East 18th Gets Thrift Store that Lakeshore Spurned

I noticed today that an Out of the Closet thrift store is about to open on East 18th Street, in the space that Hollywood Video used to occupy. Employees who were there setting up the shop told me that the grand opening is on Saturday. I normally wouldn’t write a long post about the opening of a thrift store in my neighborhood, but the opening of this particular store says a lot about the city of Oakland.

Out of the Closet

I’ll begin at the beginning. Over a year and a half ago, a GapKids store on Lakeshore Avenue closed (the regular Gap store a few doors down remains open). The landlord entered into negotiations to rent the empty storefront to a thrift store chain called Out of the Closet, which is operated by (and supports) the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. When neighborhood residents got wind of those negotiations from a post at the Grand Lake Guardian website, some of them were not pleased to hear that a déclassé thrift store—and especially a thrift store with a bright pink and blue color scheme—was going to be coming to that shopping strip, which has become a pretty nice little shopping district in recent years, thanks in part to the efforts of some of the same people who objected to Out of the Closet.

My City Councilmember, Pat Kernighan, wrote an open letter to the community in which she said that when she learned about the negotiations, she had “immediately contacted the owner’s broker, Steve Banker of LCB Associates, and told him that a thrift store would not be welcomed by the majority of area residents.” She apparently believed that the majority of residents would not welcome a thrift store because she had been contacted by 15 people who were not happy about the coming of the thrift store, but only by 3 people who approved of the store. I’m very dubious of that conclusion. Anyone who has ever dealt with the public in any way should know that people are much more likely to speak up if they are angry about something, and in this case, that phenomenon was amplified because most of the neighborhood residents who even knew about the negotiations were people who had read about it in an anti-thrift store blog post which encouraged people to call Kernighan to complain. That’s hardly going to produce a representative sample of public opinion.

In any case, Kernighan made clear in her letter what her own feelings were: she wrote that she personally didn’t think the store was a “good fit” for Lakeshore, and that she was trying to get a “more desirable” store to move into that location. She said she had contacted representatives of Out of the Closet and “explained that Lakeshore is trying hard to attract more shoppers with disposable income to keep all the stores in business and that a thrift store would lead in the other direction.” She also expressed the concerns that people would dump stuff in front of the store after-hours, and that the thrift store would create blight.

Many local residents clearly agreed with her, and some of the comments on the post called Out of the Closet a “dumpy, cheap chain” and expressed a desire for locally-owned mom and pop stores, cute boutiques and restaurants, etc. Other people took strong exception to Kernighan’s letter, and interpreted her comments about “good fit,” “more desirable,” and “attract more shoppers with disposable income” as a not-so-subtle way of saying, “we want poor people to stay away from Lakeshore Avenue and keep to their own neighborhoods where they belong.” I was one of those who took offense, and I wrote a somewhat intemperate comment on her open letter reflecting that point of view. In my opinion, the socioeconomic diversity of Lakeshore Avenue is a feature, not a bug, especially as it is surrounded by a wide variety of residential neighborhoods, with upscale single-family homes on side, and some of Oakland’s densest middle-class apartment districts on the other. For a Councilmember basically to be telling a large percentage of her constituents that they weren’t welcome on Lakeshore Avenue really bothered some of us.

Anyway, within a week, Kernighan announced that Out of the Closet had withdrawn its effort to take over the GapKids space. I don’t know whether the objections of Kernighan and others were a factor in the collapse of the deal, but presumably they didn’t help matters. Apparently East 18th Street, which tends to attract people with less “disposable income” than Lakeshore, is considered a “good fit” for Out of the Closet, because I haven’t heard any objections from Kernighan (she represents both shopping districts). I look forward to shopping there, and as far as I’m concerned, Lakeshore’s loss is East 18th’s gain.

The little brouhaha over Out of the Closet on Lakeshore is sadly typical of the way business is done—or rather, undone—in Oakland. I’ll give some other examples. Chip Johnson, the East Bay columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, has written several times about a guy he knows who was stymied in his efforts to open a little bike shop in Chinatown because of Oakland’s byzantine zoning laws and expensive permitting process. Johnson points out that the city bureaucracy seems designed to hamper economic development and enterpreneurship, not encourage it (so much for the mom-and-pop stores that Kernighan was so eager to support).

In another example, A Better Oakland wrote yesterday about a City Council “Emergency Ordinance” requiring new nail salons and laundromats to receive a “major conditional use permit” from the city for the next year, until the City can find a more long-term way to deal with the proliferation of nail salons. It costs about $3000 just to apply for one of those conditional use permits, and presumably many of them would not be granted because, as the ordinance says, “the proliferation of nail salons and self-serve laundromats along major retail corridors has become an increasing concern to Councilmembers, retail store owners and merchant associations.” In a city with a high violent crime rate and many vacant storefronts in every shopping district, it’s hard for many people to understand why “emergency” action must be taken to prevent more nail salons or laundromats from filling some of those vacant storefronts.

