Two Sundays ago, I decided to go out in search of a bookstore to browse. I’m a hardcore bibliophile and was seriously jonesing for some book spine reading action, so I first went online to see what bookstores are actually left. Ever since my beloved Stacey’s Bookstore of San Francisco closed down, and also even the chain bookstores that I had previously only condescendingly tolerated closed down on me as well, I thought it would be wise to see if there were any bookstores left standing.
To my surprise and delight, there are quite a few of the independent Oakland bookstores left, which is really cool because they are the best ones anyway. So I chose Walden Pond Books near the Grand Lake Theatre as the one I’d visit, being that it was the shortest distance my house.
So I drove over to the Grand Lake neighborhood, parked my car off Grand Ave (because it’s impossible to find a spot on Grand) and started walking over in great anticipation. This is such a beautiful and diverse neighborhood with so much charm, and it’s my old stompin grounds. I actually used to live over here but it got too expensive. But I digress. Anyway as I was admiring the wonderfully warm day and making my way to the bookstore, I was sidelined by a brother setting up a table with a group of headless half mannequins. I started walking towards him to ask if he had “The T-Shirt”, and right as I got to him and looked, he actually was wearing it! I pointed to his chest and said, “that’s the T-Shirt right there! And that’s where it got really real.
That’s where I got my recap of Oakland history and met the coolest dude that I’ve come across in a long while. Brother James Copes, Da Mayor of Eastmont Mall, according to the article written about him, that he openly displays in a binder along with his platinum album that he received from Oakland native, Rapper Too Short. James is a very upbeat, talkative, friendly, entrepreneurial people person of a guy. He draws you in quickly, and you feel that you’ve known him for years after 30 seconds of conversation. In fact I told him that he looked familiar to me. That statement lead to even more conversation about the variety of businesses he’s had in The Town, and how much he “Hecka Loves Oakland” . BTW that’s his signature T-Shirt that I remember, the shirt he designed himself back in the day that became famous. There’s also a knockoff T-Shirt called “I Hella Love Oakland”. Brother James has a story about that as well.
In fact Mr Copes is full of wonderful stories about his business life, the city of Oakland, and its people, and we got into a long conversation about how we natives should go about conducting our businesses and how we should be teaching and reaching the newcomers and the youth.
Now when an enterprising brother is speaking wisdom, I make a point to listen with both ears. After all, this is the brother who coined the name “Oaktown” for our beloved city of Oakland. (He proved that to me with another laminated article from the binder).
Brother James is a master of gab, and he deftly draws you into a deep conversation with him. As soon as he gets you speaking your truth and pouring your heart of love out to him, he’ll spot another person and call out and beckon to them while you’re in mid-sentence. But don’t think he didn’t hear what you were saying while he was beckoning to another person. As soon as the new person comes over to his table and he invites them in, he will pick up the conversation with you right where he left off. And when the new person would quickly get comfy and start speaking his or her truth, Brother James would beckon to the next person. Then he’d juggle all three of us with the utmost care and skill.
This is the kind of entrepreneurial marketing skill that I saw on the regular when I worked the Berkeley Flea Market. This is what I miss about black business. Brother James told me that he also worked at the Berkeley Flea Market back in the day as well. This brother definitely got around.
What really impressed me about James Copes was his openness and his honesty about the things that have happened to him as a businessman in Oakland. He spoke about how the Rodney King incident incited people to riot right here in Oakland and how he was victimized and had his store vandalized. He told me about the number of times he has been burglarized – ”Eight times plus one robbery”. He spoke openly about how he went into a period of deep depression, after the Rodney King incident when he was left with nothing. I could see the hurt and pain still written on his face after all these years as he talked about how cold his black people did him back then. Of course, he had an article in his binder about his emotional ordeal, and wordlessly invited me read it. He presented me with a high stool to sit on and gave me the binder, opened to that particular in-depth article. What impressed me was even in all of his trials and tribulations, his decision to be optimistic has caused him to easily triumph over any sadness he still feels.
As I read the article someone else was beckoned to the table. Brother Copes then started talking to us all about how he had always had a hard way to go, even as one of the few black kids from Oakland who went to school in San Leandro, the next town over. I told him that many people told me that San Leandro was a racist and segregated city back in the day, and he confirmed it. Walking while black was the norm in that city, and the few black folks who braved San Leandro were routinely harassed by the police. The city is calm now and is racially mixed, generally speaking. There are a lot of elder white folks in the area near the border of Oakland and San Leandro though. The tiny police dept is at the border as well.
Brother Copes has been through a lot, as we all have, but what I respect so much about him is his eternal optimism. At 61 years old, he is starting over yet again. He’s one of those old school businessmen – who gets his hustle on. When I was young, hustlers was the brother who sold clothes out of the trunk of his car or the sister who sold BBQ dinners out of her house. N.O.I. brothers selling whiting fish and bean pies was counted as hustlers back in the day. Now the term refers only to drug dealers.
James is one of those people who love people and has the ability to attract goodness to him. He told me about how he always focus on the good in folks and how that blesses him. He said he has attracted many people with skills who are willing to help him in rebuilding his business. And to prove his point, a young swagger laden white man came up to the table and was drawn in after a few second with Copes. He told us how he was from Vallejo, but was always down in Oakland. A few minutes later he’s offering to help Brother Copes with building his website. That’s when Copes turned to me and, filled with emotion, said, “see how it works?”
People ARE really beautiful, if you are looking for beauty.