Universal Beauty Supply and Salon, which has operated on Telegraph Avenue for 35 years, worries its longtime customers can't find parking in busy Temescal

Temescal business owners see effects of neighborhood change

on September 12, 2016

Adnan Ahmed, a Pakistani immigrant in a blue plaid shirt, looks gloomily around the 41 St Discount Store, just south of 41st Street on Telegraph Avenue in Temescal. At 10 a.m. on a recent Wednesday morning, the aisles of the small grocery and liquor store are devoid of customers, and the only thing that seems to cheer Ahmed up is having somebody listen as he recounts his tale of woe.

Ahmed and three cousins bought the store last spring, after its longtime owner convinced them it did a decent business. But he and his cousins worried that the crowd of men that gathered in front of the store to smoke were scaring away potential customers. After shooing the group away, Ahmed saw his profits slip and realized: they were his customers.

As Temescal has transformed into one of Oakland’s hippest neighborhoods, many older businesses have discovered their longevity lay in exactly what Ahmed unwittingly dismissed—long-term loyal customers, many of whom may have even left the neighborhood but return for shopping or haircuts.

“We have lots of steady customers,” says Helen Song, who has worked at Glamour Beauty Supply on 40th Street for 11 years. The 30-year-old store draws patrons from all over the Bay Area and continues to cater to African Americans.

John Sholes, the owner of nearby Universal Beauty Supply and Salon on Telegraph Avenue, just south of 48th Street, estimates that 90 percent of his customers are from out of town.

But returning isn’t always easy. The section of Telegraph Avenue that runs between 40th Street and 51st Street, a once gritty strip of tiny international restaurants, African-American beauty salons, and small corner delis, has become a destination spot for foodies.

“There ain’t nothing but restaurants around here, and it’s a killer,” says Shelby Sloan, pointing out the limited parking near Universal Beauty Supply and Salon, where she has cut hair for 23 years.

“We tell our customers, if you want to get a parking space, you need to be here between 3:00 and 5:00,” after the lunch rush and before dinner, she says. Sloan is referring to the attraction of places like Pizzaiolo, with its Chez Panisse pedigree, and Aunt Mary’s Café, featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,” that have earned the area the moniker “the new Gourmet Ghetto.”

Nevertheless, she says, over the store’s 35-year tenure, they have built up a loyal client base. But relying on customers who come from out of town also has its risks and may not be a long-term strategy.

“I don’t see us hanging here long-term, because the neighborhood has changed so drastically,” says Sloan. “You’ve got to make the money, and if the customers can’t find a parking space, it’s hard for our bottom line.”

Between 1990 and 2013, the African-American population of Temescal and the surrounding area fell almost by half, while the white and Latino population has steadily increased. The demographic shift has been accompanied by substantial changes in local businesses; UC Berkeley’s Center for Community Innovation reports that 49 percent of the neighborhood’s businesses turned over between 2007 and 2014.

The popular Peruvian restaurant Cholita Linda now sits where three separate businesses, among them a hair braiding shop and a combination seafood/soul food restaurant, used to be. In Temescal Alley, on 49th Street, tiny boutique jewelry stores, art galleries, and eateries have set up shop in what was a largely abandoned lot once used as horse stables. On Saturday mornings, families line up for $3 artisanal hand-filled donuts.

Nine blocks south, Lawrence Khao can remember when there was a line out the door of Lee’s Donuts and Croissants. On a weekday morning, there is still a steady trickle of customers, but Khao says not nearly as many as there were just a few years ago. At the cramped counter, they order almost as many non-donuts as they do donuts: scratch-offs, cigarettes, a can of Sprite.

Khao, who has worked in the 40th Street shop for 17 years, says that competition and the rising cost of running a business have made things more difficult for the 24-year-old store. “When I first came, no coffee shops around,” he says. “Now, everywhere.”

And, he says, the cost of labor and coffee have increased, a particular challenge for a business that, like the beauty shops, relies heavily on a longstanding loyal clientele. “We try to raise prices, but every time we do, we lose a few customers,” he says.

It is the rising cost of rent that is likely to close more of the older shops. In April, Genova Delicatessen, which had been a neighborhood staple for 90 years, closed its doors, shut out by the cost of renting.

Sloan, of Universal Beauty Supply, says that within the last two years, she has seen the same thing happen to nearby African-American-owned businesses.