Finally, the East Bay Express has an article this week about how an Oakland city official discovered that used book and clothing stores could be regulated under a state “Secondhand Dealers” law which is intended to help police track stolen goods. The law is primarily meant for pawnshops, and it requires that all employees be finger-printed and a special annual fee of more than $500 must be paid for secondhard-dealing permits. Most onerous is that detailed records of each item bought and sold must be kept, and the personal information (I assume that means name, address, and driver’s license number) of each customer must be documented. Most cities exempt non-pawnshops from these requirements, but Oakland recently sent letters to 48 second-hand retailers warning them that they had until September 10th to apply for these permits and start complying with this law. Needless to say, it would be a death sentence for used bookstores—which aren’t exactly a booming business these days—if they started having to ask each customer for their personal information in order to buy a dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights or The Iliad.

I’ve never considered myself especially “pro-business” (it depends on the business!) and in a lot of ways, I’m politically in line with the Oakland City Council: I’m pro-labor, I worry about the fraying of our already-porous safety net, I would like to see less income disparity and more social justice, I support strong environmental regulations, etc., etc., etc. In many parts of the county, I would be at the far left end of the political spectrum. But there’s a joke about how a conservative is a liberal who’s been a victim of crime, and my own version of the joke is that a conservative is a liberal who has lived in Oakland for more than a few years. Oakland seems to be overflowing with examples of how government’s meddling in private contracts, or micromanaging economic development from the top down, can lead to adverse unintended consequences.

Oh, and that former GapKids storefront on Lakeshore Avenue that people were so eager to keep Out of the Closet away from a year and a half ago, because it wouldn’t be a “good fit” for the neighborhood? It’s been sitting empty ever since.

17 Responses to “East 18th Gets Thrift Store that Lakeshore Spurned”

  1. eric says:

    Interesting. Which campaign contributors to these politicians are against thrift stores and nail salons?

  2. Carol Polk says:

    Those folks opposed to Out of the Closet must never have visited one of their shops; the array of expensive merchandise, at least at the two with which I’m familiar in San Francisco and one where I shopped in Hollywood, is abundant. Sometimes some of it is a little edgy, but often it’s just quality goods.

    Jeez, upper Fillmore is as fancy a shopping street as you will find this side of Rodeo Drive, and there’s three or four thrift stores among the Marc Jacobs and Kiehl’s and Margaret O’Leary’s; people shop in all of them.

    They employ people, too (and keep the potentially empty store fronts occupied). Regardless of what Jerry Brown said today about housing prices, Oakland could learn something from SF (which is having a terrible time trying to figure out how to close down a place in the Tenderloin where people can watch sex acts, no booze, no drugs, just bodies – it falls through all the regulatory cracks. I foresee many visits by the fire department.)

  3. Tony says:

    Happy that the Hollywood Video space is finally being used, not so happy about the color scheme. I’ll take my “limited disposable” income to Out of the Closet, after hitting Pho Anh Dao.

  4. eric says:

    Oh, is that the thrift shop I went to in Hollywood? It was full of fancy designer stuff that I couldn’t afford… I kind of like the paint job. My daughter’s favorite colors!

  5. dc says:

    The only OotC I’ve been to is the one in Berkeley. Didn’t really seem any fancier than your average Salvation Army or Goodwill, but I probably only looked at the prices of the books. I assume that the quality of the inventory in thrift stores is correlated, at least to some degree, with the wealthiness of the surrounding neighborhood.

  6. eric says:

    Wow, this is almost like instant messaging…

  7. Carol Polk says:

    It is unlikely that the OotC shops in the Bay Area will have the splendiferous contents of the one I visited in Hollywood, where lots of set design goods were available. But the two I know of usually have some quality stuff, especially leather goods!

  8. Andy Panda says:

    I think that Out Of The Closet is a better fit on E. 18th St. than it would have been on Lakeshore. I think that OotC stores tend to be gross, & poorly run, with, by & large crap merchandise. I live on E. 17th st. so I am glad to see one less empty storefront & since I can’t got to Uhuru any more, I can go in OotC to snoop around when I’m bored or need a shirt to paint in. dc is correct about the contents & the neighborhood.

  9. dc says:

    Just to make sure it’s clear to Andy and any other new visitors, I am the author of this blog as well as having written the comment by “dc” above.

    I can see how OotC might be a better “fit” for East 18th than Lakeshore in some ways—in part because of the differences in the neighborhoods, but also because of the differences in the spaces (the E 18th St. store has a parking lot, for instance, which may be handy for a thrift store which has a lot of bulky dropoffs being brought in every day). That said, I think members of the City Council should err on the side of not meddling in negotiations between landlords and tenants, except in pretty limited circumstances. The possibility that some customers of a business will be people without “disposable income” is not one of those circumstances. As I said in the post, I think East 18th Street’s gain is Lakeshore’s loss—there are numerous empty storefronts on Lakeshore these days, and I wonder if any of the people who objected to OotC in early 2008 have any second thoughts when they walk past that still-vacant GapKids storefront in late 2009.

