Alyah Baker for Show and Tell Concept Shop was interviewed by Kelly Reddy-Best in Oakland, CA in Show and Tell Concept Shop. The interview was 58 minutes. The oral history transcript reflects the history of the brand at the time of the interview.
Oral History Video
Oral History Transcript
ALYAH: My name is Alyah Baker and I’m one of the co-founders of Qulture Collective and the owner of Show and Tell Concept Shop.
REDDY-BEST: Cool, so can you just tell me, you know about your background, such as, where did you grow up, and where did you live?
ALYAH: Sure, I was born in New Jersey. I was born in New Jersey, and I lived there until I was 10 years old, then I moved to North Carolina with my family, where I was for most of my teenage years. I kind of bounced around the Eastern seaboard, because I’m a dancer in my other life, so I was doing dance programs in New York, and in Pennsylvania. I lived in Pittsburgh for my last two years of high school. Then I went back to North Carolina and then, 15 years ago, I moved to Oakland.
REDDY-BEST: Tell me about your educational background, informal or formal, what that looks like.
ALYAH: Sure. So, most of my schooling was in North Carolina. I went to a private Episcopalian school for elementary school. Finally, my parents switched me to public school, which I think was the best thing that could have happened, to get some exposure to all kinds of people, so I went to Liggen, and Enlp the first years of high school. The last few years were with Shandley High School, because I was doing a dual program where I was dancing with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, while I was completing my high school studies. Then, I came back to North Carolina and went to Duke University for four years, and then I moved here, and that’s as far as I’ve gone in school, but I am thinking about going back to get an MFA, in dance, of all things.
REDDY-BEST: Cool, yeah. nd then can you talk a little about your work history- just briefly,
ALYAH: Yeah mostly, my work history has been either teaching dancing or in sort of retail, fashion, type fields, so when I moved here, I was dancing full time and working part time at the gap, like so many people have worked at the gap, um I actually worked at the Gap from 1999 till 2011 and worked in the field of sales associate, managed stores, assistant manager and then took the leap to corporate in San Francisco and worked as a merchandiser there. I was first with Old Navy in various different divisions, such as women’s, baby, boys accessories — not apparel, and maternity and then I went to Gap outlet and did infant clothing there.
REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me which term you use to describe your gender identity?
ALYAH: I identify as a queer woman of color, pretty straight forward.
REDDY-BEST: How do you describe your personal clothing style?
ALYAH: It’s pretty eclectic. I feel like I use clothing as a vehicle to express whatever character I’m trying to be for that day, or whichever one’s coming out, so it’s kind of all over the place. Some key references are probably ‘80s hip hop, sort of sneaker culture. Sneakers are really big for me, and being a child of the ‘80s, I’m sure there are a lot of us that feel that way, but also I’m a ballerina so that kind of comes into play. I’m also from the Northeast and so my mom was wearing oxfords and loafers, and so I have that little New England Prep influence. It’s a little bit all over the place.
REDDY-BEST: Do you feel that how you style yourself, or your past, and your relationship with your clothing influenced you, to develop Show and Tell Concept Shop?
ALYAH: So, Show and Tell grew out of a desire to create a space where people could find clothing that was not the mainstream, because after you’ve been working for Gap and have to come up with the same white t-shirt every season, there’s so much more of that that goes into it and I’ve learned so much. It was a really great training ground, but it just is not diverse. It is not necessarily leading any sort of trends, or really even appealing to a broad range of people. I feel like it’s the lowest common denominator of just very simple easy things, that can work into a lot of people’s wardrobes, but I’m kind of more interested in pieces that have some meaning and stand out, so part of Show and Tell were pieces that were handmade, and one of a kind where you only see four or five of them ever made, so you’re not really going to see yourself coming and going. Another part of it was that I opened the shop with my then partner, she was masculine-presenting and was always having the experience of going shopping; being mis gendered; being told she couldn’t shop in certain areas of the store; being followed around the store and then not even being able to find the pieces that she wanted to wear that were made for her body. So there was a commitment to be able to scout out those pieces, or create those pieces, and create an environment where everyone felt comfortable shopping and fully, authentically, expressing whatever they wanted to show.
REDDY-BEST: When did you begin thinking about the idea for the company?
ALYAH: Probably since I was young. I wanted to be a dancer and fashion designer when I was four years old. I vividly remember those two things, and thirty-two years later, I’m a dancer, and I own a clothing store, which is similar. All my life I’ve wanted to have something to do with fashion and style.
