You’re familiar with the idea: seasonal retail shops that suddenly materialize in once-vacant storefronts to sell Halloween costumes in October. Christmas trees in December. Remaindered calendars come January. More recently, big box shops have pounced on the idea of flash retail as well; to promote its Rodarte clothing line a couple of years ago, Target launched Target to Go—mini-shops in carefully selected locations that opened and closed within three days. Google is cashing in on the trend, too—opening temporary retail spaces in airports this fall to hand-sell its new cloud computing laptop.
Now in Oakland, restaurateur Alfonso Dominguez and urban planner Sarah Filley are taking the pop-up concept to a new level. In December, they’re opening a pop-up neighborhood: three downtown blocks of temporary retail shops that showcase local designers, artists and goods.
The six participating stores—which range from clothing and crafts to bicycles and art—will occupy currently vacant spaces for six months, rent free, and try to turn a profit. If they succeed, they’ll sign a long-term lease with the building, which spans four city blocks of the Old Oakland district downtown; and what began as an experiment becomes a bonafide shopping district. That’s the idea, anyway.
Dominguez and Filley are calling the venture “popuphood.”
“The central idea is to use the rapid startup of a popup, but instead of doing one store here and there, we want to actually nurture small businesses and cultivate a critical mass,” said Filley. “A thriving retail district, basically.”
A designer named Douglas Burnham did something similar in San Francisco, opening a cluster of restaurants and retail shops inside 26 modified shipping containers arranged on an empty lot in Hayes Valley. But the difference, according to Dominguez and Filley, is that popuphood is a long-term plan for neighborhood revitalization, while Burnham’s project was meant to be fleeting.
The stores will share a building with one of Dominguez’s other ventures, a restaurant and tequila bar called Tamarindo, on 8th Street and Broadway, not too far from a taqueria he owns. So he, admittedly, has a vested interest in bolstering the neighborhood’s profile and economic outlook.
After watching store after store shutter windows and close up when the economy took a downturn in 2008, Dominguez worried that the vacant storefronts would never fill up.
“People were too scared to open retail,” he said. “And they saw me being the only one here. It was really hard.”
Then he had an idea: What if a group of like-minded business owners banded together to fill the empty spaces, cooperatively market their stores, and together mitigate the risks of starting up a new business?
Inspired, he teamed up with Filley, a friend with experience in urban planning and public art innovation, who helped him put together a business proposal to present to the city’s redevelopment agency and the owners of the building, Peter Sullivan Associates.
“It happened really fast,” Dominguez said. “We were a little like, ‘Whoa, can we pull this off?’”
Within a matter of months, they had secured permits and a marketing grant from the city of Oakland, and worked out an arrangement with the owners, who were happy to donate the space.
“Many of these spaces have been vacant for a year or more,” Filley said. “So for (the property owners), it’s no risk. And the tenants are offering to improve the spaces, and make it work for them.”
But the grand opening of all six—one of which, a furniture shop, will be housed inside a repurposed shipping container in the parking lot behind the building—is December 9. Dominguez and Filley are hosting a block party from 12pm to 9pm, on 9th Street, in collaboration with neighboring businesses and restaurants, including Trappist bar and B restaurant.
Besides introducing Oaklanders to the stores, they’re hoping the block party will reacquaint residents with the charm of Old Oakland: the Victorian architecture, mature trees and brick-lined walkways.
“It’s historic and it’s gorgeous,” Filley said. “It also has highest transit and walk scores in the city of Oakland, and there’s a free shuttle that goes from the ferry all the way to the arts district. Its really a big head scratcher as to why this neighborhood hasn’t taken off already.”
Brian Kendall, an urban economic analyst with Oakland’s redevelopment agency, helped Dominguez and Filley secure city funding for the project, from façade improvement grants to marketing money for the grand opening.
“It’s definitely an experiment and I will be really curious to see where it goes,” Kendall said of the venture “it exposes these areas to the possibility of what could be. What does Old Oakland want to be?”
He argues that Popuphood, like Oaklandish and Awaken Café, may bring the “cool factor” to downtown Oakland, which was once dominated by “mom and pop” shops and vacant space, he said.
To say the least, the shops Dominguez and Filley “curated” for popuphood are eclectic and hip: Manifesto sells custom fixed gears. Piper & John General Goods offers vintage clothing, jewelry and “reclaimed” décor. Crown 9 is an artisanal jewelry store. Sticks and Stones art gallery will open an accompanying retail shop. And in a shipping container behind the building, you’ll find Turtle & Hare, an design-and-build furniture shop.
But apart from its trendy offerings, Kendall said Popuphood’s greatest strength will be its founders’ ability to market the project, set themselves apart from other area businesses and reach people who wouldn’t normally go downtown to shop.
“People will travel for restaurants and bars,” Kendall said. “But people aren’t necessarily going to travel for shoes.”
But Filley is optimistic.
“The restaurants and bars around here are fantastic and have a following, so the only thing missing in this neighborhood is retail,” she said. Clustering shops, restaurants and bars can benefit everyone involved, she added.
“Knowing that you have other neighbors that are doing it with you, that can bring marketing and foot traffic and followers was really the tipping point for a lot of them,” Filley said of the other business owners. “To know that you can pool your resources together and ask ‘Where do you get your sign made? How do you use Iphone commerce?’…That’s valuable.”