Loyal to the Soil Collective in Auckland helps small businesses thrive

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When Auckland locals Michelle Walton and Wesley Dowan began dating, they often met at one of the city’s bookstores. “We always have coffee or cocktails afterwards and we discuss the books we read individually or together,” Walton said. “And we learned so much from each other through these books.”

These 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 originally ran the business outside their home, but with a vision of someone day to have a brick and mortar that can serve not only as a bookstore, but also a place where people can gather with others to read, share stories and enjoy events.

“It would be foolish for people of color to really read together or just enjoy books, coffee, and cocktails like us, you know what I mean?” Walton remembered the couple thinking.

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

Realizing that the richness of Auckland’s culture included music, dance, and the arts, Walton and Dowan wanted to create a space where all these worlds, including literature, collided.

“What if we do more community-driven events?” And mainly for people like us, “she said. “Because there has to be a stage for people who just love to relax, lie down and feel outside. Many of them love books. ”

When it came to launching their online store, Walton and Dowan had to rely on themselves. Walton had to learn about online promotion and how to process orders – and there weren’t many of the last ones 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 127 bookstores owned by blacks in America that reinforce the best in literature. The noise from this exhibition, combined with greater interest in black business and literature, in the midst of widespread racial justice protests this summer, led to sales growth. Walton and Dowan 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 managed to distribute several hundred books to children and families who can’t not afford to buy them.

Michelle Walton received an email from Auckland author Leila Motley confirming that she would be available to attend an upcoming Loyal to the Soil event. Credit: Amir Aziz

As their business thrives, Walton sees other small businesses in Auckland struggling to make ends meet in the first months of the pandemic. She also monitored businesses in other parts of the country to see how they were adapting, and was inspired by a specific Atlanta business model run by The Village Market, which acted as a support center for black entrepreneurs in the city.

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

Eventually, Walton and Dowan contacted Damon Johnson, executive director of the Oakstop Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to space for black and POC-led social enterprises. “I called Damon and said, ‘I want to make a cohort of black entrepreneurs.’ And I want our bookstore to be a leading brand. We need to have a chance to fight.

Until February this year, Walton and Dowan were in talks with Johnson and Trevor Parkham, founders of Oakstop, a black-owned affiliate that offers affordable work and events and other support for local business owners and creators.

Johnson and Parm invited Walton and Dowan to submit a proposal, and it was quickly approved, at which point Walton began to see that the original vision of the couple was becoming a reality. “I just said to myself, ‘Okay, so we’re going to do this,'” she said. “That will happen.”

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

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

Using the rest of Dowan’s personal savings and the $ 5,000 the couple received from the Oakstop Black Business Fund, the showcase opened on April 23, showcasing products from 10 local black-owned companies.

The team members pay $ 400 a month to present their products in the store for four months, after which they are replaced by a new group of companies that do the same. Sales revenue goes directly to each business. In addition, after the business received a turnaround in the cohort, they are eligible to rent out Broadway space for $ 150 for events. The next business cohort, Loyal to the Soil, is set to start in August.

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

Walton said the goal is to improve members’ chances of sustaining their business by increasing profits and reducing liabilities. “Working capital is so hard to come by,” Walton said. So if you can get it right away, you make all that money and get it back into your business.

Community events are another part of the team’s work that Walton and Dowan are now focusing on. Next is an evening for a spelling bee and an adult game, scheduled for June 24. Walton also hopes to have Auckland author Leila Motley, whose new book Night crawling he was recently elected to the Oprah Book Club, appear soon in the store.

“It really focuses on local people, emphasizing and strengthening our voices,” she said.

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