To walk into Oaktown Spice Shop is to take a step back in time. The shop’s hand-hewn, reclaimed wood shelves are lined with glass jars filled with colorful powders, whole chiles, and cut herbs. The air is scented—is that cinnamon? Turmeric? Step in a bit further and the aroma shifts. Sarsparilla? Burlap sacks filled with single-origin coffee add an alluring top note—vanilla. Or anise. The aromas alone are enough to entice even the most reluctant cook to start a conversation with the in-house spiceologists and that is exactly what owners John Beaver and Erica Perez anticipate in their interactive shop. “Customers love that conversation,” said Beaver, who set up the shop to allow customers to experience spices with their eyes, as well as the other senses.

The Oakland shop, located in a small strip of stores that lines Lake Merritt’s eastern shore, grinds, sifts, and blends all of their products on site, a distinction usually only offered to food service. This small batch production nearly guarantees that any cut product is in and out of the store within two to three weeks. The quick turnover is particularly important for delicate spices such as peppercorns. “Pepper oxidizes very quickly,” says Beaver, who notes that cooks using fresh pepper can capture the nuances of any given peppercorn varietal.

Perhaps because of Oakland’s proximity to wine country (Napa and Sonoma are just to the north and many winemakers now produce wines in the Bay Area), Beaver and Perez thought it made sense to build a spice shop that treated their wares like wine. And why not? The volatile compounds that are expressed as flavor in wine and other agricultural products are just as important to the flavor of spices and herbs.

Oaktown Spices pepper shelves

Erin Scott

A peek at the peppercorn shelves reveals options such as single-origin, late harvest peppercorns, organic Kampot (Cambodia) peppercorns, and Quang Tri (Vietnam) peppercorns, in addition to more familiar varietals such as Tellicherry, Whole White Cream, and Szechuan. A sniff from each jar reveals the distinctions of terroir. “Late harvest Quang Tri peppercorns have a sweetness to them,” said Beaver, while the Tellicherry has that familiar bright snap.

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As the business has flourished, Beaver and Perez have expanded their product lines to include not just coffee and tea but “only in Oakland” goods such as you might find at the farmers market down the street from the shop. A line of bitters comes from a former employee who went to herbal school and Caged Heat hot sauce comes from a bartender at the neighboring restaurant. But other products reflect the needs of the community and of the shop’s core customer: the home cook. “Our first foray into tea was a Oaktown Spice Shop in Oakland, CA Erin Scott[/caption]

Customers commented so frequently about the special aroma of the shop that they asked the designer of the bitters (the former employee) to develop an aromatherapy roller to mimic the scent. Called “Oaktown Spice Shop,” it contains lavender, orange, clove, cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger. It’s a best-seller.

Some might call Oaktown Spice Shop the avant garde of experiential retail and they would be right. Here, you can see, smell, and taste the store. The shop can be seen as a bulwark against the trend towards online retail, inviting customers to engage their senses rather than ignore them. There is a palpable excitement at Oaktown Spice Shop; one part thrill of discovery, one part sensation that this is home. Or as Beaver said, “It’s a foreign adventure.”

Header image courtesy of Erin Scott.

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