REDDY-BEST: When did you officially open Show and Tell Concept Shop?
ALYAH: I opened in November of 2011, right in the middle of Occupy Oakland, which was an interesting experience, and we had been thinking about the idea for a while and then, a couple of things happened. I have an older brother, who passed earlier that year and then Occupy Oakland was going on, and there was the whole debate about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the media, so we were having lots of conversations around what we were doing with our lives, how we wanted to live and what our values were. We also were considering, how we can do things that appeal to the 99% versus falling into that trap of trying to reach the 1% of ethics, sustainability, and all of those pieces culminated in us being inspired to see if anyone would give us a lease, and they did! Which is something that still shocks me. Sometimes I walk around Oakland, and I’m like, “I can’t believe I have keys to all of these buildings in Oakland.” It’s pretty trippy but, we got lucky. They gave us a lease and ran from there.
REDDY-BEST: So, this wasn’t the original location.
ALYAH: Yeah. So, the original location is actually a couple blocks away from here, kind of at 14th and Broadway. There’s a plaza called City Center and I reference Occupy Oakland, because it was, literally, directly across from the Plaza where everyone was camping out, and we were in the shopping center, that still sort of a weird strip mall shopping area, directly across from everybody was located. So, that was an interesting place to sort of launch the business, but it was good. It was the perfect thing that could have happened.
REDDY-BEST: So, who else is a part of the shop? It’s you and then who else? Is it just you, or are there other people?
ALYAH: Yeah, so for Show and Tell, it’s just me. Nicole left the business probably three years ago, at Qulture Collective, which kind of expanded what we were doing with Show and Tell. It kind of has the bigger community element, and art plays a bigger role. I have two co-founders, so Terry Sopwilson and Julia Sopwilison. They’re married, they’re a couple, [laughs]
REDDY-BEST: Can give me a little bit about context for Qulture Collective, and how Show and Tell Concept Shop fits within that,
ALYAH: Sure, so kind of the origin story is that, at Show and Tell, we had a big space, we’ve been in a couple different locations but we had a really big space when we opened, so folks were gravitating to us, primarily folks in the community, which were a lot of people of color, queer folks of color, were coming to us and saying “Oh, we do poetry readings,” or “we have art” can we put them up on your walls, you know, we’d like to have a meet up of some sort, and so those kinds of things were happening in the shop, which I found like you know, community will find you, like when, because space is so sparse, it feels like these days and there’s not a lot spaces that are really open to a lot of queer and trans folks, especially not trans folks of colors, folks will kind of find you and like, carve out the spaces that they need, so, it just so happens that, that was happening a lot, people were dropping by, and wanting to like sit around and work, like co-work and do- do their work with me while I was there for the day and at a certain point, after moving a bunch of locations, we kind of ran out of room to support that kind of engagement and show and tell and it, you know, trying to grow it as a retail business, it just didn’t make sense that my friends are sitting there, like, on their computers while I’m trying to sell customers shirts, so, Terry and Julie and I were at drinks, having drinks one night and I was kind of like talking about how we had run out of space to do it at show and tell and they were like well why don’t we just like open another place and magically the space we’re in now had been vacant for a long time, and then the sign went up and we’re both, it’s in the neighborhood, so we’re all kind of walking around this neighborhood a lot saw this sign go up for rent, and we were the first and only people to see it – we kind of like pounced on it and grabbed it, so that we could kind of take, some of the community elements for show and tell and really expand them, so here we do a lot of community programming, we do sort of quarterly, or like, bi-monthly art openings, there’s a cafe, which we added, because we were like, well what do people need during the day, a place to sit and work if they’re freelancers or maybe they’re trying to be entrepreneurs, or maybe they are studying, so I love coffee, a place to kind of blend all those things together and then upstairs, we also have a couple of maker workshops where folks pay a small amount of rent each month, and they have their workstation and they – it’s well one person who does a lot leather work, a jewelry designer, and another woman who has a t-shirt brand, are all upstairs kind of building their businesses,
REDDY-BEST: And then can you tell me about the name, and like why you chose it,
ALYAH: yeah, so. kind of the- one of our missions was really to sort of highlight and sort of drive queer culture and do it in a model that was about kind of all of us together and not just, like this our idea, this is what we think it should be, us putting forth the charge, but kind of letting the community generate, what they need to see what they want to see, which I feel like is very Oakland in that a lot of things are really community generated, – Culture with a Q for Queer and Collective because there are several businesses now that kind of tie into the space and work to maintain it, in addition to all of our community partners that are regularly renting from us, or hosting events or partners.
