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Before the coronavirus pandemic, sales at Bridget Cain’s downtown Oakland clothing shop, Proper Fashions Boutique, were great. Cain excelled at finding “sassy, sexy styles” for women of all sizes.
“As far as I’m concerned, my mindset, we all want to be sassy,” she told The Oaklandside in an interview. “I don’t care what size you are, just be fancy and classy and sassy, you can’t go wrong.”
She used to love helping walk-in customers pick out something to buy. “It makes my day when a customer tries something out and it brightens their day,” said Cain, who first opened her shop in 1991 and moved to her current location at 1200 Clay Street last year.
When one customer admitted she didn’t want to come in because she thought the clothes wouldn’t fit her, Cain replied, “‘We don’t use the word big in here, we use the word sassy, so let me find you something.”
“She found something and was in tears,” said Cain.
But Cain’s store, like hundreds of other clothing boutiques in Oakland, has been closed for over four months now because of the pandemic. Her customers can no longer touch the fabrics or try something on. Cain has relied on online sales to keep her business afloat, but with little money to invest, she has struggled to transition to web-based marketing. To top it all off, her windows were broken and tagged with graffiti during a recent protest.
When asked what kind of assistance she needs to shift gears and stay in business during the pandemic, Cain replied, “Definitely marketing, promotion.”
Thanks to a small grant from the Black Business Fund, Cain was able to clean up the graffiti, board up her windows, pay the rent, and focus on her web strategy. But the transition to online sales has been difficult.
“It became a nightmare,” Cain said about problems she encountered trying to add the 20,000 items in her clothing inventory to her current website.
Cain is now working on redesigning her website. As of now, only 10% of the store’s inventory is posted online.
Cain is one of 10 business owners in Oakland getting a boost from the Black Business Fund, which was created in early June when real estate developer Elisse Douglass started a GoFundMe page to help black-owned businesses that were damaged during protests.
Douglass’ campaign received a huge outpouring of support and raised over $110,000 in a couple weeks. She then teamed up with Trevor Parham, a Black entrepreneur and owner of workspace company Oakstop, to expand the campaign. They decided to name it the Black Business Fund. As part of its first phase, the BBF distributed checks of up to $5,000 to business owners to help with repairs and other needs. The specific grant amounts distributed to business owners are confidential, said Parham, but the amounts are based on the financial needs of each business.
The BBF is also currently working on promotional videos that will give Black-owned businesses the exposure they need to bring in more revenue. Proper Fashions Boutique will be featured in videos produced by the Black Business Fund.
Lilly and Kyrah Ayers, a married couple who own the wellness shop Queen Hippie Gypsy, are in a similar situation to Cain’s. Their business, which they describe as a “hub for Black girl magic,” was based on in-person customer service. The couple had been operating their brick and mortar shop for two years.
They were in the process of creating their website when the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down. Lilly said that Kyrah had to rush to create the website in two weeks so that they could ship products out.
“We haven’t been able to put all our products on the site and it’s been a big process just trying to fill the demand,” Lilly Ayers said.
Their business was born out of a chance meeting when Lilly Ayers was 15 years old. “I purchased my first crystal from a Black woman in Berkeley who was selling crystals on Shattuck Avenue. I was blown away that there was a woman who looked like me who was selling crystals,” she said.
“I have over 18,000 people who follow me on Instagram and that happened organically,” said Lilly Ayers. “I didn’t have to do a lot, I just had to be me and people have shown up for that.”
Due to the overwhelming amount of online support they’ve received, Kyrah and Lilly Ayers are now struggling to keep up with the demand. They are even in the process of hiring an employee to help them handle a 7 to 10-week backlog of orders. Queen Hippie Gypsy is open for curbside pickup, but the downtown neighborhood is not what it used to be. Foot traffic has slowed, and Lilly said the neighborhood feels like a ghost town.
“We realize we’re not going back to 2019, it’s never going to be the same,” she said. “We’re focusing on the future and how we can meet the times now. That’s what I’m encouraging other small businesses to do, is to see this as the new normal.”