Oakland’s Loyal to the Soil Collective helps small businesses thrive

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When Oakland natives Michelle Walton and Wesley Dawan began dating, they often met at one of the city’s bookstores. “Afterwards we would always have coffee or go for a cocktail and discuss the books we were reading separately or together,” Walton said. “And we learned so much from each other thanks to those books.”

Those bookstore dates led to an idea that would later become their first joint venture: The Collective Oakland, an online bookstore opened in the fall of 2019. The couple initially ran the business away from home, but with a vision of a day a brick and mortar that could act not only as a bookstore, but also as a place where people could meet with each other to read, share stories and enjoy events.

“It would be great if people of color actually read together, or they could just enjoy books, coffee and cocktails like we do, you know what I mean?” Walton remembered the couple he thought.

Growing up, Walton regularly attended the Oakland Public Library summer program, which to this day encourages children, teens, and adults to read as many books as possible in exchange for prizes. But it wasn’t just the library where Walton cultivated his love of books. Marcus Books near MacArthur BART Station, the oldest bookstore specializing in African American literature, was and still is a Walton’s favorite. She often bought books from the original San Francisco location, which closed in 2014.

Realizing that the richness of Oakland’s culture includes music, dance and the arts, Walton and Dawan wanted to create a space where all of these worlds, including literature, would collide.

“What if we did more community-led events? And basically for people like us, “she said.” Because there has to be a scene for people who just like to kick back, relax and have fun. A lot of them love books. ”

When it came to launching their online store, Walton and Dawan only had themselves to rely on. Walton had to learn about online promotion and how to process orders, and there weren’t many of them when The Collective Oakland first launched. But that all changed in the summer of 2020, when the company was featured on Oprah’s website as one of 127 black-owned bookstores in America that amplify the best of literature. The buzz of that exposure, coupled with increased interest in black-owned businesses and literature amidst the widespread racial justice protests that summer, led to increased sales. Walton and Dawan decided to quit their full-time jobs to focus solely on their business and started making pop-ups, and by 2021 the business was doing so well that they were able to gift several hundred books to children and families who might not allow you to buy them

Michelle Walton receives an email from reps of Oakland author Leila Mottley confirming that she will be available to attend an upcoming event at Loyal to the Soil. Credit: Amir Aziz

As their business boomed, Walton was seeing other small businesses in Oakland struggling to make ends meet during the early months of the pandemic. He was also keeping an eye on businesses in other parts of the country to see how they were adapting and took inspiration from a particular business model in Atlanta led by The Village Market, which served as a support center for black entrepreneurs there. city.

“I was like, we have to have something like that here [in Oakland]”she said.” I introduced it to a couple of people. I didn’t want to do it alone because I was so passionate and in love with our bookstore that I couldn’t run another business. “

Eventually, Walton and Dawan reached out to Damon Johnson, executive director of Oakstop Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access to space for social enterprises led by Black and POC. “I called Damon and said, ‘I want to do a cohort of black entrepreneurs. And I want our library to be the go-to brand. We need to have a fighting chance. ‘”

By February of this year, Walton and Dawan were in talks with Johnson and Trevor Parham, the founder of Oakstop, a black-owned affiliate social enterprise that offers affordable jobs and event space and other media for entrepreneurs and creatives. locals.

Johnson and Parham invited Walton and Dawan to come up with a proposal that was quickly approved, at which point Walton began to see couples’ original vision come true. “I was like, ‘Okay, so we’ll do it,'” he said. ‘This will happen.’ “

Loyal to the Soil Collective sells a variety of products from different local brands, who pay $ 400 a month to join the collective. Credit: Amir Aziz

The couple took over a shop window at 1719 Broadway and began work on beautifying the space, painting, stripping the old carpet and developing their business plan for what is now Loyal to the Soil Collective.

Using the rest of Dawan’s personal savings and $ 5,000 the couple had received from the Oakstop-backed Black Business Fund, the store opened its doors on April 23, showcasing products from 10 local black-owned businesses.

Collective members pay $ 400 a month to display their products at the store for four months, then are replaced by a new cohort of companies doing the same. Revenues from sales go directly to each business. Additionally, once a company has had a shift in the cohort, it is eligible to rent the space on Broadway for $ 150 to host events. The next cohort of Loyal to the Soil businesses will begin in August.

Wesley Dawan and Michelle Walton pose for a photo at the Loyal to the Soil Collective. Credit: Amir Aziz

Walton said the goal is to improve members’ chances of supporting their business by increasing profits and reducing liabilities. “Working capital is such a hard thing to get,” Walton said. “So if you can get it immediately, you make all that money and put it back directly into your business.”

Community events are another part of the collective’s work, which Walton and Dawan are now focusing on. Next up is a bee for adults and a night of games scheduled for June 24th. Walton also hopes to have Oakland author Leila Mottley, whose new book Nightcrawl was recently selected for Oprah’s Book Club, will appear in the store soon.

“It’s really focusing on the locals, highlighting and amplifying our voices,” he said.

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