Old Oakland, a historic district in downtown Oakland, California, has long struggled in its quest for vibrancy. It’s not that the neighborhood is in an inconvenient location; it’s close to the Oakland convention center and multiple transportation hubs. And it’s not because the area is ugly—it contains some beautiful buildings. But a down national economy and Oakland’s local struggles (the city has a 16% unemployment rate) have left retailers scared to open new shops and restaurants in the area.
Local entrepreneur Alfonso Dominguez has at least three reasons to be passionate about the area—he owns a taqueria, a restaurant, and a bar in the district. After spending too long staring at empty storefronts (and storefronts taken up by offices), he decided to do something.
In September 2011, Dominguez and his friend Sarah Filley, an urban planner, teamed up to create Popuphood, a project that is giving five new retail shops the opportunity to get six months of free rent at previously vacant storefronts on one block in the neighborhood. Dominguez and Filley didn’t have to work too hard to convince the landlord that owns the storefronts to get on board. The spaces had been unoccupied for at least a year, and successful storefronts might stay put past the six month mark. The Oakland Redevelopment Agency, ever hopeful to revitalize downtown, pitched in with a $30,000 grant. And the pair have plenty of creative-minded contacts in the city, so finding tenants wasn’t too difficult.
Pop-up storefronts are not new. A slew of pop-up restaurants, stores, and even parks have set up shop in cities across the country over the past few years. Popuphood, which officially launched on December 9th, is offering something different: the opportunity to be part of a larger, newborn retail community.
"The concept of simultaneously curated retailers that open all at once removes several of the barriers to entry right away," explains Filley. "One is being the lone pioneer in a transitional neighborhood. Another is the initial capital of buildout, rent, and staffing. The third barrier is, doing it on your own, you don’t necessarily have a retail community. You can’t control who comes in next to you. In this case the retailers have [neighbors] that they know will complement their business."
I recently took a tour through Popuphood with Filley and Dominguez; it was easy to see how the strength of five new storefronts could invigorate a neighborhood that was sporadically populated before with just a few popular spots like The Trappist (a bar), B Restaurant, and Dominguez’s own Tamarindo restaurant.
I had the chance to speak with owners of four out of the five pop-up stores: Manifesto Bicycles, Crown Nine, Marion And Rose’s Workshop, and Piper and John General Goods (the fifth, Sticks + Stones Gallery, was closed for lunch). All of the retailers were enthusiastic about the potential to stay longer than the six month free rent period.
Artist Nicole Buffett, the co-owner of Piper and John, a boutique showcasing locally made jewelry, clothing, art, and more, has relished the opportunity to band together with local retailers and artists to create what she calls a "retail boutique enclave." This is her first storefront, but she seems to be easily transitioning into it. Says Buffett: "On Fridays and Saturdays, [Popuphood] is a destination even for people outside of the neighborhood."
Alissa Goss, an artist and co-owner of Marion and Rose’s, is also selling (mostly) local artisan crafts. Unlike Buffett, she had already been thinking about opening a pop-up store when Dominguez asked if she wanted to be part of Popuphood. Now she’s doing so well that she expects her financial expectations "to be met and then some."
Manifesto Bicycles, another storefront in Popuphood, actually has a flagship retail location elsewhere in Oakland. But while co-owner MacKay Gibbs had thought about opening a second locaton, it was more of an abstract thought—and it probably wouldn’t have happened if not for Popuphood. "This was too good of an opportunity to pass up," she says. "We could help make a part of Oakland we love better, and reach customers that don’t go to the other location." Manifesto’s next move: offering bike repairs, which Gibbs described as the "bread and butter" of the other location.
Like her other Popuphood counterparts, metalsmith Kate Ellen is also excited about the long-term prospects of Crown Nine, a jewelry shop that opened in a former storage space. "So far, so good. I’m planning around the idea that we’ll stay," she says.
The support that these retailers can provide to each other is valuable; so is the publicity that comes along with a project like this. That’s why Filley and Dominguez are developing an umbrella company to replicate the Popuphood concept elsewhere in the city. "Oakland has momentum with its own creative economy," says Filley. And Oakland, of course, is far from the only city that could use the boost that comes from a cluster of new shops.