REDDY-BEST: And then some of the different products that you have and you know what, what are they and how much do they cost.
ALYAH: sure, so inside right now I have kind of like an annex location of Show and Tell inside Qulture Collective and the difference between the space and the main show and tell space is at the kind of broader show and tell we ???? using sustainability, uh marginalized communities, so like women, people of color, queer and trans folks, formerly incarcerated folks, handmade goods, and then things that were prioritizing like ethical and sustainable production and in this space I tried to actually narrow it down even more and highlight queer makers, queer and trans makers specifically, so it’s more heavy on that, those are really the only filters I use to pick product, so it can vary drastically by month by what we actually have in stock, but sometimes it’s body care, by brands like Be Real Body which are two women who live locally and make everything from scratch and it’s all organic, luscious, wonderful body care, jewelry pieces, sometimes vintage, there’s a vintage dealer we work with a lot called Dylan the Jeweler who’s a queer-femme and has an amazing collection, like their families’ been in the jewelry business forever, and this is like their extension of that, on occasion apparel, sometimes I design, my own kind of in house collection, I work with my mother a lot, which is a lot of fun, she has collected fabric my whole life, primarily from the African diaspora, so tons of fabric and art around the house and that’s always inspired me and I’ve always been drawn to kind of like that color and texture so, a lot of those pieces will end up in the space, so it’s a pretty eclectic mix, which I think makes sense considering my tastes are so varied.
REDDY-BEST: And can you talk about some of the price points too, like how much, how much might things cost if I walked in, just to give us a sense,
ALYAH: We try, I really try to keep everything fairly accessible but also appropriately for the fact that a lot of its handmade and one of a kind, so that looks like pieces starting at you know, 5 to 10 dollars for smaller like pins or cards or paper goods, and then going up to maybe 150 is usually my ceiling, every now and again, we’ll go over that if it’s something that’s like super special or if it’s shoes or something. but really, I like to keep the bulk of the things between probably $25 and you know 65 -75 dollars, in the shop,
REDDY-BEST: And yeah, I think it’s – sometimes it’s hard, this conversation always comes up about like handmade and what’s people’s time worth you know and but then it’s hard because of the accessibility and you know it’s like a tricky -it’s like a tricky balance that I think that a lot of people sort of struggle with or think about really carefully you know, because it’s, you know, it’s somebody’s time and what’s their time worth, you know
ALYAH: I mean, we opened in the middle of downtown Oakland, which is, you know, this urban center, where like, every single type of people is passing through, the twelfth street bar station, you know, it didn’t make sense to me, in this whole make your movement, American-made emphasis, sustainability emphasis, a lot of things are just so outrageously priced, that I’m like, that’s not going to be how people can get in on this party, like if we really want folks to be mindful and think about sustainability and think about the quality of what they’re buying they have to actually be able to engage with it and not be turned off immediately and that was a lot of education ??? because people think, especially if Oakland, you know, we were kind of in the beginning of this kind of current wave of things shifting a lot in Oakland, a lot of boutiques and locally owned makers and stores opening, a lot of folks think that instantly you walk in, and the price of everything is and locally owned maker- focused stores opening, a lot of folks think that instantly you walk in it’s got to be astronomically priced, everything is 100 dollars and up, I mean I can’t afford that and I couldn’t bear putting a story like that that felt totally elitist and excluded a lot of people just off the bat in the middle of downtown Oakland, where you’re getting every single person from you know folks who are in the financial world who can afford it and who are building up the million dollar houses in Oakland, or tech people, and also people who are on fixed income, I’ve had like amazing customers who wanted to buy something, like for instance my mom makes quilts and those tend to be little bit more expensive because they’re hours and hours of labor and lots of fabric that goes into it, so maybe like 200 – 300 dollars, which is actually still even like, low-priced for a quilt, like if you look at Anthropology it’s probably like 700 dollars or something, but anyways, this one older black women on a fixed income really wanted this quilt and she was like “okay, can I put like 25 dollars down on it today and come back and like pay for it, and I was like, yeah, totally, we’ll hold for you as long as you need, and she bought it, she ended up paying it off, but it took her- she came for a couples months and she didn’t come for a couple months and then she came back again, she did what she needed to do to be able to have this piece that she really loved and wanted and, you know, that feels good to me, to be able to work with customers that way. it’s maybe not like, always the smartest bottom line decision, but I don’t think I opened, either of these places to really be about like making money and the bottom line, it kind of, I mean if I wanted that life, I would have stayed at my corporate job, because that’s the life I had then, I could do pretty much whatever I wanted to do because I had a good steady income,
REDDY-BEST: You talked about, you did some of your own designs, what was your favorite one that you ever designed.
