Sam Asiema outside his shop, African Retail Traders, located at 2242 MacArthur Boulevard. Credit: Ricky Rodas

This article is the first in a series looking at how small businesses are doing in Oakland’s neighborhoods and commercial districts.

Sam Asiema, owner of African Retail Traders on MacArthur Boulevard in the Dimond District, has never shied away from diversifying his merchandise to suit the needs of his customers. Over the course of his 26 years running the shop, he’s sold everything from CDs, to African art, to clothing, and natural body products. Staying nimble, he said, has never been as important as it is now, during the pandemic.

When his customers began sheltering in place last March, Asiema said he “quickly changed my inventory” and began selling shea butter products, essential oils, and other personal care items. “You must constantly be on the lookout for changes,” he said.

Sam Asiema posing in front of some of his wares. Credit: Ricky Rodas

The tiny shop is one of dozens of businesses in Oakland’s Dimond District, a quaint neighborhood nestled around a commercial hub at MacArthur Boulevard and Fruitvale Avenue. As in other parts of Oakland, the pandemic has pushed some businesses in Dimond to the brink of closure, while others have been forced to shut their doors for good. Meanwhile, even in the midst of an economic crisis, some entrepreneurs there have found a way to open up new establishments.

The Oaklandside spoke with several shop owners in the Dimond District about what doing business in the neighborhood is like, and how they’ve fared during the pandemic thus far.

A strong sense of community, and a loyalty to local business owners

Asiema, a former accountant, moved to Oakland from Texas in 1995 solely to start African Retail Traders. “A friend of mine had this space and was an artist,” said Asiema. “He told me he was going out of business and I thought I could use this space to sell African goods.”

Once he arrived and set up shop in the neighborhood, Asiema found himself enamored with everything the Dimond District had to offer. “We have quite a number of grocery stores, restaurants, storefronts, and I think it’s multicultural,” said Asiema. ”The quality of life is really good.”

Most of the business owners, whether they’ve been in the neighborhood for decades or a few years, know each other.

“We’re like a little family here,” said Paul Phanthaphomsy, owner of Dimond Cafe, a family-run business on Fruitvale Avenue that was founded by Paul’s parents in 1995 as a donut shop. Phanthaphomsy took over the business in 2006 and turned it into a brunch spot during a time when young people were beginning to move into the neighborhood in greater numbers.

Phanthaphomsy said his parents opened the business because they saw an economic opportunity—but they stayed because of the community. “I would say 80% of the people that place an order with us are repeat customers,” he said. “The energy and vibe we get from the community is what drives us.”

Dimond Cafe, located at 3430 Fruitvale Avenue. Credit: Ricky Rodas

The neighborhood is also conveniently located, said Phanthaphomsy. “A lot of folks have started to move into the Dimond District and the reason they like living here is because of the mom and pop shops and easy freeway access,” he said, referring to the Interstate 580 freeway offramp located near the intersection of Fruitvale Boulevard and Montana Street.

The business district draws its customer base from the residential areas immediately surrounding it, and from the homes nestled in the hills above. Before the pandemic, residents would often walk down Fruitvale Avenue to visit their favorite shops. According to Calanit Kamala, chair of the Dimond Business and Professional Association and owner of a cafe on MacArthur Boulevard named Hive, The Place to Bee, there’s a core group of neighbors who are extremely loyal to the district’s small businesses.

“Even at the height of the pandemic, they still leave their house every day and come to the cafe,” Calanit said. “Your emphasis as a business owner is creating community around your business, then that community will support you when times are hard.”

Hive, the Place To Bee, a cafe located at 2139 MacArthur Boulevard. Credit: Ricky Rodas

Jesús Salazar of Foothill Vacuum Cleaner Center, who specializes in repair jobs, also relies on a community of returning customers. His core clientele are house cleaners who work in the hills and rely on Jesús because of his shop’s convenient location, and because he speaks Spanish.

The vacuum repair business was founded by Salazar’s father 26 years ago and previously located on Foothill Boulevard in East Oakland. It relocated to its current location in the Dimond District about 16 years ago. About the original location, Salazar said “people from the hills don’t like to go down there because the neighborhood is not too good. But here the neighborhood is a little better.”

Photographer Ellen Shershow, owner of Shershow Studios, also moved to the Dimond District after originally opening her shop in another part of East Oakland, on International Boulevard and 45th Street in Fruitvale. She opened the new shop last December, and said she’s happy to be back in the neighborhood she once lived in.

