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In the four years since Sarah Stefaniuk co-founded the online shopping directory Local Motiv, she has seen commerce at indie shops in Oakland go from bustling to sluggish due to the pandemic.
Stefanik spent the last few years documenting the local shops she discovered and giving them shoutouts on Local Motiv’s Instagram account, while slowly adding to the online directory.
“The idea was, building a platform that would allow people to shop local online” and bypass corporate marketplaces, said Stefanik, who started Local Motiv alongside her wife, Danielle Pelczarski, and their friend Ivetta Starikova. “One man kind of decided how we shop online,” she said, referring to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. “It’s a really unsatisfactory experience, in my opinion.”
During their first two years of documenting businesses on Local Motiv’s IG account, Stefanik counted only 17 shops that had closed down. Then the pandemic hit and she watched that number steadily climb. From March to August of this year, at least 13 of the 130 local shops currently in her directory closed their storefronts.
Movement Ink was founded in 2013 by Rene Quiñonez, a formerly incarcerated, San Francisco native turned community activist. Occupying the first floor of a two-story brick building in the heart of the Laurel District, Movement Ink was much more than a local business. It was a community space and a cultural hub.
When Quiñonez opened the store nearly eight years ago he was one of only a few brown business owners in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. His original shirt designs, which blended Oakland culture and strong political commentary, quickly grabbed the attention of community members. Quñonez designed a t-shirt during last year’s teachers’ strike that read, “Teachers are the Heart of Oakland.” Another shirt featured the slogan “The People Contra La Migra,” condemning U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s raids, separation of families at the border, and deportations.
In addition to spreading messages of social justice, Movement Ink was a convening place for local activists and artists of color: Over the years, the shop has hosted Black Lives Matter meetings, panel discussions with feminist brown poets and creators, and fundraisers for Dreamers (undocumented young people who came to the U.S. as children and have been at the forefront of the immigrant rights movement). The shop also hosted a fundraiser for a 14-year-old who was dragged off his bike in a hit-and-run in January 2019 on one of Oakland’s most dangerous streets, 35th Avenue.
Movement Ink also served as an incubator for other small businesses, and Quinoñez made sure the space remained in the community’s hands in the midst of rapid gentrification. Last year, he stepped away from running day-to-day operations at the shop to focus on social justice work helping formerly incarcerated men of color re-enter into the workforce. Rather than giving up the storefront, he offered the space to other local entrepreneurs without the cash flow to open their own business.
Things were going well until the pandemic halted Quiñonez’s vision of keeping Movement Ink a cultural hub for Oakland’s Black and brown communities.
‘We got wind of a potential shelter-in-place before Oakland and Alameda County jumped on board,” Quiñonez said of learning about the health risks posed by COVID-19 through the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “I immediately had a conversation with the local entrepreneurs that were rotating different days through the store that we needed to shut down operations,” he said. “I made the decision not to put my community at risk.”
Movement Ink closed on March 11, six days before the county issued its shelter-in-place order.
Although some retailers have reopened their doors as Alameda County’s shelter in place guidelines loosen up, Quiñonez did not feel it was appropriate or safe. “It was clear that the pandemic is not under control. It’s getting worse,” he said.
Quiñonez said elected officials have lost their grip on handling the pandemic and keeping the community safe. “What is clear to me is that they are knowingly putting the most vulnerable communities at risk,” he said of the restaurant and retail workforce that’s continued to work despite the still-high number of COVID-19 cases in the Bay Area and across the state.
“The storefront was great while the space was being utilized,” Quiñonez said. “But now, we can’t even access our space. Come April, May, June, July and now August. The space looks abandoned. It’s very demoralizing.”
Unable to afford rent, Quiñonez said he’ll be closing Movement Ink for good on September 15. “I’m afraid of what is going to happen to the Laurel,” he said. “The loss of invested members in the community—it broke my heart.”
While the loss of local businesses also disheartens Stefaniuk, she’s hopeful that some will find a way to survive.
She is currently keeping a COVID edition of her Oakland indie business listing, to shine a spotlight on business owners whose doors are open, including those with limited hours of operation. Any Oakland merchant can be added to the directory. She’s also keeping up with local merchants, visiting them in person when it is safe, documenting how they are faring during the pandemic, and writing about the shops she visits. (In one recent post, she paid homage to the now-shuttered Wolfman Books.) Stefanik has also turned Local Motiv’s IG account into a digital space where local business owners can find financial resources.
“I have a speck of hope,” said Stefaniuk, “rents will go down, and hopefully, there will be money from the government to invest in the community. I hope for a rebirth.”