Downtown Gets a Lift From Hemp

Downtown Gets a Lift From Hemp
Posted by FoM on December 01, 1999 at 12:44:49 PT
By John King
Source: San Francisco Chronicle 
Boosters of hemp say it's a wonder drug -- er, plant -- that has the potential to save the rain forests, our digestive systems and everything in between. But here's the real challenge. Can it revive downtown Antioch? 
Odd as the notion may sound, consider this: The newest business in that long-struggling retail district is Hemptown, a 4-month-old emporium that sits between a gun shop and a pool hall. Across from City Hall, too. You can buy hemp sandals there, and hemp shampoo. There is belly chain jewelry made of hemp fiber and Hempermint soap and Mama Indica's Hemp Seed Treat, a power bar guaranteed to give you a boost. Despite what you might think, this is no dimly lit head shop. Hemptown is bright and spacious, with a painting outside that shows the planet Earth sporting shades and a cocky grin. In a retail district that peaked 40 years ago, where empty storefronts are never out of view, Hemptown arrives as a breath of fresh air. And I emphasize the word ``fresh.'' ``When it comes to hemp, you're in it for the dope or the rope,'' says Jennifer Newton, who opened the shop with her partner, Bill Roark. ``We're selling the rope.'' In other words, the emphasis of Hemptown is industrial hemp, the sober cousin of the cannabis that is grown to be rolled and inhaled. According to boosters, the hemp plant can be harvested as a fabric stronger than cotton or converted into a better energy source than oil. The seeds are rich in essential amino acids and protein. As a crop, it has no nasty environmental side effects. Jennifer's a fervent crusader. She's also a retailer who knows that stores do not prosper by hemp alone, certainly not when they're 39 miles south of Davis and 28 miles east of Telegraph Avenue. That's why there's incense (``natural, not tested on animals,'' Jennifer stresses) and sunglasses and a rear wall covered with skateboards. Those boards are what bring a steady stream of Antioch teens into the shop -- and for that matter, into a part of town many of them never even thought of visiting before. ``I always hated downtown,'' confesses Dan Hamilton, a freshman at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg who belongs to a skateboard team that Hemptown sponsors. ``I heard about the store from a friend, got some (skateboard) wheels here, and now I like coming by.'' For Jennifer, an Antioch native who sold tie-dye at festivals before deciding to open a store, there was never a question of locating anywhere else. ``The rent was attractive, but mainly I like that it's historic -- just like hemp,'' she says, tossing in a quick pitch for the product out of habit. ``Downtown's cozy and quaint.'' These days, downtown is known as ``Rivertown.'' And when it comes to their new neighbor, the other businesses are going with the flow. ``The reaction's been more positive than negative,'' says Rick Carraher, whose Rick's on Second is a popular spot for breakfast and lunch. ``It's not what you expect to find here, it's more like something in Berkeley. But it's cute and kept up very well.'' Give credit to Jennifer. One day when I was there, she dispatched a shopper to tell some kids outside to stay off their skateboards. She describes her clientele as ``really good. Sometimes they leave sodas outside, but I get on them.'' She belongs to the Antioch Chamber of Commerce and describes her fellow members as ``wonderful people.'' ``She's incredibly conscientious,'' Carraher says. ``We all appreciate that.'' They should. Creative entrepreneurs like Newton are exactly what a place like Rivertown needs. Antioch's downtown is like scores of others found in older American cities, an attractive place where the streets are lined with dignified buildings of brick and stone. It's easy to imagine a time when it was the hub of activity, the spot everyone visited to pick up their clothes, their hardware, their local gossip. But that's before malls and superstores. It's also before Antioch became a city of 80,000 people where nearly all the working adults work outside of town. Downtown's not downtown anymore, it's a stylish relic. So if someone comes in with new blood and new ideas, more power to them. With lines of $75 hemp sweaters displayed efficiently in gleaming racks, this isn't a knickknack shop for the glazed-eye set. It's a reminder that eastern Contra Costa contains different types of people with different types of interests. At the very least, it's the only place around where you can buy Mary Jane's Hemp Pops, flavored with -- guess what -- hemp. ``Those definitely are . . . interesting,'' Jennifer says dubiously. Hey, even the biggest booster knows there's a limit. You can reach John King at (925) 974-8354; by writing The Chronicle at 2737 N. Main St., Suite 100, Walnut Creek, CA 94596; or by e-mail at kingj 1999 San Francisco Chronicle  Page A19 
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