ALYAH: Oh, that’s hard, I’ve been into designing, so one thing we’re known for is having a lot of different t-shirts and sweatshirts that have a lot of interesting slogans and they vary on being cheeky sometimes, sometimes a little bit political, so I definitely done some t-shirt designs that have been fun, I think my favorite pieces though, of late, have been doing, a lot of textile work with my mom, so just picking these really gorgeous fabrics, we’ve maybe two years ago were in London and she left for like half and day and came back with a suitcase full of fabric and she had gone to like the African market in London and bought all of this beautiful original, handwoven kente, which is kind of pretty hard to find, so we’ve been working on ways to kind of turn that into different pieces so kind of pretty simple tops that are not done in a ton of sizes, so like usually small-medium large, extra-large, it’s kind of like an open easy shape, and really just about how do you showcase a fabric as much as possible, those have been my favorite pieces to work with.
REDDY-BEST: Sounds like a fun trip
ALYAH: It is fun yeah,
REDDY-BEST: Trying to like get all, that’s like my kind of trip, going and just buying like all the fabric.
ALYAH: It was one of those things where, I got lucky because my mom and my sister had planned to go on this trip, they’re both- sidebar, my mom’s a lawyer, she’s not designer or like you know, a quilter by trade, she’s a lawyer and she does all this other stuff for fun, but they were going, and I’m like, I’m an entrepreneur and I actually can’t really afford to take ten days off from work and go hop around Europe so have a good time and for my birthday that year she was like “you’re coming with us, so figure out someone’s going to watch the store for you,” but yeah, I got to go, we went to Paris first and that was amazing and second time I’ve been to Paris and I got to spend more time and do all of the touristy stuff and hear all of the history which was really exciting and see just how old it is and how beautifully made it is and also I love, there are so many concept shops in Paris that I really, that really resonate with me, because they’re curated completely different than a lot of stores in the U.S. so that was fun, and London was just, so much, we were not there that long but I need to go back because it just felt overwhelming, so many sensations,
REDDY-BEST: So, you talked a little bit about this, but do you have anything to add about how Show and Tell Concept Shop intersects with politics, such as race, ethnicity or sexuality, and anything that might be important to highlight, in regard to that.
ALYAH: Yeah, I mean, I think by virtue of me being the person who’s curating a lot of the pieces, they really are a reflection of my politics, and, even, in the last couple of years, I feel don’t feel afraid to be like, “This is a black-owned shop, and there are going to be some things in here that are explicitly about black folks, and what we’re experiencing, or poor black folks, especially,” when we’re working with diverse cultural backgrounds and people are making products that shouldn’t necessarily be consumed broadly. There’s a little process of education that goes on, I’m like, “Where is this fabric from, and what are the meanings, and is this something you should be wearing?” It’s about just being really mindful about the pieces that you’re putting on your body, which is a big part of the shop. We have the slogan, “So black so beautiful,” which is one that I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. We’ve made prints and t-shirts and tote bags around that theme, which is just kind of like self-love, and being proud of being a black person in this country, which can often be really challenging. So that, definitely, is a consistent thread in our social media presence and often shows up in the assortment. I’m so honored to work with so many people from other backgrounds that I’m learning a lot about. Some of my Latinx friends make really beautiful things that reflect their culture and that can be shared with people, but it’s about learning the history behind things before you put them on your body. I think it’s important, how it’s intersecting with race, and cultural identity. As far as gender, and those dynamics, the point, for me, has also been to create a space where folks can just put on the things that they feel express who they are, in the most authentic fashion, to them. So then, I love that our customers are this amazing queer and trans base of folks who understand that they’re going to buy what they like and really believe in, and look fabulous in it, too. I mean, again, there are shirts and pieces that are very political in terms of what they’re flagging. I have pins that are like “Queer as fuck” or whatever, there are some things that are outwardly saying that. There’s a brand called Pride Socks, that we carry sometimes, that does these socks that remind me of like 70s tube socks, but with rainbows instead of the other different stripes on them. So, things that are signifying where you are, but my favorite part is when people just really gravitate towards whatever thing it is that they want, and try it on, we help them find the right fit and go from there,
REDDY-BEST: It seems like, everything is handmade and produced by different folks from around the community. So, you don’t have anything manufactured overseas, or anything like that?
