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FLAX Art Supply Opens a New Store and a New Era With Move to Oakland
KQED Arts

April 1, 2016

The iconic FLAX store and sign on Market Street

To hear me being interviewed by KQED News host Devin Katayama about the move of FLAX to the East Bay, go here

FLAX, a venerable establishment displaced from Market Street in San Francisco by yet another condo project, has found new life in Oakland, with Thursday’s opening of a spacious and light-drenched store.

“It’s just another sign that people are recognizing the incredible value, vitality and hotness of this city,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf told KQED’s Tara Siler at the opening-day celebration. “And FLAX is really meant for Oakland … this is a family-owned business … so it’s perfect to place this in a city with so much artistic energy and legacy — so close to public transportation and in the center of the Bay Area, where all artistic souls can get here conveniently.” 

The store’s third-generation owner, Howard Flax, said: “This is definitely an underserved market and the more that we talk to different people in the community, and the more that we get to know Oakland and the greater East Bay, there are a lot of pockets of artists here. And we just look forward to connecting with each and every one of them, and partnering and collaborating to grow the arts in the East Bay.”

The beloved family-owned business has been around for almost 100 years, starting out in New York City in 1918. Its first San Francisco shop opened in 1938 on Kearny Street. A few incarnations later, it moved to Market Street in 1981, but its lease expired last year. A Fort Mason store debuted in November.

The 15,000-square-foot Oakland location, a former auto repair shop at 15th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, offers storage, a back parking lot and proximity to public transit — all things that Flax was looking for. “We were displaced from Market Street and here we are — and there’s no going back,” Flax said. “There’s no bittersweet feelings on my part. It’s the end of an era. … We attained that iconic status in San Francisco and that’s what we plan on building here in Oakland as well.” 

Schaaf said the opening is a “happy story” for the city in all respects. “We cannot have new people come here at the expense of our longtime businesses, artists, residents,” she said. “But we also have to make sure that we build places for them to come to. One of the things that’s exciting about this store is it is in a new part of town. It did not displace another small business.”

Devin Katayama, who covers Oakland for KQED, said the move by FLAX is symbolic of a massive shift of art and artists in the Bay Area. Many have been priced out of San Francisco, and now Oakland is also becoming unaffordable. Katayama interviewed Chloe Veltman, senior arts editor at KQED, for her take on the departure of FLAX, which had searched for sites to relocate in San Francisco but couldn’t find anything.

Describing FLAX as a true “gem” in the art-supply world, she said, “It wasn’t the cheapest place to buy supplies in town, but nevertheless the community supported it and loved it because it wasn’t a chain and had been around for so long.”

For starters, it means fewer places in the city to buy art supplies. Beyond that, it’s a sign of the “relentless displacement” of San Francisco’s arts community. “On the one hand, we’re seeing a lot of exciting movement in some ways, like the development of Minnesota Street Projects — a facility in Dogpatch which houses many cutting-edge studios and galleries,” Veltman said. “And, of course, big, flashy, attention-grabby things like the reopening of SFMOMA, the rebooting of the Bay Lights. But, on the other hand, it continues to be extremely difficult for local artists and organizations to thrive in this climate.”

For example, the San Francisco Arts Commission heard from nearly 600 artists last summer that either live or recently resided in San Francisco, Veltman said. The survey found that over 70 percent of the respondents had been, or were being, displaced from their workplace, home or both. “Libby Schaaf spoke of the hotness and vitality of Oakland,” Veltman said. “Well, artists have played an immense role in making Oakland vital and hot — look at the gallery and theater and music clubs and restaurant scene, the thriving First Fridays, etc. And now everyone wants to live there.”

KQED’s Tara Siler, Chloe Veltman and Devin Katayama contributed to this post.

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