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

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When Michelle Walton and Wesley Dawan began meeting in Oakland, they often met in a city bookstore. “We always had coffee or went for cocktails afterwards, and we discussed books that we were reading individually or together,” Walton said. “And we’ve learned a lot from each other from these books.”

Those bookstore dates eventually spawned an idea that would be their first joint venture: The Collective Oakland, an online bookstore that opened in the fall of 2019. not just a bookstore, a brick mortar that could be a place for people to read with others, share stories, and enjoy events.

“People of color reading together or enjoying books and coffee and cocktails like us, you know what I mean?” Walton remembered the couple thinking.

Growing up, Walton regularly attended the Oakland Public Library summer program, and today encourages children, teens, and adults to read as many books as possible in exchange for prizes. But it wasn’t just Walton’s love of books. MarcAr Books, near the MacArthur BART station, the oldest bookstore specializing in African American literature, was and still is Walton’s favorite. He often bought books from his hometown in San Francisco, which closed 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 of these worlds, including literature, would collide.

“What if we had more community-driven events? And basically for people like us, ”he said. “Because there needs to be a scene for people who like to cool off, rest, and walk the atmosphere. Many of them love books. ”

When it came to launching their online store, Walton and Dawan had confidence in themselves. Walton had to learn about online promotion and how to process requests, and there weren’t many when the latter was first launched by The Collective Oakland. But that all changed in the summer of 2020, when the business appeared on Oprah’s website as one of the 127 black-owned bookstores in America that spread the best in literature. The rumors of this exhibition, in the midst of widespread protests in favor of racial justice that summer, with increased interest in black-owned businesses and literature, increased sales. Walton and Dawan decided to quit their full-time job to focus solely on their business and start making pop-ups, and by 2021, as the business was doing so well, they were able to donate hundreds of books to children and families. don’t buy.

Michelle Walton receives an email from representatives of Oakland writer Leila Mottley confirming her readiness to attend an upcoming Loyal to the Soil event. Credit: Amir Aziz

As their business grew, Walton was seeing other small businesses in Oakland struggling in the early months of the pandemic. He was also looking at businesses in other parts of the country to see how they were shaping up, and was inspired by a particular Atlanta business model run by The Village Market, which acted as a support site for black entrepreneurs. city.

“I said, we have to have something like this here [in Oakland]”I introduced myself 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 afford another business.”

Eventually, Walton and Dawan contacted Damon Johnson, executive director of the Oakstop Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access to Black and POC-led social enterprise space. “I called Damon and said, ‘I want to make a cohort of black entrepreneurs. And I want our bookstore to be an anchor brand. We need to have a chance to fight.'”

By February of this year, Walton and Dawan were talking to Johnson and Trevor Parham, founder of Oakstop, an affiliated Black-owned social enterprise, offering cheap work and event space and other support for local business owners and founders.

Johnson and Parham invited Walton and Dawan to submit a proposal, which they quickly accepted, and it was at this point that the original view of the Walton couple began to become a reality. “I said,‘ Okay, so we’re going to do this, ’” he said. “This is going to happen.”

The Loyal to the Soil Collective sells a variety of products from various local brands, and pays $ 400 a month to participate in the collective. Credit: Amir Aziz

The couple took to a 1719 Broadway showcase and began working on beautifying the space: painting, removing the old carpet, and developing the business plan for what is now the Loyal to the Soil Collective.

The rest of Dawan’s personal savings and the couple’s $ 5,000 from the Oakstop-sponsored Black Business Fund, the store opened its doors on April 23, and featured products from 10 of its own Black businesses.

Collective members pay $ 400 a month to showcase their products in the store for four months, and then replace them with a new business group that does the same thing. Sales revenue goes directly to each business. In addition, once a company has a turn in the cohort, they have the right to rent space on Broadway to organize events for $ 150. The next Loyal to the Soil business cohort will begin in August.

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

According to Walton, the goal is to improve the chances of sustaining the business of members by increasing profits and reducing liabilities. “It’s very difficult to get working capital,” Walton said. “So if you get it right away, you earn all that money and you’ll get it back to your business right away.”

Community events are another part of the collective work that Walton and Dawan are now focusing on. Next up is an adult spelling and play night scheduled for June 24th. Walton also hopes to have Oakland writer Leila Mottley, his new book. Nightcrawling she was recently selected for the Oprah’s Book Club will appear in the store soon.

“It’s really focusing on the local people, highlighting and enhancing our voice,” he said.

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