Michelle Walton and Wesley Dawan believe reading can be a social activity. The Oakland-based couple are both lifelong readers for whom books have been an integral part of their relationship. Michelle used to visit the library every Tuesday, and pre-pandemic date nights nearly always culminated in a visit to a bookstore. Michelle recalls heading home from a night out, thinking that if the library had wings and drinks in addition to books, she’d be in heaven. Wesley’s response? “We should create that.”
A few months later, that conversation came to fruition in the form of their store, The Collective Oakland. The store aims to change the narrative around reading. “When I was younger, I didn’t walk up to my friends and say, ‘What’re you reading?’ because they didn’t read,” Michelle told me in a Zoom conversation. “I loved Sweet Valley High and Judy Blume books. But no one in those books looked like me, so I would have to insert myself. We don’t have to do that anymore. But kids growing up now have video games and phones. Representation is one of the main reasons why we have The Collective — to create another culture of reading.”
This culture is one of community, relaxation, and, most importantly, fun. The Collective’s motto of “Read, Drink, Chill” epitomizes this aim: patrons can come for a book and stay for a latte or a glass of wine, cozy and content with a good story. “We love to read, but we’re also social,” Michelle said. She has been reading with people for years and loves the unique connection that comes from discussing a good book. “We feel that great conversations come about from reading. You can learn someone’s ‘why’ from reading. You read the same line, but based on your past and upbringing, you can have a really different perspective. You really get to know someone when you read a book with them.”
She can already see her efforts paying off. Now, Michelle’s friends ask her to recommend books for themselves and others. When her daughter’s friends come over, she ensures they leave with a book in their hands. She especially enjoys opening up the world of reading to kids and young adults. “There are some really good books about our current world that can resonate with them, and we can talk. We can connect,” said Michelle. The Collective Oakland’s position as an independent bookstore gives them even more leverage to reach any and all kinds of readers: they stock all sorts of authors, not just those in the mainstream. Michelle firmly believes that everyone can have fun reading, regardless of their interests. Through passing her love along, Michelle gets to help young readers see themselves in stories, an experience she didn’t have as a child.
Despite the welcoming community, Michelle has felt somewhat out of place in the bookselling world. A lot of people felt their concept wouldn’t work. The combination of books and cocktails didn’t immediately click, pushback that Michelle attributed to a lingering “old-school” concept of reading culture. She attended the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute and didn’t see anyone else who look like her, an experience similar to how she felt as a child while searching for literary role models. “I grew up reading everything. I always had a library book in my hand, and the bookmobile was my favorite thing. But I drive a sports car. I go to fashion week. We’re from the hood — most people here think that if you love to read, you’re a nerd. I love to travel. I love hip-hop. I love concerts. We’re trying to change the narrative that book-lovers look different. We’re trying to get young people to see that anyone can be a reader.”
Nonetheless, as the Oakland community got to know Michelle and Wesley, the store started to garner some buzz. The energy shifted favorably, and customers got excited about the home book delivery and beautifully curated subscription boxes that The Collective offers. Each box plays to a theme and usually contains a signed book alongside artisan gifts like mugs and candles. Through these remote-friendly methods, Michelle and Wesley have been able to remain connected to their customers even during the pandemic.
Michelle and Wesley wanted their business model to be “click to brick.” Originally an entirely online retailer, the store has morphed and grown. Currently, customers are able to pick up books from their brick-and-mortar location in addition to having them delivered to their front doors. The “Read, Drink, Chill” tagline has made an impression — when customers come by the store, many of them ask when the drinking and chilling components will begin. The pandemic has, of course, delayed the launch of The Collective’s events, but their browsing and lounging space is ready as soon as it is safe. Michelle aims for an old-school prohibition vibe, with hand-crafted cocktails, a barista, and curated titles for all type of readers. She is especially excited for the launch of their event series “A Seat at the Table,” during which guests will enjoy a delicious brunch with an author, get their books signed, and chat with like-minded readers. “When you meet different authors and you hear their insight on why they wrote the book and what they were thinking, that’s one of the best experiences,” Michelle said. “You get the author’s perspective. You can have breakthroughs with people.”
Customers are most enthusiastic about science fiction, children’s books, and cookbooks these days. In the early days of the lockdown, Michelle saw a push for heavier, denser reading. “Now, I think they want something lighter,” she said, laughing. “We have a huge inventory. We sell a bit of everything.” The Collective has incorporated “book bingo” into their social media presence, where readers can play along as they read, checking off boxes such as “has a supernatural element” or “has a Black leading lady.” Through games and challenges such as these, they’ve watched their customer base grow.
Michelle remembers the days not too long ago when they fulfilled orders from their home, their apartment so full of inventory that she could barely reach the fridge. Now, with a beautiful storefront and a steadily growing fan base, Michelle and Wesley are able to do what they set out to do: empower young readers and create a truly fun culture around books. “We want everyone to feel like they are in the story; like they can relate,” she said. The Collective has come a long way, and they are very excited for the future.
Not a member and want to receive special benefits and discounts at The Collective Oakland and other participating stores? Become a member and you’ll receive a Reckless Reader card and all the perks!