ALYAH: Very rarely, and in the cases that we do, it’s really particular types of arrangements. So, it’s folks that are from a particular area, or have cultural ties and are working with women’s collectives, or fair-trade collectives to do the work, but by and large it’s American hand-made production.
REDDY-BEST: Do you think about trends or anything like that, or I don’t know what the different the parts for the design process or design ideas, or is that something you think about or not necessarily?
ALYAH: I used to obsessively think about trends when I was with Gap because that was what we were doing. As a merchant, every season, we were pitching what we thought were the trends that we needed to make sure we were on so that our customers would want to purchase from us, so, it, I definitely think about that. It’s so interesting to me, now that I kind of stepped out of that role, I was on every blog, when I feel that blogs were not even what they are now, since it was 7 years ago, when I was still at the Gap, but I was on every blog. I was Comms shopping, which is like going to every store, and seeing what’s out there every week, and doing that so much and I don’t do that in the same way now, so I feel like there’s actually a lot more freedom for me, if I see something. So right now, Instagram’s probably the place where I’m seeing a lot of things, either there for when I travel. Every time I travel, I make sure to go and check out a bunch of different stores and see what’s out there, but new designs are coming from Instagram and I keep in touch with the market by traveling. Even in Oakland, going to San Francisco, feels like a huge field trip to see what’s happening out there, but I think that I reject trends to a certain extent since I’m not trying to have a shop that feels like, “trendy.” We carry a lot of Oakland branded products, and that’s not necessarily trends, from Oakland, but if you are from Oakland and you have a store, Oakland is so proud of Oakland and so we can sell lots of things that make references to this town that we’re in, and something things tend to kind of be on trend. Especially just in the last couple weeks with Black Panther – for example some of the Kente fabric that I’ve been carrying for 6 years, has now come back around as a huge trend with the success of this movie and folks really feeling like they want to wear a piece of that diaspora on their body and to show their heritage in that way, and that movement has kind of been going for the last years. So we’re solidly in that trend, but it’s not because we’re trying to be trendy, it’s just because that’s what I’ve always wanted to happen for the store that has always happened since the beginning. There’s a lot of other trends that I kind of reject, like minimalism, became this trend and this muted color palette, everything shapeless, and I don’t even really know how to describe that sort of like, uniform of where every piece is very pared down, has been pretty trendy. I would kind of say that it’s like the Everlane effect, that’s happened in the last couple of years, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything like that in the store, and every now and then I’ll have some layering pieces because they’re important, or like, a perfect white t-shirt, which would be nice to have that, or a black t-shirt, but I’m not going to be the store you go to for like the basic stuff. It’s going to be more about the things that have personality,
REDDY-BEST: You’ve talked a little bit about the customers, is there anything else to add? has your customer base shifted at all, is there anything related to customers that might be important for us to understand in relation to the history of Show and Tell Concept Shop.
ALYAH: Yeah, so based on where we have been kind of located in the 4-block radius, it’s shifted a little bit, and it’s also shifted a lot over the last 6 years, just with the demographics of Oakland changing so much. I feel like we definitely have a lot more low-income folks shopping with us than when we first opened, than I see even in downtown Oakland now. It feels like there are a lot tech-folks, developers and affluent people walking around downtown, which is in direct correlation to who’s living here now, but I feel fortunate that we’ve kind of established a strong community of folks of color, of queer folks, who seek out our business. And it’s not just in Oakland, but folks, when they’re traveling in town, have found us, to come shop and get some of the pieces, which is great because I don’t necessarily do a lot of online business at this point, That’s something I’m learning to grow, but when people come to the area they’ll come find me and shop with me, and I think that’s important because the in store experience is a big part of it. I’m probably a little bit of a late, tech adopter anyways, so this tangible human exchange is actually really important to me and talking to people about their products and most of our products are not nationally or internationally known, so it’s nice to be able to have a conversation and say this was made by this person. Just really humanizing the process feels good, it’s changing, which is an interesting thing, so that’s why I think it’s actually important for me now to be branching out and having a bigger online presence, so that we can reach folks and communities around the world that are aligned, from a values standpoint, from what we’re doing.
