When Mary and Carlo Busby first opened Sagrada, their spiritual goods retail shop in 1994 on 49th Street in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, the area wasn’t quite the bustling business corridor it is today. “There were a lot of anchor businesses like Asmara [Eritrean restaurant] that are still around today, but there were a lot of empty spaces,” Mary Busby said.
The couple had been living in the neighborhood for a year and decided they wanted to open a store that would cater to the spiritual, civic-minded crowd that called the area home.
“We wanted to create a place where we could celebrate spirituality in whatever forms because that wasn’t here [yet],” Mary said. “There was a lot of interest, at least among the people we hung out with, around progressive spiritual traditions and social justice.”
They named their store Illuminations, eventually changing it to Sagrada, and moved to a bigger location around the corner on Telegraph Avenue. Twenty eight years later, the Busbys have managed to stay in business thanks to a steady stream of loyal customers. However, they told The Oaklandside that they are ready to retire and are looking for a new owner to manage Sagrada.
“We’ve given this our all, so it’s a beautiful garden that we’ve tended to for a long time,” Mary said. “It’s made it through the pandemic, it’s blossoming again, and we feel like it’s a good time for someone else to live their dream here.”
Carlo Busby cited old age as a reason to hand off the business. “I just turned 75,” Carlo said. “So we want to do this at this time when everything is positive [with the business] and guide whoever might come along to the work, and assist them if we can.”
A lifelong pursuit of faith and progressive values leads to a business venture
Mary met Carlo while she was the musical director and he was a pastor working at Newman Hall, the Catholic Student Center at UC Berkeley. When Carlo left the priesthood to be with his now-wife, they both had to find another way to make a living. Raised as Catholics, they had pursued careers in the Catholic church, but the pair began studying other spiritual traditions. They decided they would leverage their faith-based backgrounds as a way to “serve this neighborhood,” Mary said. Initially, people asked her why they would even consider opening a shop in Temescal. “They would ask us, ‘Why did you put your store here, you should be somewhere else.’”
Some of the businesses at the time included Genova’s Deli and Mission Sewing. One of the neighborhood’s paint shops, Mark’s Paint, has been on Telegraph Avenue for as long as Carlo can remember.
“It was more of a pass-through place with some destination businesses,” Carlo said. “But there wasn’t really a lot going on. It wasn’t a very walkable neighborhood.”
Carlo and Mary were part of the Temescal Merchants Association in the early 2000s and advocated on behalf of the small business owners in the neighborhood.
Carlo remembers the area being more diverse than today. The couple has been witness to the displacement experienced by some of their neighbors. “There are some real concerns for people who have been here a long time and are contending with the cost of housing, and I think that’s a challenge,” said Carlo.
When dealing with newer residents that are often seen as gentrifiers, Mary and Carlo have tried to be understanding. “We see younger people moving into the area, and what we see is them searching and questioning [their existence] and so that maybe gives us a different perspective about them than seeing people at the new big box stores and new restaurants,” Carlo said.
The shop’s namesake is the Spanish word for “sacred,” and the Busbys have spent nearly three decades filling its shelves and racks with sacred goods for people from all walks of life.
Just inside the store, customers’ senses are greeted by gentle sounding meditative music, the relaxing smell of incense, as well as an assortment of religious texts and items from every spiritual practice imaginable. One walk around inside Sagrada takes you to a different corner of the faith spectrum: books and items on indigenous spiritual practices sit across from a section dedicated to African American spirituality; a glass case nestled in the middle of the store holds a variety of prayer beads for Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims.
Aside from offering a wide selection of spiritual items, the Busbys also have socially conscious books and items that they feel are in line with the shops’ ethos. A children’s section in the back includes Ibram X. Kendi’s book Antiracist Baby, which was written as a tool for discussing racism with kids. The book table in the front of the shop features works from historian Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.
“I think faith or spirituality, when it becomes part of you, makes want to engage with the world with socially-minded values,” Carlo said. “It should be a natural progression to go from having a deep faith to engaging with homelessness and other social issues in an empathetic way.”
Sagradas’ selection might seem niche, but the Busbys say it has garnered a wide appeal over the years. It was initially hard to make a profit at the old location on 49th St. because “our little shop was 20 feet by 20 feet and we didn’t know if it was going to survive,” Mary said, but the people eventually came around.
“We relied on word of mouth in those early days, and what I’m very grateful for is that almost everyone who came into the shop liked it, would tell other people about it, and return,” Carlo said. “We slowly had a growing group of people who became our family.”
The Busbys are actively looking for a new owner, and are also beginning to feel the sadness that comes with leaving behind a piece of their livelihood. “We are grieving like you grieve the loss of anything,” said Mary. “But we are happy that the shop will have a new parent.”