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

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When Oakland natives Michelle Walton and Wesley Dawan started dating, they would often meet up with each other at one of the city’s bookstores. “We’d always get coffee or go for cocktails after, and we would discuss the books that we were reading separately or together,” Walton said. “And we’ve learned so much from each other because of those books.”

Those bookstore dates led to an idea that would eventually become their first joint business venture: The Collective Oakland, an online bookstore that opened in the fall of 2019. The couple operated the business out of their home initially, but with a vision to someday have a brick-and-mortar that could serve as not only a bookstore, but a place where people could gather with others to read, share stories, and enjoy events.

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

Growing up, Walton would regularly attend the Oakland Public Library summer program, which to this day encourages kids, teenagers, and adults alike to read as many books as possible in exchange for prizes. But it wasn’t just the library where Walton cultivated her love for books. Marcus Books near the MacArthur BART station, the oldest bookstore specializing in African-American literature, was and still is a favorite of Walton’s. She would often buy books from the original location in San Francisco which shuttered in 2014.

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

“What if we did more events that were community-driven? And basically for people like us, ”she said. “Because there has to be a scene for people that just like to chill, lounge, and vibe out. A lot of them love books. ”

When it came to launch their online store, Walton and Dawan had only themselves to rely on. Walton had to learn about online promotion and how to process orders — and there weren’t many of the latter when The Collective Oakland first launched. But that all changed in the summer of 2020 when the business was featured on Oprah’s website as one of the 127 Black-Owned Bookstores in America That Amplify the Best in Literature. The buzz from that exposure, coupled with more interest in Black-owned businesses and literature in the midst of widespread protests for racial justice that summer, led to a growth in sales. Walton and Dawan decided to leave their full-time jobs to focus solely on their business and began doing pop-ups, and by 2021, the business was doing so well that they were able to give away several hundred books to children and families who couldn ‘t afford to buy them.

Michelle Walton receives an email from representatives for Oakland author Leila Mottley, confirming that she’ll be available to participate in an upcoming event at Loyal to the Soil. Credit: Amir Aziz

As their business boomed, Walton was seeing other small businesses in Oakland struggle to make ends meet during the pandemic’s early months. She was also keeping her eye on businesses in other parts of the country to see how they were adapting, and took inspiration from one particular business model in Atlanta being led by The Village Market, which was acting as a support hub for Black entrepreneurs in that city.

“I was like, we need to have something like that here [in Oakland], ”She said. “I kind of pitched it to a couple of people. I didn’t want to do it myself because I was so passionate and in love with our bookstore that I couldn’t handle another business. ”

Eventually, Walton and Dawan reached out to Damon Johnson, executive director at Oakstop Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to space for Black and POC-led social enterprises. “I called Damon and said, ‘I want to do a cohort of Black entrepreneurs. And I want our bookstore to be the anchor 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, an affiliated Black-owned social enterprise that offers affordable work and event space, and other supports for local business owners and creatives.

Johnson and Parham invited Walton and Dawan to submit a proposal and it was quickly approved, at which point Walton began to see the couples’ original vision become a reality. “I was just like, ‘Okay, so we’re going to do this,'” she said. ‘This is going to happen.’ ”

Loyal to the Soil Collective sells a variety of products by different local brands, which pay $ 400 per month to participate in the collective. Credit: Amir Aziz

The couple took over a storefront at 1719 Broadway and began working 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 remainder of Dawan’s personal savings and $ 5,000 that the couple had received from the Oakstop-supported Black Business Fund, the storefront opened its doors on April 23, showcasing products from 10 local Black-owned businesses.

Members of the collective pay $ 400 per month to showcase their products at the store for four months, then are replaced by a new cohort of businesses who do the same. Revenue from the sales goes directly to each business. In addition, once a business has had a turn in the cohort, they’re eligible to rent out the space on Broadway for $ 150 to host events. The next Loyal to the Soil business cohort is set to begin in August.

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

Walton said the goal is to better members’ chances of sustaining 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 right back into your business.”

Community events are another part of the collective’s work, which Walton and Dawan are now focusing on. The next is an adult spelling bee and game night scheduled for June 24. Walton also hopes to have Oakland author Leila Mottley, whose new book Nightcrawling was recently selected for Oprah’s Book Club, appear soon at the store.

“It’s really focusing on local people, highlighting and amplifying our voices,” she said.

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