Crowdfunding Love

by C. J. Hirschfield

Ain’t Love Grand – – Avenue

A bookstore. A bar. A beloved storybook park.

What do they all have in common? A community that can’t imagine the world without it and that rallied to keep itself alive through highly successful online crowdfunding campaigns. And in each case, a special “angel” arrived to help—right on time.

The pandemic brought pain to Oakland’s Walden Pond Books, The Alley Piano Bar and Restaurant, and Children’s Fairyland, threatening their very existence. Collectively they represent over 250 years of history in the City’s Grand Lake district (and have received countless “best of” awards), but COVID-19 was a threat they never could have imagined.

Bob Fisher Photo

First opened in 1973, Walden Pond Books is Oakland’s largest independent bookstore, with a substantial selection of both new and used books, as well as a rare/antique books selection.

Owner Paul Curatolo says he realized in week two of the shutdown that appealing directly to the public was a necessity. “Even a month of closure is crazy financially,” he says, “let alone many months with no end in sight.” He explains that without a new source of funding, the purchase of new books would have stopped.

The funds raised through the store’s GoFundMe campaign (over $108,000) were spent to catch up with book publishers, bring back employees, and pay for rent and utilities.

Curatolo says he was very surprised at the amount of fear people expressed over losing the store. “It really made me feel that our bookstore was very important to our community–that we mattered to our customers in a personal way.” It brought tears to his eyes, he says.

Walden Pond Books’ special angel appeared in the form of the store’s landlady, Marilyn Drews. She forgave Walden Pond all of April and May’s rent—not just deferring it, but forgiving it entirely. On the store’s Facebook page, she received many kudos for her generosity, and Curatolo still marvels at how special Mrs. Drew is to have made this unanticipated gift.

 Walden Pond Books is currently open for business—every day—with masking and social distancing, as well as for online ordering https://www.waldenpondbooks.com/.

Across Grand Avenue from Walden Pond is The Alley, the last piano bar in Oakland, where the late and legendary pianist/singer Rod Dibble held court for a half-century. Visitors to the bar could sing solos accompanied by Dibble and exceptional performances were celebrated by the sound of a cowbell. When the pandemic hit, The Alley was forced to close. Fans and regulars learned in December that owner Jackie Simpkins only had enough funds to cover mortgage and utilities for two months, which is when Alley pianist Bryan Seet stepped up to spearhead the crowdfunding campaign. Without additional funding, presumably the bar—which has been open since 1933 and is a registered Oakland heritage business—would have been forced to close for good.

The Alley’s GoFundMe campaign, along with a recent (virtual) show and auction, has so far raised $107,216 toward a goal of $175,000.

The initial target goal of $75,000 is being put toward paying The Alley’s mortgage, property tax, and utility expenses for the next five to six months. But supporters note that owner Simpkins is also facing $100,000 in renovation expenses required by the Alameda County Health Board. Additional funds raised will be put toward these large upcoming costs. It’s hoped that these renovations—which are a bit tricky because the bar’s historic interior needs to be preserved—will be completed over the next four months.

The Alley’s special angel was the family of Ben Runnels, who donated $5,000 to the cause. The Alley’s media contact Rachel Howard says that Ben was a beloved Alley regular, one half of the indie band IntroFlirt, and he taught himself to sing at The Alley. “His voice transfixed everyone who walked in and heard him,” she says. Ben was killed in the Ghost Ship fire in 2016. “We will always keep his memory alive at The Alley.”

The Alley’s message to the supporters who are still stepping up to help? “YOU are The Alley. It’s not just a bar or a business, but a community.” And they can’t wait to re-open.

The Alley’s GoFundMe page is still active here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/savethealley

Until the doors are once again allowed to open, The Alley offers a virtual piano bar on Facebook every Friday night, a live trivia night on Zoom every Monday night, and a Thursday night Zoom piano bar, where people sing two songs each with backing tracks. Info on those ongoing events is posted here: https://www.facebook.com/TheAlleyPianoBar.

As for Children’s Fairyland, the community made clear that it wants this magical place for our youngest kids to be able to have a Happily Forever After. The first storybook theme park in the nation (and an inspiration to Walt Disney, who opened his park five years after visiting Fairyland), the park celebrated its 70th last year, during the pandemic.

After being forced to close last March, Park Executive Director Kymberly Miller knew she had to clearly communicate with the Fairyland community, and quickly—in April. “We wouldn’t have been able to host Celebrity Storytime (a free, virtual event that was a gift to the community, hosted by native Oakland celebrities Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal), reopen in October and November, and support staff during our closure… Fairyland would have definitely been on the shelf.”

The GoFundMe campaign raised $317,000 from April through December, which was spent on measures to keep the park safe and maintained. Miller lists them: necessary PPE, refitted equipment, oodles of new signage, handwashing and sanitizer stations, decals, face shields, disinfectants and more. The “down time” was also used for needed facelifts to a few of the park’s exhibits. “The Happy Dragon is Orang-er and the Merry Miller is Merrier,” she says.

Acknowledging the outpouring of support the park received, Miller says that it was overwhelming, but not surprising. “It confirmed what we knew all along, that the Bay loves their Fairyland. At 70 years old, the park is part of multiple generations. Whole families talk about Fairyland as the backdrop to their childhoods.”

Fairyland’s special angel prefers to remain anonymous but surprised the park at the end of the year with a $50,000 challenge grant. The donation came from a young family that clearly understands the value of creativity, imagination, stories, and play and wanted to help Fairyland, says Miller.

Children’s Fairyland is now open from Wednesday to Sunday, with pre-ticketing, two daily sessions, and numerous safety protocols. General donations are still welcome at https://fairyland.org/get-involved/support-fairyland/

Fairyland’s Kymberly Miller undoubtedly speaks for the 100+ devoted employees of all three of these cherished institutions that make Oakland so special, and who have definitely felt the love in these tough times when she says simply, “Magic is real. Thank YOU!”

C. J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for The Oaklandside, EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University. Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film Series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.