  10. Matt says:

    I agree with DC’s points. I’ve lived in five states, in or near Chicago, Miami, Philly, Dallas and LA. I also ran a lighting showroom in SF. I now own and live in Downtown Oakland. If Out of the Closet’s type of business fit within the confines of the area zoning then let it be there. For a business to want to be somewhere it makes that decision based on whether it thinks it will succeed or not. Now we have an empty storefront that only adds to a number of existing empty storefronts on Lakeshore. I ask, how can one dog Out of the Closet and be fine with the aging 24hr Colonial Donuts shop or the boisterous Easy Lounge? I would have really enjoyed perusing Out of the Closet and grabbing brunch at Rolling Dunes. Because the other stores offer me nothing my trips to Rolling Dunes stay few and far between. Healthy retail districts are divers retail districts!!!

  11. Andy Panda says:

    I went in that OotC today & the people were all on it & really nice. There were a bunch of new old stock ladies western shirts from the 1940s in the men’s long sleeve shirts section, sized medium, if anyone is interested.

  12. dave o says:

    After wasting fortunes on real estate and the auto industry in Oakland, I’m not sure if I trust the economic judgement of city government. Is there really anybody who doesn’t know about all of the pending problems (resource scarcity, many different kinds of debt, climate change, aging demographics, and on-and-on)? Thrift stores and laundramats are at the cutting edge of a future that will have less and less cash around. City government is in denial if they think that there is an affluent future for Oakland (or America).

  13. ralph says:

    While I have shopped the OOTC store in SOMA I was not enthusiastic about it opening on Lakeshore. Notwithstanding its noble mission, OOTC was not a good fit for Lakeshore. THe Lakeshore District while it may not have the same stores as a College Ave (had), it is much better than a discount thrift shop. I am glad that PK fought this and will support her in continued efforts to fight store that are not acretive to the community.

  14. jabel says:

    I have an Out of the Closet a few blocks from me near Westwood Blvd and Pico in LA and I love to wander through.I’ve never really looked at the clothes though I like to look at the assorted flotsam and jetsam.The one by me has a lot of books but they aren’t in any order and there are a good deal of mass market pulp and best seller types making it time consuming looking for the offbeat Gem.Plus one of the guys who works there wears a Red Sox cap quite often more battered than mine.

  15. ralph says:

    dc, to answer your question, i have no second thoughts about the empty GapKids. When I think of Lakeshore, I think of everyday stores not every so often stores. I want stores that fit with the economic dempgraphic. OOTC is not an everyday store for the Lakeshore demographic. The general problem I have is with people who think all stores are equal, a store is better than no store, and being hypocritical when council actually makes a smart economic decision.

    Every so often someone on council actually makes a decision that is in the best interest of Oakland. I can understand one’s frustration because these are typically one-offs versus part of a well thought out plan. All I can say is baby steps.

  16. dc says:

    Ralph: How are decisions that result in long-term empty storefronts part of a “well thought out plan” that is “in the best interest of Oakland?” As for the “Lakeshore demographic,” I would just make two points. First of all, some people with disposable income enjoy shopping in thrift stores (even some of the people objecting to OotC on the Grand Lake Guardian website freely admitted that they sometimes drive to other neighborhoods to shop in thrift stores—they just didn’t want one on Lakeshore). Secondly, the “Lakeshore demographic” is much broader than just the people who live in Trestle Glen. Lakeshore is used as a primary shopping district for many people in less wealthy areas such as Adams Point or East Lake (or should that be “Eastlake”?), and they come for a wide variety of reasons, whether it be affordable food at Trader Joe’s, idiosyncratic knick knacks at Urban Indigo, fruits and vegetables at the farmer’s market, Yoga classes at Monkey Shala, or sneakers at Foot Locker. I doubt there is any single person who frequents more than 50 percent of the stores on Lakeshore, but urban neighborhoods are urban because they have a bunch of people with diverse interests and diverse habits and diverse means who all live in close proximity, and I don’t see the great harm in adding a thrift store to the mix.

    Incidentally, I stopped by Out of the Closet today, and it was actually nicer than I expected. Perhaps it’s because the store is brand new, but it seems to have less junky stuff and be less disorganized than a lot of thrift stores. I got a decent lightweight Pendleton wool shirt and a parrot necktie. It seemed to have plenty of customers too. It’ll be interesting to see what it’s like six months from now.

  17. william says:

    I rarely go into any stores on Lakeshore or Grand Avenue, except Trader Joe’s, and I hesitate to go there, due to the crowds. I don’t buy women’s clothing, dull GAP clothing or over-priced athletic shoes. I may have popped in OOTC if it were there. But there’s not much else of any interest to me. nearly 50 AWM.

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