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A counter in in Uptown Market with pamphlets, a plant and a price list.

At Uptown Market, tech pays the rent for local retailers

on March 1, 2024

A perfectly curated window display. The smell of essential oils in the air. Free samples of homemade lemon pound cake. These are just some of the ways the vendors of Uptown Market are trying to draw people in amidst sights of seemingly constant construction and all-too-frequent incidents of property crime downtown.

Launched in August, Uptown Market is a retail hub at 1955 Broadway that features a rotating lineup of local entrepreneurs selling snacks, clothing, home goods, children’s books and more, in a space on the ground floor of tech company Block Inc.’s (formerly Square, Inc.) Oakland offices. It was created in partnership with Black Cultural Zone, a community development nonprofit, to give small business owners a chance to sell in a brick-and-mortar space without the often prohibitive overhead cost of rent.

The hub evolved from Black Cultural Zone’s Akoma Market, a pop-up farmer’s market in Liberation Park on 73rd Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, which began during the pandemic and ran monthly through 2022, then intermittently in 2023. 

“‘Akoma’ is an African word for love,” said Ari Curry, chief experience officer at Black Cultural Zone. “We want people to walk out of that space feeling that feeling, no matter whether you buy something.” 

Curry said Uptown Market was created to help get local vendors to “the next level” — a way to give them a leg up and further develop their businesses. That support comes in the form of free business counseling from Black Cultural Zone, which covers everything from behind-the-scenes licensing and accounting practices to on-the-ground skills like customer service and merchandise presentation.

“I always tell them, ‘We have to go beyond the screen,'” said Curry, emphasizing the transition from online to in-person sales that many vendors must learn. “We’re trying something new and we are investing in people and investing in culture.”

For its part, Block Inc. covers the cost of the space and provides vendors with Square touchless card readers for accepting payments. Vendors at Uptown Market report that Block Inc. employees from “upstairs” are some of their most frequent customers. Block Inc. did not provide data on how many employees work from the Oakland office.

The market initially was designed as a pilot program, but Block Inc. and Black Cultural Zone agreed at the end of last year to extend it through 2024. Since then, Black Cultural Zone has been refining how they run the space, including expanding the vendor residencies from four weeks to three months, adding dozens of new businesses to the lineup, and creating events around various holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day. 

Uptown Market is a response to a post-pandemic world, said Black Cultural Zone CEO Carolyn Johnson. With an increasing number of people buying online, she said, shopping has to be exciting.

“The model that we have for ground-floor commercial is a model that will bring people in,” Johnson said, adding that they want people to get out of their houses and off their phones to come and experience it.

Johnson encourages vendors to think about the space as more of a showcase than a permanent home. Offering custom, one-of-a-kind, or limited-edition items is more likely to draw customers inside. 

Should you see something you like but don’t buy that day, Johnson and her team at Black Cultural Zone are exploring ways to make the vendors accessible beyond the hub. They are working on setting up a QR code that would allow people to shop for goods displayed after a vendor’s rotation ends. 

“We are growing, we are wanting to do more,” said Johnson. “It’s a way of extending the presence.”

While Black Cultural Zone has primarily focused on retail at Uptown Market, the space also houses a partial kitchen where chef Christina “Lala” Harrison had operated her business Jusla Eats since the market’s opening. At the end of December, however, Jusla Eats temporarily suspended operations. Harrison did not respond to multiple inquiries about the closure, but reportedly told Black Cultural Zone that she expects to return this month. Black Cultural Zone has long planned for the possibility of hosting other food vendors, as well.

“We hope that chef Lala will be back soon,” said Johnson. “And at the same time, we are always talking to chefs about the residency at the hub.”

Jusla Eats’ pause hasn’t been the only recent setback for Uptown Market. In early February, some of the market’s glass doors on Broadway were broken. The organization believes it was an act of random vandalism and reported that no merchandise was stolen. Block Inc. covered the cost of replacing the windows. The team does not want the incident to define the market and is undeterred.

“We have to be bold and trust that the universe wants us to be there and not give into, ‘Oh, wow, the windows are broken,’” Johnson said. “We are still here. We are not going to be closing.” 

Three customers and three workers in a clothing store that is sheik, everything black and white -- counter, walls and floor and even clothes on hangers.
Customers stop in to grab food and goods at Uptown Market in November (Lisa Plachy)

Uptown Market remains committed to its vendors and to maintaining a strong sense of community at the space, Johnson said.

“We truly want you to see this is the best of Oakland. We add to the rich tapestry of downtown,” said Curry. “There’s also a real sense of oasis and comfort out of being in that space and being together.”

The Oaklandside and Oakland North checked in with some of the vendors in October and February to learn how business has been going since last year’s launch. Here’s what they had to say.

Tracey Bell-Borden, Exotic Linx

You won’t get far past the doorway of Uptown Market without Tracey Bell-Borden beckoning you to step inside.

