On a recent Thursday night, a group of local writers and readers gathered at the Octopus Literary Salon in Downtown Oakland to perform and discuss their work. Evan Pellervo read his short story, “Saturn’s Hexagon and the Security Guard.”
“Why do so many people care so much about caring so much about so many things?” he read. “It is so much easier not to.”
Such musings on the nature of being are a far cry from what used to go on at 2101 Webster St., when the space was a Quiznos sandwich shop. But since opening in April 2015, the Octopus — a cafe, bookstore and event venue — has hosted readings, storytelling, music and other performance arts six nights a week, occasional Sundays as well.
“We’re really committed to the local creativity of Oakland and the Bay Area,” said owner Rebecca Grove, who founded the Octopus with friends Ian Patton and Mike Linn.
The Octopus has been a space for different communities to gather and explore the issues affecting them through open forum conversation, creative writing and discussion of influential literature.
The venue hosts groups like “We,” a queer-focused series led by Richard Loranger and a group of local poets who started at the now-closed Babar in San Francisco. Also in regular attendance is “Talk Story,” an East Bay group focusing on the Asian and Asian American experience. KCBS Journalist Doug Sovern hosts “There,” a series that examines modern stories coming out of Oakland. And “Dirty Old Women” is an erotica book club that meets at the Octopus.
“We started in our homes having various events. Piano nights, singalongs, we read plays aloud,” said Grove. “We had basically a salon, but didn’t necessarily call it that.”
As popularity for the events grew, the trio started looking for a public venue. “We wanted to open a space that could incorporate books, food, beer and wine, and local performance,” Grove said. Above all, the three wanted a space where people could read and discuss books and where writers could share their work, which explains why the three decided to call it a “literary salon.”
And as for the octopus part, it’s a tribute to the enigmatic mollusk’s intelligence and shapeshifting abilities. Both the octopus and The Octopus are adaptable, changeable creatures.
Visitors to the salon can find a tidy curation of new and used titles, comprising classics, best sellers, and local authors. “We love books and being surrounded by books,” said Grove. In 2019 the Octopus hopes to expand their selection of works from local publishers.
In addition to books and literary discourse, the salon offers a menu of hearty yet simple foods: a tri-tip roast beef sandwich, hummus and sweet potato sandwich, mac and cheese, and a breakfast menu featuring granola, avocado toast, and smoked salmon toast.
“We wanted it to be as comfortable for folks as possible,” said Grove describing the menu. “So it’s comfort food.”
The salon also sells quiche, salads and soups, with vegan and gluten-free options, and housemade soda and house-made ice cream. It offers a selection of teas and espresso drinks using its own blend, “Octopus Ink” from Oakland’s RoastCo. For guests looking to unwind, The Octopus offers four draft beers from Ghost Town, Drakes, Line 51 and Woods, and a rotating selection of brews by the bottle and can, including $4 Tecate and Miller High Life.
The Octopus was always meant to be a creative space, but not a fancy or a fussy one. Many of the weekly events are open to the public, no cover charge, no purchase necessary. The menu is part of the strategy. By focusing on serving good breakfasts and lunches to the daytime demographic of professional office workers, “the evening doesn’t have so much pressure on it,” said Grove.
The menu has been really well received. (“We’ve got cult followings for our kale Caesar salad,” said Grove.) Nevertheless, the Octopus is looking to switch things up this year and begin offering limited evening menus through partnerships with local chefs. Starting Thursday, April 4, the Octopus will host Oakland’s Louisiana-Creole catering company Creole Creed on a weekly basis. The menu offers dishes like crawfish handpies, red beans and rice, and sweet honey cornbread.
The Octopus has earned a few celebrity fans. (The salon’s homepage shows Bill Murray in an Octopus tee-shirt.) Nonetheless, it’s been a challenge to stay solvent. “We’re still barely making it financially,” said Grove.
“It was really bootstrapped,” she said about the venue’s opening. “I borrowed as much as I could against my retirement to get through construction.”
The initial loan to renovate and open the space came from upstairs tenant Main Street Launch. Grove, Patton and Linn are still paying back the construction loan at a rate of $3,500 a month, in addition to rent and operating costs. To ease financial pressure, they launched a GoFundMe with the goal of raising $185,000 to pay off the remainder of the loan in full. “We knew it’s a huge number,” said Grove. “But that’s the real number.”
“It’s just that payment that we’ve really been struggling with,” said Grove. “We can see from four years of financial data that we’d be profitable if we didn’t have $3,500 a month holding us back.”
As of publication, the campaign has raised more than $9,500. But Grove says she has been most impressed by the total number of donors, not the individual dollar amounts. “That’s what highlights it for me,” she said. “The number of people who have given.”
“We really appreciate the support from the community,” said Grove.
As a further step towards stability, the salon has also partnered with San Francisco nonprofit The Lost Church. The Lost Church acts as a fiscal agent for small performance venues, helping them manage their finances and apply for grants.
“We still have a ways to go,” said Grove. “So we’re also looking at creative partnerships and negotiations with the bank and others.”
“We want to hang on,” she said. “We love being here. We love the support.”
The Octopus Literary Salon is open 7:30 a.m. until close (about 9 p.m. on nights with one show, midnight on nights with two shows), Monday through Friday; 6 p.m. to midnight, Saturday. Closed Sunday (usually). The Octopus also offers space for private events.