Oakland therapist Kholoud Nasser with “Billy,” a teddy bear she uses in her practice with children. Photo: Anna Mindess

Bay Area cities and counties began relaxing the rules this week for certain non-essential businesses — mainly warehouses, manufacturers and retailers who can now offer curbside pickups of their goods. But for many small businesses, among them single proprietors whose work usually involves direct interaction with customers, the economic shutdown continues. Some will not make it through the crisis. Others however, are finding new and creative ways to maintain a safe distance with clients and still deliver services.

We spoke to three Oaklanders — a therapist, a photographer and a hairstylist — who are staying afloat by reinventing the way they do business.

Kholoud Nasser: Drama therapy goes online

During her in-person drama therapy sessions, psychotherapist Kholoud Nasser often uses objects, such as different colored scarves, to help her clients embody their emotions or a person in their life. 

“If someone needs to work on an issue with their father, for example, we endow the scarf with the energy of their father,” she said. “It gives a form to the formless. If the objective is to talk with your father, we bring an empty chair and the client chooses a color of the scarf that resembles the energy of their father and we put it on a chair.”

When the pandemic began, Nasser, an associate marriage and family therapist, transitioned her in-person practice to online therapy using VSee, a HIPAA compliant platform. Now, she works out of her Oakland apartment instead of her office. But since drama therapy involves more than just talking, not being in the same room with her clients has presented challenges. 

“Drama therapy is a form of therapy that includes tools from the theater world, where we can role play and express our emotions in an embodied way,” said Nasser, “and get into an imaginary space but also be in the here and now.”

“My clients and I are still adjusting and adapting to this new reality,” she said. “They are in their homes, so the space feels different, and not as clear as in the office.”

Nasser, who grew up in Lebanon and moved to the U.S. six years ago, helps her clients work through trauma and other issues affecting refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, and LGBTQ people. She often conducts therapy in her native language for Arabic speakers. She sees individuals, couples, children and their parents.

Nasser said that several of her clients who came from Arab countries recently are not as comfortable with online therapy and some are uncomfortable with therapy in general.

“People who have been traumatized may find it difficult to connect on the screen and have a preference for in-person connection,” said Nasser. 

When some of these clients preferred to pause during shelter-in-place, she respected their choice. But Nasser, who also works with domestic violence survivors through the Asian Women’s Shelter in San Francisco, has come up with an alternative. She is in the process of creating three-minute videos in Arabic on mindfulness and self-care strategies that clients can watch at home.

Nasser also works with children. Before the pandemic, in her Emeryville office, she used a sand tray and miniature figurines to help children create three-dimensional images of their family or feelings. Now, she encourages children to use a puppet or a stuffed animal at home to help them articulate their feelings, while she might have her teddy bear, “Billy,” respond. 

“This is play therapy, but it also allows the four of us to have a conversation,” said Nasser. “We can address issues about change and transition and teach them how to be flexible when there is an abrupt change, for their future resilience.”

Sari Blum: Shelter-in-place portraits

When all of Sari Blum’s upcoming jobs photographing weddings, festivals and farmers markets were suddenly cancelled in March she was shocked and depressed. But Blum had an idea. Over the past year, she had been using “Queenie,” a 26-foot, solar-powered bus, as a portable photo booth. She decided to use the bus as her main business venture during the pandemic.

Sari Blum in “Queenie,” the bus she now uses for her mobile photo business. Photo: Courtesy Sari Blum

Blum, a 34-year-old Oakland resident, calls her portable photo studio The Wandering Portrait Bus. She said she wanted to do something meaningful that didn’t encroach on people’s space and realized she already had all the tools she needed. Thanks to her zoom lenses, Blum can take photographs of couples, families, or people with their pets in front of their living quarters, from a safe distance. The pictures capture this singular moment in time and leave subjects with a memento.

Her clients sign up for photo sessions online. Blum, wearing a mask and gloves, takes a series of photographs outside people’s homes or other locations and then returns to her parked bus, selects the best images, loads them into her computer and edits them. Then in a Zoom call with her clients, she shares her screen so they can pick the images they want printed. Blum prints three pictures and leaves them on the porch. 

“I think there is so much power in an actual picture,” she says. 

The rest she sends through email. Each photo shoot is a little different, said Blum. One friend, who lives in downtown Oakland, posed on his fire escape. Blum climbed onto the roof of her bus to take his photo. 

Blum said she has fond memories as a child of leafing through actual photo albums with printed pictures.

“We’re lost in this digital world, on our Instagram feeds and we’re just scrolling, scrolling, scrolling,” said Blum. “Part of me hates it, I almost feel like I am in the wrong time. I’m very nostalgic for prints and actual things.” 

Tiffany Faircloth: Virtual hairstyling tutorial

In early February, hairstylist Tiffany Faircloth travelled to New York City, as she has done for many years, to work at New York Fashion Week, creating looks for the runway models, but she didn’t see the cataclysmic change coming to her industry until she returned to California, and her job as senior stylist at Edo Salon on Piedmont Avenue. After two weeks actively disinfecting every surface at Edo, she and her fellow stylists realized they were not going to be able to stay open. They temporarily shuttered the salon, even before Gov. Gavin Newsom and local health authorities announced the shelter-in-place orders. 

Tiffany Faircloth teaches bang-cutting online. Photo: courtesy Tiffany Faircloth

Born and raised in Berkeley, where she owned a salon for 10 years, Faircloth told Berkeleyside over video chat that during the first two weeks, the new reality of sheltering-in-place felt surreal and she grieved losing her job at the salon.  “I wanted to be able to serve people so much in that time,” she said. “It was really difficult to not be able to do that.”

Faircloth and the other Edo stylists held a salon meeting over Zoom and agreed that all their clients were now going to be on their own, at home. 

“There is no way around it,” she said. “People are going to be cutting their own hair. We’re either going to help them through this or we’re going to shut them out. So, we all agreed, let’s do it with them.”

Each stylist set up video sessions to help clients trim their bangs or, in rare cases, perform an entire haircut. Faircloth does about six video sessions a week and Edo has managed to attract new customers from the East Coast, and even the UK and France. 

“For the people who follow us on social media, but can’t get out to see us,” Faircloth says, “now is their chance to achieve that signature look in their bathroom.”

People are usually excited and nervous, said Faircloth, but after snipping a few sections they get the flow of it and they’re having fun. 

“They can’t believe that they did it,” said Faircloth, “and I feel like I have a purpose again. To watch their face light up — it’s really worth every second of it. I also encourage them to take before and after pics.”

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Anna Mindess is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Berkeley. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Atlas Obscura, AFAR, Lonely Planet, Edible East Bay, KQED,...