REDDY-BEST: How many locations have you been in?
ALYAH: Show and Tell has been in three locations. Three locations not including the annex, that’s in here.
REDDY-BEST: What is your online presence like?
ALYAH: There’s a shop, [chuckles], you can shop online. ShowandTellOakland.com, it is available, it’s there but I just feel that, in terms of being seen online, it is a whole science that I don’t really want to spend a lot of time on, but I know I’m going to need.
REDDY-BEST: What kind of folks online might be featured and why? What might be important, in like imagery related to Show and Tell Concept Shop, basically is the question I’m interested in,
ALYAH: No, that’s a great question, so it varies, that’s the long answer to that question. So Show and Tell has been around for 6 years and I think in the beginning we were using a lot of folks in kind of stock photos, because I didn’t necessarily have the bandwidth to be taking, or photographing all the product myself, or shooting on models or whomever, and so we would feature a lot of stock photos, whatever we were getting from the makers and that made it diverse because our makers are diverse. But, I would say in the last year or two, I’ve really been super conscious about the fact that there is this platform that people are looking at, and that I can put out the vision that I want to see, and that has been a big piece for me to be thinking about and navigating. I’m thinking about representation in various spaces as a queer woman, as a queer of color, as a queer woman that sometimes presents as femme and has passing privilege in that feminine presentation. It’s just been important to me to really make sure that the imagery is in alignment of what I want, and what the vibe of the shop is and also, that I want people to understand about what we’re sharing. I just launched a little auxiliary project called the “an-shop,” which is less focused on apparel and more focused on the little lifestyle items that make your life,. It’s the little extra things, such as your favorite lipstick, or, “this is the perfect pillow for your couch,” or whatever little thing that adds something to your life and the imagery for that is all folks of color. I don’t know that I knew that was what was going to happen when I started, but that’s just kind of been how it’s been developing, and how I’ve been able, and again, Instagram is like a treasure trove — you can find so many beautiful images and it’s cool because I get to be introduced to so many artists that I would have not known before. That to me feels more inspiring and what I’m incorporating into my design process now are those beautiful pieces of art that I’m seeing on the internet, more so than what you’re seeing on runways.
REDDY-BEST: What types of feedback to you get about the shop, what do people tell you? Do they give you feedback, when they’re buying, through messages and comments?
ALYAH: The main feedback that I get, let’s see… I think that generally it’s going to be something new and different every time. So, someone, one time, equated it to a treasure hunt. They were like, “I come in here, and it’s not necessarily all the tops together, or all the pants together, it’ s just sort of a collection of objects and items,” and they just sort of get to sift through and find the thing that jumps out at them. So that was really cool. They were like, “it’s like a little treasure hunt. I like that every time.” A lot of people like the actual vibe and feel of the space, which is nice, so they come here to take a break or come to look at something different than their computer screen, and just have a moment of appreciating beauty or craftsmanship. So that’s cool. Then, maybe my favorite thing is that people say that they feel welcome, not judged and feel one-hundred-percent themselves and know that they’re going to find something that is for people like them.
REDDY-BEST: Do you ever have negative feedback from folks inside the queer community? Has there been anything that’s come up in that sense?
ALYAH: I’ve been pretty fortunate not to have a lot of negative feedback and especially not from within the community. I think that a lot of us are on similar wave-lengths around ethics and values, and why we’re carrying the products that we are. Every now and again, someone will call something out, or ask a question or want to know more, and that’s good for me. It just keeps me on my toes, and makes sure that I’m not playing into systemic dynamics that I need to be really mindful of, and I can thank the community for constantly keeping me on point, which sometimes feels like, when you get to a certain point where there’s a level of visibility, that you want to be the magician in the back, doing the things and not being highly visible. That doesn’t come with this role, low visibility, especially since I’m usually the one the that’s in the store. People will call me “Show and Tell: walking down the street rather than my name, so there’s a direct connection. You know, I don’t think I’ve had anything that felt overwhelmingly negative. Sometimes folks will talk about pricing feeling super inaccessible, but I always say, “It’s a human interaction and if there’s something love and it feels way out of your price range, let’s have a conversation about it. We could maybe barter or, maybe, it’s possible for me to offer you a discount, or you could do what the older lady did before, and put it on a payment plan or something,” because I’d rather things go to good homes where people are going to love it, rather than holding on to it. That’s not the point for me.