“I’m out here getting business,” she said, decked out in bejeweled custom eyeglass frames of her own design. “The business is about going out into the community.” 

Bell-Borden is a member of the BCZ and a constant at Uptown Market. She’s there every day it’s open, giving newcomers tours of the space and offering a pitch for each vendor’s goods. She’s been known to scout for business in the BART Station outside and lure passersby with free snacks. And she offers everyone who walks through the door a warm personal greeting.

Bell-Borden is also the owner, designer, and curator of a line of handmade jewelry and accessories called Exotic Linx. Selling her crystals, crowns, and pop-icon-adorned earrings has brought her life in Oakland full circle.

“I never could afford to even shop on the same floor as I’m standing on,” she said. “Now … my jewelry’s in the window.”

Brown shelves staggered in a window of a store, on which nick-nacks sit.
A window display at Uptown Market (Lisa Plachy)

Nicole Felix-Borders, Pound Bizness

Among the many enticing goods offered at Uptown Market, homemade pound cake from Pound Bizness is a local favorite. Seasonal samples await on a cake platter, with lemon as a crowd pleaser.

“This recipe is my husband’s auntie’s recipe. If it wasn’t for her trusting us with the recipe, we wouldn’t be able to have the business we have now with it,” said co-owner Nicole Felix-Borders.

Through free coaching from Black Cultural Zone, she’s learned about packaging, product shelf-life, window displays, and marketing, helping her understand what it takes to sell to the public. Her presence at Uptown Market has also led to new opportunities. Most recently, Felix-Borders said she connected with other Oakland organizations to serve an event for 1,400 attendees. Her products also have been part of dinner kits sold by Jusla Eats.

“It’s getting more brand awareness for us,” she said. “It definitely has been an upward trajectory.” 

New opportunities exist on a smaller, day-to-day scale as well. Since all vendors are equipped — and encourage — to sell each others’ products, Felix-Borders doesn’t need to be present to make a sale. That means her business can remain “open” when she has to travel or take time away for personal matters, which isn’t possible when she’s selling at farmers markets. Similarly, Felix-Borders encourages people to visit Uptown Market and get to know each of the vendors’ stories. 

“Support can come in so many ways,” she said. “Support is not just transactional in dollars and cents. It’s also following on social media or telling someone else about us. That’s how we will start to become household names.”

Lala Harrison, Jusla Eats

Even with the sign on the door advertising its absence, people still come in looking to grab the signature lobster rolls, po’boys, and chili from catering company Jusla Eats.

“The first week that I opened there was this huge, like, ‘You’re back!’ kind of thing, which has been drawing customers,” said executive chef and owner Harrison when we spoke to her in late October. She previously served as sous chef at Flora and had pop-ups at Palmetto and Copper Spoon.

Still, she said, foot traffic in Uptown Market has fluctuated and business can be “hit-or-miss” depending on whether people are going to work in surrounding offices. Preparing food primarily out of a commercial kitchen in Montclair — and employing five people to help her do so — can make the economics difficult.

She said the market is great because Block provides so much, including the initial overhead, bills and rent. “But still just paying for product and labor can be tough if we can’t bring in a certain amount of customers every day.”

Harrison has ideas for how to draw more customers, including promoting the space during Oakland events and extending hours of operation. She believes Uptown Market can be so much more and wants to contribute to its success.

“I think this can be a very positive location for downtown,” said Harrison. “It gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to showcase what they’re doing out there without having to go through all of the struggles that it takes to open a brick and mortar.”

Five smiling people stand in front of a counter with a flowery sign behind it that reads "Best of Oakland"
Tracey Bell-Borden (left) with Chef Lala (fourth from left) are pictured with customers and employees. (Lisa Plachy)

Dr. Mishi, Hey Carter!

Hey Carter! is a children’s brand that sells books, apparel, and other products with a focus on increasing the representation of Black children and supporting their wellbeing. For owner and author Thomishia Booker — known to most as Dr. Mishi — offering her products in person has been gratifying.

“This is exactly why I created the brand: to connect with my community. To make sure Black children and families have the books in their hands,” she said.

Community impact is at the core of Hey Carter! Being part of Uptown Market has given the brand more opportunities to participate in events — at 1955 Broadway and beyond — that support this ethos. In December, Hey Carter! partnered with other Bay Area community organizations for a free “Santa in the City” event in San Francisco featuring a Black Santa and book giveaways.

“We’re a reflection of the community,” she said. “We’re growing together, we’re learning together.” 

The experience has also helped Booker to know her customers better and make more informed decisions about merchandising. After her first rotation in Uptown Market, she introduced hardcover books and apparel to her booth. She further expanded to include affirmation bracelets, stickers, and crayons. In February, she released a Black history workbook, and she said her goods will be featured in future rotations in the space.

Uptown Market, “is a true representation of Oakland,” she said. “You have small, Black-owned businesses that are flourishing and are coming together in community to give back to the community. I think that’s what Oakland is really about.”

This story was published in collaboration with The Oaklandside.

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