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Flax Art & Design, Like the Artists It Serves, Is Decamping to Oakland

Planned condo tower dooms 78-year-old San Francisco business's headquarters—but Oakland reels it in with $99K (or more) to sweeten the deal.

Flax's future Oakland home at 15th and MLK, a stone's throw from City Hall.


On a rainy December morning, the cavernous future home of the Flax Art & Design store in downtown Oakland is bathed in soft light and feels like the grand old art salon of the Parisian Académie. A workman spreads mortar on the former garage’s concrete floors with a two-by-four, while two guys in hazmat suits perched atop a scissor-lift blast paint high into the rafters. The arching, cantilevered ceilings are around 30 feet tall, pierced by a dozen skylights. Yes, this will be a fine place to hawk vast quantities of art supplies. And yet... 

“Everyone wanted us to stay in San Francisco,” says company chief executive officer Howard Flax, 54, shortly before giving San Francisco the first media tour of the new locale. “Including us!” interrupts Craig Flax, his 53-year-old brother. True, Howard nods, but in Oakland, he’s happy to say, “we got everything we wanted.” Craig interjects again: “Except that we’re not in San Francisco.” 

True again. Flax’s San Francisco outpost was established in 1938 by Howard and Craig’s grandfather, Herman, who had a feeling that the art-supply business was a viable way to profit during the Great Depression. His bet paid off. At its peak in the mid 2000s, the canvas and easel empire moved 10 million catalogs annually. But what worked during the Great Depression isn’t clicking as well during this Great Boom. The store deftly pivoted to noncommercial clientele after losing 90 percent of its 1980s-era business to desktop publishing home computers. That took finesse. But you can’t finesse your way out of the landlords wanting to drop a condo on top of you. Thirty-seven years after Howard’s father, Philip, sealed a handshake deal with the owners of the former Hermann Safe Company site to lease their 27,000-square-foot facility, the current landowners of the hulking Valencia and Market site have decided that they’d be better off with a residential tower on the spot, likely with a swank restaurant on the ground floor. So third-generation CEO Howard Flax is taking the company across the bay, perhaps as soon as February, retracing the migration of so many of their priced-out paintbrush-wielding customers over the last decades. 

The store's moving sale will commence later this month, but the Flaxes aren’t given to moping about their displacement. When life serves them lemons, they are inclined to see them as Still Life with Ingredients for Lemonade. Perhaps a move to Oakland will all be for the best, they say. After all, a sprawling art-supply emporium needs a lot of space, and many of the sites in San Francisco that Howard Flax would have desired were never a possibility because they’re zoned for businesses engaged in production, distribution, and repair (PDR) services—selling art supplies doesn’t cut it. Meanwhile, properly zoned spots in SoMa, Dogpatch, and the Bayview fell through. 

And so, after nearly two years of fruitless searching for a San Francisco home, Flax closed on the Oakland site in a matter of weeks, sealing the deal in September. Shaking his head, Howard marvels, “It was so easy!”—something that nobody ever says about land deals in San Francisco. But Oakland made the decision a no-brainer for the Flaxes. Keira Williams, a retail specialist in Oakland’s Department of Economic & Workforce Development, supplied Flax management with a list of potential properties—including, she says, the one they eventually settled upon—as well as demographic information (namely, the  frequently bandied-about—but never actually verified—claim that Oakland boasts the most artists per capita in the nation). 

Many of those artists, one can assume, were at one time based in San Francisco. So are many of the Oakland businesses that now cater to them—some of which relocated in response to parodic San Francisco prices and/or Oakland municipal enticements: Flax, for example, was promised $99,000 in Oakland public funding for site improvement and may snare up to $30,000 more for facade improvements. Every time he talked with Oakland city officials, Howard Flax notes, “the amount of money to lure Flax to Oakland grew.” 

Not every Flax employee will be making the journey east, however. The Oakland store’s 14,500 square feet, along with the 5,000-odd square foot San Francisco outpost Flax opened at Fort Mason in November add up to only 70 percent of the floor space that the Flaxes enjoyed at their Market Street site. Howard believes he will have to jettison 10 to 15 workers—along with Manny, the giant artist mannequin, and his kayak-size pen and paintbrush, which dominate the facade of the San Francisco store. They’re just too damn big. 

 “Maybe,” posits Craig Flax, “the guy who has the Doggie Diner heads would want them.” 


Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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