REDDY-BEST: So, it seems like, even if folks maybe did point something out right, you seem to be pretty responsive to it and might change or think through how something is positioned, whatever that might be.
ALYAH: I definitely think it is my responsibility to be open to that kind of feedback. We’ve had that, too, with the kind of art that’s put up in the space, we will get this reaction from some folks and it’s usually varied since art can elicit all kinds of different responses from people. I remember, in particular, one art show where someone who’s actually been a collaborator of the space often and that then has become a friend of mine, gave feedback, and I was like, “Thank you for that feedback. That’s a lens that I have, so I wasn’t necessarily mindful of that, in the way that it would be interpreted, but now that’s something I know going forward.” It’s good to have these dialogues. I feel like, the best things that have happened to me, include moving to the Bay, at an age that is still really impressionable, I was 22 or 23, and discovering my queerness, because I didn’t necessarily do that when I was in North Carolina, and then opening the shop which changed my life, in terms of introducing me to queer politics, I now have so much more information than I would have, had I kind of stayed on a different, more traditional path. I am so thankful that it changed who I am as a person. So yeah, it’s good,
REDDY-BEST: Can you talk a little bit about funding? How did you fund, at the beginning?
ALYAH: This is a fun story. So, I liquidated my life savings, and you might see pieces of it hanging on the way now. No, I had a little bit of retirement money, because Gap had a matching 401k program and I’d been there forever, so I’d been putting money in it and they’d been matching it. I basically took all of that money and opened Show and Tell with that, which was probably a third of what they tell you should have when you’re opening a business, you know? Now that I’m reading “How to be an Entrepreneur 101,” [chuckles] after doing it for 6 years, I am like, “Oh, I did this totally backwards.” It was really super bootched up, but it worked.
REDDY-BEST: Do you have anything else to add about sustainability and community outreach and ethics? Are there any future directions or anything you are interested in thinking about, in regards to those ideas?
ALYAH: Yeah, I think that where I am right now, and I am thinking about financial viability and what that means, as well as different economic systems and how we create those, because in a community of activists, artists and entrepreneurs, it seems like a lot of us are trying to do really good work, and it’s gravely underfunded and hard. It is really taxing, and people get burned out and we lose a lot of our great people, who are jumping ship to go do something where they can just make money which makes life a little bit easier. I’m interested in how do we shift models so that we can actually support different ways of financing things? Or, how do we get access to these bigger pots that are out there? How do we find the right funders to support the work? I don’t know the answer to that. Especially with Qulture Collective, that’s a big thing, because this is definitely, like community-supported, so, us founders, we’ve not taken a salary for the three years that it’s been open, and we really are working to figure out: how to do a collective model that generates that cycle of support for everyone. Yeah, there’s lots of work to do around figuring out that piece, because we’re not technically a non-profit, but we run primarily like a non-profit, and we finally have a fiscal sponsorship, so we can apply grants and things like that, but it’s just a different way than a normal retail or café model.
REDDY-BEST: And then, what are you most proud of?
ALYAH: Oh, Jesus! I don’t know if I read that question on there before, [laughs]. What am I most proud of? I feel am most proud of the fact that I’ve gotten to build so many amazing relationships, and that the process opening Show and Tell and opening Qulture Collective has just been a process of returning to myself, where I am learning more and more about who I am, – you’re not terrible,” you know? I’m like, “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” I’ve also gotten to like aspects of myself that before might have caused me some pain when I was younger, or aspects that I wasn’t super comfortable with. Yeah, maybe that’s what I’m proud of? It’s weird to me, knowing I wanted to do this when I’m young, and kind of pursue similar ??? when I was young, and how I doing it as an adult. I’m reflecting on how I got there, and what it’s about, and yeah, I’m glad that I’m in a field where I get to express myself. There’s so much inspiration and so much beauty to hold on to, when things are really hard outside of here
REDDY-BEST: Yeah, in direct contrast to a Gap merchandiser.
ALYAH: Absolutely, and finding my place in what’s going on. I feel like I have other friends who are shutting down bridges and going to the courthouse and are in the streets, and creating policy. Those are not the things that I necessarily feel comfortable doing, but I do feel super comfortable making connections and holding space and making sure folks feel comfortable and look good while they’re doing it, those things that I think add a little bit to life.
REDDY-BEST: What do you feel like overall had been most successful, and it doesn’t, it doesn’t have to be related to any one part, but can anything, overall.