“I’ve had the business for about eight years. [At the old location] I was on the second floor in a warehouse way in the back, so moving my studio to its current location has been really big,” Shershow said. “I get the whole building and I get a storefront. My business hasn’t changed but I feel like it’s taken a big step forward.”

Shershow Studios is located on Dimond Avenue and has taken over the space once occupied by Paws and Claws, a pet food store and grooming spa that was beloved by many in the neighborhood. Shershow specializes in photographing dogs and other pets, and said the excess of restaurants and cafes in the area makes it easy for her to appease clients while she works.

“I bring my clients in about 10 a.m. and we photograph for about an hour. The ability to send them off to get lunch” while they wait for the photos, she said, “has been wonderful. Having worked in an area where there aren’t a lot of restaurants nearby, it’s been so great to be able to walk to a cup of coffee or walk to have a meal.”

Restaurant and cafe owners have faced challenges during the pandemic

Although some business owners we spoke with consider the Dimond’s location in Oakland to be an advantage, it has also posed some challenges for restaurant and cafe owners trying to keep their businesses going during the pandemic. “We don’t have a patio and we don’t have a front so unfortunately we’re unable to [serve customers outdoors]. Everything we sell is either pick-up or delivery,” said Phanthaphomsy, the owner of Dimond Cafe.

Kamala of the Dimond Business and Professional Association said the neighborhood’s streets have made it difficult for business owners to utilize the city’s Flex Streets program, which was established to allow businesses to more easily obtain permits to operate outdoors.

“In Temescal, for example, you have more opportunity to divert traffic than we do, and we have the freeway right here so we get a lot more traffic,” Kamala said.

Those challenges, in addition to health orders forbidding large gatherings, led to the cancellation of this year’s Oaktoberfest. In previous years, the popular street festival was a reliable source of revenue for businesses in the district.

During the pandemic, the Dimond Business and Professional Association has reached out to local business owners to assess their needs, and has tried to support restaurants in the neighborhood by purchasing and giving away gift cards, but those efforts haven’t been enough, said Kamala, and the city has also been slow to respond to the association’s pleas to support small business owners in the district. “We haven’t been successful at getting any attention from them,” she said.

The Oaklandside contacted District 4 council member Sheng Thao but her office couldn’t be reached in time for comment.

The pandemic has also led to a decrease in foot traffic in the Dimond, which has negatively affected businesses there, according to Kamala.

Jesus Salazar outside his business, Foothill Vacuum Cleaner Center, a vacuum repair shop located at 3222 Fruitvale Avenue. Credit: Ricky Rodas

Salazar, owner of Foothill Vacuum Cleaner Center, said the housekeepers who frequent his shop have gotten less work due to COVID, and the downturn has had a ripple effect on his business.

“They work in Montclair and in the Dimond as housekeepers, but the people there stopped calling them to work because of COVID,” Salazar said. His customers are also buying spare vacuum parts online now instead of going into his shop. “People still bring in vacuum cleaners, but not like before.”

Still, other business owners, like Asiema, are finding reasons to remain positive. Preparation and creativity, he said, have allowed him to make a living even while sales are down. “You make the environment, so that’s why I haven’t sat down to identify my environment’s ups and downs” during the pandemic, he said.

Shershow, the photographer, has actually seen an uptick in the amount of people requesting photo portraits of their furry friends since the onset of COVID-19 and shelter-in-place. “We’re now spending 24 hours a day with our dogs,” she noted. “So this emotional connection that I think people have always had for dogs has become more important.”

Shershow Studios, a pet photography studio located at 3436 Dimond Avenue. Credit: Ricky Rodas

Shershow said she hopes to live up to the legacy that Paws and Claws left behind. “When It closed, it was a sad moment for a lot of folks,” she said. “I’m hoping that I can rise to the challenge by making it as much a part of the neighborhood” as that shop was. Shershow is considering hiring a dog dentist as well as a mobile groomer, but those plans are tentative for now.

Although the Dimond Business and Professional Association doesn’t formally track business closures, Kamala estimated that about four businesses have closed in the neighborhood since the pandemic started.

Still, Kamala is hopeful that the loyalty of the neighborhood’s residents will be able to help keep business owners like herself going, and that in the end, the struggle “is just going to make our neighborhood stronger.”

Correction: A previous version of this story identified Calanit Kamala as the chair of the Dimond Improvement Association. She is in fact the chair of the Dimond Business and Professional Association.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.