? What do you feed it? Does it only come out at night? If I scream "Cactus, cactus, cactus!" into my bathroom mirror will it appear, or will I just have to find a new roommate?? Also, what is it like running a store? I can't wait to hear all these answers and more!! You are my favorite Cactus Boys!!
Cacti belong to a very special family of plants that grow without leaves. They are expert survivors, so it is easy to keep one alive. They are also very delicate, making it easy to kill a cactus. Cacti appeal to a broad spectrum of enthusiasts: those who like keeping their plants alive, those who like killing them, and everyone in between.
Running the store is like running in a very small square circle! No, actually it's great. Most people don't get to work in a place where the vast majority of clientele want to—not have to—be there. And you get lavished with compliments!
Amazing!! How did you get into the cactus store business? Is it because your name is the Cactus Boys? And let me ask you a little about how you guys market your store. You're doing something very specific and obviously wanted to fill a niche in L.A. Why a cactus store, exactly? How do you connect with each person who walks in? Do you think about your (makes gagging noise) BRAND?! I think about my brand pretty constantly. I even wanted to sell cattle brands of my face so my fans could brand their big ol' butts with my profile picture. My fans all have huge butts.
I'm going to jump in here. So marketing … I mean, we really don't try to market the store. I'm not sure how to begin doing that? Put an add in the Yellow Pages? I think what we try to bring to light is the strange world that surrounds cacti: the extents to which we go to get them, the psychotic environments they come from, the legends, the poachers, the old collector who shows up to people's greenhouses with a stack of cash.… There is so much mythology, and that's what we try to promote to each customer, be it in an Instagram post or a lecture. We are not necessarily trying to promote the store per se, but the bizzaro world of cactus collecting.
We started the store because most of us were cactus collectors and wanted to specialize in “specimen”-quality plants, not another nursery with the same plants that Target carries. Here in L.A. there's such an overabundance of stores that have “everything!!!” and we wanted something super-specific and specialized. I guess we always think about our brand in terms of how not to be one. What's nice about the store is it provides a retail experience void of branded products. It's why we never named it, really. Hot Cactus is just what our Instagram is called, and we don't have a logo or anything. It's a pain in the ass, constantly resisting the temptation to make things more marketable. We want to do things in a peculiar way, and I guess we have to stay true to that, even if it means not being able to buy the nice high heels that we so desperately lust after.
How about you? Remember in the '90s when the worst thing in the world was to be considered a sellout? What's your feeling about selling out? I don't have a TV, but everyone loves the show you wrote for, and your Twitter. Do you make decisions based on your audience? Do you keep them in mind when you write, or is it more about satisfying yourself? Do you separate your "art" from what you do for $, or do you try to fuse them… ?
God I love big butts.
OK the Cactus Boys love big butts!!! Slap that on a billboard!!! New catchphrase, baybee!!!
I have so much respect and admiration for, let's say, niche functions. You could've opened another Target franchise (maybe finish that one on Santa Monica Blvd. that has a bunch of raccoons living in the rafters), but you saw a niche need and filled it. And I really do think that's better for a community. I personally am inspired by anything other people are passionate about. I may not know much about cacti, but knowing that SOMEONE does is inspirational to me. Also, I am not just sucking up to you over email, but I want to start a cactus collection now?? What do I start with?? I also just saw a saguaro in person and they are amazing and look like a little kid drew them??
I LOVE wandering through very specific shops to get my creative juices flowing. When I was in college I was obsessed with going to a really fancy stationery store when I had writer's block. College, as you can tell, was VERY wild for me.
Great questions about writing. This is forcing me to be introspective for a second, as opposed the usual blindness with which I make any professional decision. I think selling out is absolutely hilarious. I am gonna say right now on record I will shill for ANY BRAND that I deem unproblematic. I wish I could ONLY make ads. Maybe I will stop writing for anything but corporate ads.
I am so into the idea of a "track record" in comedy. As a TV writer, at some point you're probably going to have to work on a show that you don't like or don't think is funny. So far, I've only written for shows that I greatly respect. Luckily, my audience on Twitter/TV and I seem to have the same sensibilities. I really am just writing for myself, but hopefully pleasing both of us.
“Good taste has become so boring…. In this technological era we have to embrace and celebrate imperfections to remind us to stay human.” —Cactus Boss
I started my own collection with Pilosocereus glaucescens. Like humans, P. glaucescens prefers mild winters and some shade during summer. It grows fast compared to most cacti and when mature looks like a big blue Smurfy phallus covered in white fuzz with trumpet-shaped pink flowers.
For windowsill cacti, you might start with Mammillaria huitzilopochtli, a solitary cliff dweller from Mexico named after the Aztec god of war and human sacrifice.
Deepest apologies for our late reply. We were up north buying an old collection in Ojai. It was a total SH%# SHOW! Like Raiders of the Lost Ark or something: unearthing storage containers of dead-stock Mexican pottery, bidding wars with the infamous elderly Korean sister duo (whose makeup was dripping all over their track suits, no joke) literally sprinting to grab certain plants before other, slower buyers … getting into arguments with Johnny over hideous versus lame plants. It was a nightmare/really fun.
So, back to your last point about track record. It's a nice way to look at things—"track record" seems to me to denote stuff that you are not necessarily proud of or is strange or out of character. But I think that quality is so essential to interesting things/people. It's like when you meet a Civil War buff who can't do basic arithmetic, or someone who has the best-looking hiking boots you've ever seen atop a pair of thrashed knee-length AND1 basketball shorts. People today (this is one of my favorite lines: "people today") are obsessed with everything being perfectly curated in their homes or on their bodies or in their libraries. It's definitely spawned a much more pervasive level of good taste, but good taste has become so boring. It's SO easy to obtain! In this technological era we have to embrace and celebrate imperfections to remind us to stay human.
Maybe you're onto something about the ghost Target; our focus should be on the implementation of uncompleted box stores into a cityscape inhabited by those who've been relocated as the result of our increasingly confused suburban densification. Entire micro-metropolises would form, new bustling pedestrian corridors in the boys' clothes isle, Turkish baths in the employee break room, penthouses on the roof parking deck. Perhaps in one you will find a small cactus store outpost, but it won't be ours.
Your stance on selling out sounds like the most Zen approach out there. We are always driving ourselves insane over if we should have cacti in Walmart or whatever.
Also, we want to get the word out: People always tell us we should “collaborate with a local ceramicist,” and it's up there with “Your store is so cute” in terms of things we don't like to hear (although sometimes the store is cute, it's true), but we are formally announcing that WE ARE LOOKING TO COLLABORATE WITH A LOCAL CERAMICIST … on a new toilet for the store! The one we have keeps breaking, and it seems like a great opportunity to get Echo Park's first artisanal toilet! If anyone knows someone good, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We were thinking Heath Ceramics–inspired but are open to anything!
Hope you had a great Tuesday, and if all goes well this time next year you will be pondering your ever-growing cacti collection from atop the Raku-style ceramic crapper in the back of the Cactus Store.
This is all just SO rich. Obsessed with your quest for a new john—I know a LOT about toilets. I've clogged about 30 of them (both public and private) and therefore am very sensitive to the needs of your store. Maybe use old cacti to make a really spiky toilet that is excruciatingly painful to use? Like an opposite-bidet?
I have had a wonderful time chatting with you CACTUS BOIZ, and I can't wait to stop by and use your new spiky toilet. I LOVE YOU ALL!!!!!