A sociologist and an anthropologist sat down to talk about retail, and the conversation inevitably spread out in ever larger circles from its starting point: the imminent closure of the colorful Collage Clothing Lounge at 3344 Lakeshore Ave. This sad kernel of a recent conversation between me and Collage owner/sociology major, Amanda Robinson, jumped quickly from the facts of her closeout sale (clothing is currently 35% off) to gentrification and the delicate chemistry of a thriving neighborhood.
Gentrification is obvious. Robinson says that the clientele she opened her own boutique to serve – after working as the manager of $100K-per-week Anthropologie on Berkeley’s Fourth Street – has been priced out of the local rental market since she and her husband, Masud Wiggins, opened Collage six years ago. These customers have moved to Hercules, Pinole, and beyond, while the apartments in the building where Robinson and her young family live near Lake Merritt have filled with techies who pay twice their rent and purchase clothing (and a lot of it) from online retailers, judging from the piles of boxes Robinson steps over at the entrance to her building every day. These newcomers are not walking the Avenue in search of eclectic styles served up with warm, personal customer service. If they venture past Trader Joe’s to spend money on Lakeshore, it is likely to eat, or to have their phone plans upgraded, legs waxed, hair styled, and abs tightened. Services are doing fine; retailers are hurting.
Sales at Collage have plummeted recently, except for a bumper day on January 21st, post-inauguration, when locals apparently sought retail therapy – wanting to doing something to make themselves feel better, but also seeking to be with like-minded people to engage in conversation and affirm connections. This is exactly what is lost with the closure of family businesses like Collage. You don’t go to the Verizon store for tea and sympathy. My own parents were neighborhood shopkeepers like Robinson from 1970-1995. In addition to occasionally buying something (often on layaway), people also came into our store to breastfeed their babies, store packages too cumbersome to carry, and gossip. Customers and shopkeepers need each other, and, importantly, the shopkeepers needed other shopkeepers.
After my conversation with Amanda, I’m thinking a lot about the stores in the Grand Lake neighborhood as one large organism whose parts are integrally connected. When Arizmendi decided to close on Mondays, sales at Collage way down the street dropped 25 percent. When Sway closed, its teenaged customers’ mothers no longer made their way across the street to shop at Collage. The farmer’s market boosts foot traffic on Saturday afternoons, but not enough to warrant an extra employee due to aforementioned gentrification. These micro-changes add up. Rose Quartz, Posh, Sway, Silver Lining, and Collage (all now closed, or closing) were not competitors. There was no sigh of relief when one or the other shuttered its doors. Unlike hardware stores, certain businesses – such as clothing boutiques, antique stores, and thrift shops – need one another to create a shopping destination, a place where friends might spend an afternoon exploring.
During the time I hung out in Collage talking with Amanda between customers, news of her decision to close was met with genuine dismay by shoppers. “I’ll be back until you’re not here anymore,” one regular promised. Collage has a loyal following – “There are 500 people out there who will be very upset when we’re gone,” Robinson predicts – “but regulars can’t keep the place going.” A small store needs foot traffic and new faces. Hosting art exhibits and music events and launching GoFundMe campaigns are not long-term business plans; they are Band-Aids. Visibly upset, Robinson told me that she had intended to run the shop for the rest of her career; she had intended to close only when she retired, just as her neighbors, Peggy Wood and Carol Knight, of Silver Lining did a year ago. However, this is not how the story is unfolding, unless a miracle happens in the next month or so. With all of her experience, Robinson essentially has a Ph.D. in Retail. If she can’t make it work, I don’t know who can, especially when rents literally triple between tenants.
When a customer leaves Collage – with or without a purchase – Robinson calls out, “Enjoy the block!” Not, “Thank you for visiting Collage.” Enjoy Lakeshore, enjoy the community, appreciate walking from business to business – thanks for shopping local.