A retail oasis moves into an empty Oakland block
on March 2, 2009
On a stretch of Oakland pockmarked with vacant storefronts, the 3000 block of Telegraph Avenue looks particularly bleak.
3003 Telegraph, formerly a medical center, has been up for lease for two months; 3031 Telegraph, formerly a Portuguese fraternal society, for a year. A few years ago, the old brick courthouse on the adjacent block, just past 29th Street, was a popular athletic center. Now its windows are boarded up.
So when Mohsin Sharif opens his new grocery store on the corner of Telegraph and 31st next month, his may be the only open door on an otherwise shuttered block.
“It’s a tough stretch,” says Scott Peterson, public policy director for the Oakland Chamber of Commerce. Though a busy hospital occupies the other side of the street, the area is far from a retail hub.
But Sharif is not worried. For the past twelve months he has devoted nearly all of his time to realizing his vision for Oasis Food Market, which he hopes will be a kind of Whole Foods for Oakland’s substantial Middle Eastern population.
When Sharif looks at the neighborhood, he sees a Middle Eastern community whose size outstrips the available services. “I’m from Yemen originally, and here we are missing a lot of stuff,” says Sharif, leaning forward over his desk in an office still under construction, worrying a screw between two fingers. “A lot of stuff. Sometimes you have to go to L.A. Here there’s not even a single Middle East bakery that sells Lebanese pastries!”
As he walks around the store, Sharif pushes scaffolds out of his path and steps over low, flat boxes holding blown-glass fixtures that will soon bathe the rooms in orange light. Gesturing towards corners now obstructed by ladders and cords, he conjures visions of a shop filled with exotic flavors. Over here, a bar for olives from Jerusalem; over here, the oven to bake fresh pita bread; on these shelves, coffee from Yemen and groceries from Syria and Morocco; in this display case, fresh halal and kosher meat. And behind this counter, the Lebanese pastry chef he may bring all the way from New York or Michigan, because in his opinion no one in Oakland is up to the task.
Sharif left his job in real estate to open the store, and he knows that this economy may not be kind to someone opening a business. According to the National Association of Realtors, retail vacancies across the country have already reached the double digits; Sharif can see the proof on his own block. “It’s tough,” he says. “I see it all over.”
Broker Damian Fink of NAIBT Commercial, who represents one of the properties down the street from Sharif, says the number of “For Lease” signs in the neighborhood is misleading. Overall, he says, the area is “trending up,” in large part because of the number of small businesses and its proximity to downtown. Though it’s Fink’s job to be optimistic, Sharif seems to share his view.
The neighborhood he’s chosen, he thinks, is full of potential customers. The mosque next door on 31st Street hosts up to 1,000 worshippers every Friday; if even 300 of those people popped in for coffee or some last-minute dinner shopping, Sharif thinks it would be great for business. Then there’s the medical center across the street and police and fire stations nearby; it’s a short walk to downtown and a high-traffic part of Telegraph.
Since the owners of the neighboring mosque are also his landlords, the store won’t sell any pork or alcohol. That’s just fine with Sharif. “We don’t want to bring alcohol to this neighborhood anyway,” he says, bending over to retrieve the screw, which he has dropped onto the sidewalk where his produce stands will be. “It brings violence. The less liquor stores, the better.”
Sharif’s attention to building community is evident in his plans for furthest corners of his shop. On one side he’s left room for a row of post-office boxes and a Western Union check-cashing window; he’s also set aside space for a travel agent who can book flights back home and will offer deals on international phone cards. In one window, he even plans to display some traditional Muslim women’s clothing. Near the front, a restaurant and coffee bar will invite people in from the street. All of it, he hopes, will help build a community hub.
Ultimately, though, Sharif thinks that what will bring people in is the taste of home. For example, “fresh bread – that’s what they’re going to really like,” he says of his prospective Ethiopian customers. “They make that big bread they call injera. Fresh, they will drive from twenty, thirty miles away to come get it.”
And if customers come, more businesses may follow. Peterson of the Chamber of Commerce says that while opening any business is risky, especially in the middle of a recession, if Sharif and those like him succeed they can help revitalize their neighborhoods.
“It’s going to help that block if they can stay there,” he says of Sharif’s venture. “It will help rent those other sites nearby, because they’ll see that they won’t be alone.”
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