Ten years ago, I walked into a small storefront on Bardstown Road for the first time. What I saw made me feel like my unconscious mind — filled with bright colors, strange toys, loud music and arcane comic books — had suddenly sprung to life. I was hooked the second I stepped foot into Ultra Pop.
A decade later, the little store with underground art, high-end collectable toys and all kinds of weird stuff is still around, still selling anything that tickles the fancy of curator and owner Paul LePree.
LePree spoke with Insider on the challenges of being a one-of-a-kind retail outlet, the ups and downs of the last 10 years, and the moments that have made it all worthwhile.
His story is familiar, one he shares with many small-business owners.
“I was working for a mall chain retailer and had had my fill of that,” says LePree.
A lifelong pop-culture junkie and an avid Prince fan, LePree had been percolating an idea for what kind of store he wanted to open.
“My previous job took me out to Los Angeles three or four times a year, and I would usually stay with friends a few days after the meeting,” he says. “And they would take me to all these stores they knew I would like.”
“I saw these stores I was really into and I thought, ‘Well, what if I take a little piece of each one and mix it up under one roof?’ I knew (Louisville) would not be able to support something too specific, so I took elements of different places I was a big fan of and just kind a put it all together,” he says.
Though LePree had been planning the job switch for a while, when the time came, it happened faster than expected.
“Kopilot was in existence over on Bardstown Road, and I had been a regular customer there,” he explains. “I went in one day and said, ‘Look, I’m thinking of doing my own thing,’ and (the owner) said, ‘Well, I’m kinda done, I just want to do screen printing, so if you want the space, move on in.’”
When the opportunity for a Bardstown Road address came along, LePree pulled the trigger.
“So I cashed in all my 401K and vacation time,” he says. “I had been pre-planning for a year … putting money aside and working on an SBA (Small Business Administration) loan.”
The accelerated plan for opening his own store did cause him some moments of anxiety.
“Actually, the SBA didn’t get approved until two days after my last day at work, so I was kinda sweating it there for a minute,” says LePree. “I was, like, what am I gonna do?”
But the shop opened in 2007, and LePree was ready to share his quixotic sense of cool with the rest of Louisville.
“I kind of had to educate a little bit, to explain what this stuff was and why people should love it,” he says.
Just like vinyl records, comic books or Eames furniture, the goods LePree had for sale weren’t worth much until local nerds, artists and collectors began to see these things the way LePree sees them.
One of the reasons Ultra Pop is still around is that LePree’s genuine fondness for his wares permeates his personality and the store. When he tells you — for example — about the latest limited release kidrobot figure, he doesn’t come across like a bored jerk hipster. Instead, it’s more like he’s your cool older cousin letting you in on the secret of what’s hip.
But it hasn’t always been easy. Due to rising rent prices on Bardstown Road, LePree decided to move his shop over to Barret Avenue a few years ago, right when a certain high-profile neighborhood restaurant — ahem, Lynn’s Paradise Cafe — was closing down. The closure cut down foot traffic LePree had been counting on.
Ultra Pop managed to turn into a destination spot and bring its own dedicated customers to the Barret Avenue corridor.
Over the years, LePree has maintained a network of national contacts that help supply him with his merchandise, but he’s outlasted many of his suppliers.
“Every time I do these calls (to order merchandise), there’s a chunk of my list that just isn’t in business anymore,” he says. “The designer toy scene has had its ups and downs in the 10 years I’ve been involved.”
While some companies have closed, new companies have opened, and LePree usually doesn’t have trouble getting his foot in the door.
“I’ve called vendors before that I hadn’t dealt with, and they’ll be, like, ‘Oh, I heard about you, someone said something to me the other day about Ultra Pop.’”
In addition to his national and international network, LePree relies on local artists, scenesters and friends.
“I surround myself with people who enrich my life,” he says. “There’s a lot of shit I wouldn’t be able to pull off if it wasn’t for the friends and the people I’ve met in the community. That’s one of the biggest rewards for me — just knowing all these people.”
Next up for Ultra Pop? Well, there currently is a 10-year anniversary group art show hanging at the shop that’ll be up through the summer. It features a variety of artists who have been shown or sold goods at Ultra Pop over the years.
LePree also just got back from a trip to check out possible new merchandise in Japan, the first international trip he’s taken.
“I wanted to see if I could go over there and find enough merchandise for the store to make it a yearly thing, and I certainly found enough stuff,” he says. “It’s just a matter of selling it now.”
Ten years in, LePree and Ultra Pop still bring new things to town, keep Louisville weird and fill a niche many people didn’t even know we had.
Ultra Pop, located at 960 Barret Ave., is open from noon-7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; noon-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and noon-6 p.m. on Sunday. For more info, pictures of cool stuff and updates on events and merchandise, follow Ultra Pop on Facebook.