ALYAH: I think, again, it comes back to the relationships. Even if these businesses went away, since I’m thinking about going back to school and I might have to take a step back from this sort of work for a while, the relationships would continue. That’s been the most successful piece, building community, and feeling actually like integrated into the fabric of Oakland, because after being here for 15 years, finally, I’m like “Oh yeah, this is home. This is where my people are.” I walk around the street and I see people I know, and we hug each other. It’s a nice support system, which I didn’t have, necessarily. I have my nuclear family, but I didn’t have that in North Carolina or anywhere I’ve ever lived, so, that’s a piece that I’m proud of.
REDDY-BEST: Was there anything that was really surprising in the beginning, or throughout initial stages, in terms of opening Show and Tell Concept Shop.
ALYAH: Yeah, I mean…when I told you I was so super-surprised they gave us the keys, I was like, “Who thought that they would’ve given these two black girls the keys to this building in Oakland and just have a shop and do our thing?” That was shocking, like, literally shocking. What else has been surprising about it? There’s probably been so many surprises along the way, [laughs]. It’s hard! I’m a fan of hard work, so that’s not super-surprising, but it’s a different kind of hard work than it was being in a corporate job. Also, that freedom that I get, from sort of doing my own thing and coming up with my own agenda and goals every year and every season, is sort of like a double edge sword, because like no one else is going to push me forward or do the work for me. So, it was one of those things for me, if you’re not super self-motivated and can constantly be rethinking and re-inventing how you want to keep pushing ahead, your business will get super-stagnant, so you kind of have to want to do that work constantly, which was maybe a surprise. It’s not like, you make it, or, even if you’ve made it to a certain extent, there’s still like so much more to be done.
REDDY-BEST: Do you have anything else to add after thinking about some of the struggles, and is there anything else you can think about in relationship to that idea of starting a business?
ALYAH: The constant struggle is asking for help, which for me, is one of the main pieces. It’s that thinking that you have to do everything, by yourself, all the time and that the world is going to fall apart if you’re sick and don’t open the store one day. It was maybe three or four years in, that the switch finally went off for me, and I was like, “Oh right, if I’m sick, and I can’t show up, it’s actually okay, and everything’s not going to end. I can take a vacation. I actually should take vacations!” So now I’m to the point where I plan breaks. I try to make sure that I get out of Oakland quarterly because, otherwise, I’ll go a little bit nuts, that was the main piece. Also, then knowing that I’m planning, I can say, “Okay, I’m going to be gone for five days, is there someone I can have cover?” Now, I have people who I’ve worked with often enough that are contractors that can kind of pop in and out and help with different things. That’s a huge relief, but it took me a long time to realize that I don’t have to suffer in silence, [laughs]. It’s better not to, actually, if you want to be around for any length of time, and it was the same thing with the Qulture Collective. We have a community of folks that are just willing to volunteer and help if we put the call out there. Making sure we’re utilizing the community resources, as much as possible has been important for us.
REDDY-BEST: At the end, I always say that the purpose of the oral history is to focus specifically on the person, but also the relationship to the idea, which is Show and Tell Concept Shop and Qulture Collective, and to talk about the history, the everyday, the future ideas and to get a really rich picture of what’s happening. So, is there anything else that I didn’t ask that would be important to know in regard to anything that we talked about that I didn’t think of? Is there something that would be important that’s specific to you, or is there anything else that we didn’t talk about?
ALYAH: I feel like we touched on a lot of it. I don’t know. I think that the experience has been interesting for me because this is the way that I get to express my creativity and to reference being a dancer, so it is like that this work and dancing are kind of the two ends of the spectrum, for me, in terms of showcasing who I am and communicating. I think that is what I discovered along the way, which I know is what I was talking to you about because I feel that how I wanted to dress has always been about expression, and dancing is about expression for me too. That’s the world that I want to live in, and it’s the ones where we can really be fully expressing ourselves and learning from each other in kind of that dialogue. It’s interesting how standing in who you are, and being proud of that, in a way gives other people permission. When they see you do it and you’re like, “Okay, cool. I can try that, too, or I can do that in my own way.” That’s the most important part. Businesses are great, but they’re also really hard. Again, a lot goes into working for yourself, and also working for yourself when you’re trying to support a broader community, but if people walk away with that little piece of their way of expressing themselves, I feel like I’ve done what I’m here to do.