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Last July, as the pandemic was worsening and a national uprising against police violence swept through Oakland, four employees of E. M. Wolfman General Interest Small Bookstore were worried about the downtown business’s impending closure. Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, Samantha Maria Espinoza, Tara Marsden, and Sophia Schultz Rocha all felt that it was important to hold down a physical space for the community, and they feared what a loss of Wolfman would mean. Since 2014, Wolfman had served as a hub for artists and writers.
“Everyone felt very rooted in that space,” said Marsden. “We were using it as a safe space for people to go to get supplies, rest, or go to the bathroom. The location felt central to the moment.”
The four decided to form a collective and keep the doors open amid the turmoil around them.
“We were all ready, after a few years of working in that space, to put our own energy into it, our own spin, and take it on from a non-hierarchical collective undertaking,” said Espinoza.
The four founded Moments Cooperative and Community Space, which serves as a bookseller, community center, and artist hub. The goal is to foster an “intentional place” that meets the needs of its creative and physical community. Collective members said they’re focused on creating programming that intentionally caters to Oakland’s artists of color.
This goal has resonated with supporters. Upon acquiring the lease to the storefront, the collective raised $30,000 for operating expenses. Using a GoFundMe campaign, they exceeded their goal by $5,000 in five-days and have committed to using the donations solely on the space.
Inside the small collectively run store, a shock of vibrant colors decorate its walls. A large banner that reads “We Are Dreaming” in technicolor letters hangs above the main floor. Collective members say they wanted to redefine the space and make it more accessible after assuming the lease from Wolfman. “We want to be a place that does more than just sells and provides books,” said Marsden.
“My hope and dream for Moments is that it can be a complete hub for resource distribution,” said Schultz Rocha, “a one-stop space to get free zines. Publish your work; get free groceries. A seed lending library. Ways for people to share knowledge and resources outside of an institutional framework, a nonprofit framework. It’s limitless what the space can be.”
Moments is trying to find its footing in turbulent social, political, and economic climate. Because they opened in January the pandemic has restricted some of what they can offer: for example, in-person browsing is not an option. But Moments has been able to engage customers and community members through an active Instagram presence that advertises an inventory that is almost completely composed of authors of color. They offer curbside pick-up and shipping for book orders.
“There’s still ways we’re trying to adapt and think of creative solutions of how people can use our resources and access the space while keeping everyone safe,” said Schultz Rocha.
The collective’s members felt it was necessary to create two residency programs to highlight the creative potential of young Oaklanders, and to support their work. Moments’ artist and writer residency offers a $500 stipend and the project residency offers a $300 stipend. Residents have 24-hour access to the space and free use of all creative materials with the sole expectation that they create.
“I’m just thinking back to when I was 17 or 18 making art and how $500 and a three-month residency would’ve been so exciting and such a unique experience. Being able to think of our younger selves [as artists] is really important,” said Schultz Rocha.
The first artist and writer resident, Camille Savannah Quartz, was born and raised in Oakland and blends artistic mediums that include, collage, photography, and prose in her work. At 21 years old, Camille’s residency is a testament to the collective’s outreach efforts.
The project resident, Danielle Hirokane, 29, integrates abolition, photography, and Reiki healing into community initiatives that include healing circles, distribution of postpartum care kits, and a monthly food pantry.
“We as a collective have a social responsibility to share that space and opportunity with folks from Oakland,” said Espinoza.
Moment’s is one of a handful of Bay Area booksellers owned by people of color. Others include the online vendor Booklandia, the long standing Marcus Books in North Oakland, and Vallejo’s Ashay by the Bay. As such, Moments founders felt it important to “fulfill a need and want for a specific art-based space exclusively for BIPOC + QTPOC,” said Espinoza, who added that bookshops are “predominantly run by white people” and often don’t center literature that speaks to the experiences of BIPOC an QTPOC communities.”
Former EM Wolfman owner Justin Carder said he supports the new collective. “I’m really looking forward to what they do,” said Carder. “What moments is doing is seeing the potential [for the space] in ways that I wasn’t able to see. Being able to take the form of the store and move it beyond what I could imagine is the exciting thing for me.”
Having people of color running their own spaces is important, said Carder. “There are organizations that center Black and Indegenous people of color in their programming, but who’s on the board of those organizations? Moments is a microcosm of systemic change and showing what Black and indigenous people of color’s leadership looks like in a really holistic ground up approach. It’ll serve as a model to other orgs around the country.”
Crafting a communal, artistic, and literary space is at the heart of the collective, and while its founders are committed to that romantic notion, they also are deeply rooted in understanding and addressing the everyday material needs of their immediate community. That’s why Moments is a part of the Town Fridge network, a no-questions-asked system for community members to access free food.
Asked who has been accessing the fridge, Marsden said “it’s mostly our unhoused neighbors in downtown Oakland and commuters and essential workers going between jobs. It’s been an interesting learning process so we have to fine-tune and listen to the folks who are contributing and requesting.”
Espinoza said that while dreams are central, the Moments collective’s members want to strike a balance between the practical and ideal. Immediate practical goals for the collective are to build a robust customer base.
“We need people to buy books to make the space self-sustaining” said Espinoza. But beyond that the possibilities are enormous. “I feel really blessed that it’s the four of us running the space. I’m excited for the future to see what happens in a year, then two years.”