“There were like four or five of us in the area, and they’re all gone,” she says. She’s grateful that Universal Beauty Supply has held on. “Lucky for us, our landlord hasn’t put a massive increase on our rent,” she says. But she adds that she knows the landlord must be aware of rising rental values and is worried about what will happen in a couple of years when the store’s current five-year lease ends.

Two blocks down Telegraph, tucked into a corner lot he shares with a small clothing boutique and the popular Rosamunde Sausage Grill, which also has locations in San Francisco’s Mission District and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Jong Yun Lee is also concerned about his current lease ending.

After 19 years in Rockridge, he moved his business, Rockridge Shoe Repair, to Temescal only two years ago when his previous landlord decided to renovate. He chose the area specifically for the $1,600 a month lease for a spacious 1,000 square foot shop where he duplicates keys and repairs watches along with shoes. Already, his rent has increased to $1,800.

He knows that when the lease is up in May, he might not be able to afford a new one.

If he has to move again, he plans to move north along Telegraph towards the Berkeley border, where rents—for now—are still affordable, he says.

Down the street, at the 41 St Discount Store, Ahmed says business has dropped to half of what the store’s previous owner says he was making. Ahmed and his cousins are paying out of pocket to try to make rent and keep the store afloat.

The clientele he wants to woo—the young couples at the nearby bars, the cyclists zipping down Telegraph—move past his storefront, with its cigarette ads in the windows and iron bars to protect the door.

Five months into his business venture, Ahmed says, he is thinking about selling.

1 Comment

  1. twlaxton@gmail.com on October 20, 2016 at 10:24 pm

    Very well written article and very true about the changing demographics in the area.

    However, if mentioning the growing number of displaced People of Color owned businesses’ in Temescal I find it worthwhile to also mention the fairly new businesses owned by People of Color that are thriving in the neighborhood also.

    For example, the 4 year old Black owned boutique, Concept Forty-Seven is just two doors down from the sad situation at Universal Beauty supply.

    The store supports 70+ local indie businesses, hosts monthly art shows and is home to a good number of Oakland’s woman owned and black owned artists and artisan businesses. It has a 100% women of color staff and employs youth from low income backgrounds in the production of its in-house beauty line. More importantly, the curation of its goods is on par with (arguably better than) anything you will find in the Temescal Alley and you get service with a smile and not from a snooty hipster that hates you. The store is wildly popular in the neighborhood and has many loyal customers.

    Despite having received multiple business awards, including an Oakland indie award, Concept Forty-Seven has yet to have been mentioned even once in Oakland North, East Bay Express or any other East Bay publication.

    The SF Chronicle named it one of the top 25 retailers in the Bay out of 100 and Vouge Japan honored it as a key shopping destination in the City of Oakland, however local media is mum about the very existence of this place.

    The lack of support from local media would be bearable, if it wasn’t for the fact that every hipster restaurant, beer garden or boutique that opens in the ghetto does so with MUCH fanfare from the SAME publications that write the “poor old gentrifying Oakland” piece every few months.

    It is indeed sad to lose cornerstone businesses that have been around for 30-40 years, however the new generation of POC entrepreneurs will not be able to thrive if you, as the media, ignore their contributions to the community. Wouldn’t you say this fresh group of entrepreneurs uphold the legacy of the disenfranchised people you are always fretting about? How about supporting them?

    The fact that Concept Forty-Seven has been killing it in Temescal for nearly 4 years with no mention from any East Bay journalists is a damn shame. The mother daughter duo at Photogenic Salon (appointment only) and TM Joy, Oaklands only year round swimsuit shop, are also Black owned and within a blocks of the Black businesses you mentioned that are phasing out of the neighborhood.

    To omit businesses owned by Black women who are Bay Area natives from your publications once again perpetuates a white-dominant view of the City. The liberal conscious story that you all as Bay Area media love to craft is of the poor disenfranchised Black businesses being bullied out of the neighborhood by the terrible hipsters and greedy landlords. All True things. Ironically, your publications give TONS of press and acknowledgement to said greedy hipster businesses and virtually ignore second generation, Bay Area native Black and Brown entrepreneurs, with the exception of a token few that are paraded on the covers of your publications every once in a while. Although, I believe your intentions are pure, East Bay publications often become an enabler to the sad gentrification story that you so called “expose” every few weeks.

    I suppose, my point is, if you care so much about the fate of first wave POC small businesses in Oakland that have been around for decades, how about supporting the second wave who are equally apart of The New Oakland?



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