Part I: Zooming Out
Recently, one of my students at Stanford told me a strange story. His parents, who live in Palo Alto, Calif., had been receiving mysterious packages at their house. The packages were all different shapes and sizes but each was addressed to “Returns Department, Valley Fountain LLC.”
I looked into it and found that a company called Valley Fountain LLC was indeed listed at his parents’ address. But it also appeared to be listed at 235 Montgomery Street, Suite 350, in downtown San Francisco.
The names of many of these other companies were baffling and surreal. They included Bropastures, Dreamlish and Your Friend Bart LLC. And on further inspection, each one was associated with an Amazon seller (usually based in a European country) with an equally bizarre but unrelated name, like Ipple Store, DeepOceanStoreuk and GiGling EyE.
There was little pattern or theme to what these Amazon shops sold. They had everything from hemorrhoid cream to desk lamps, and there were varying levels of inventory. On sale at DeepOceanStoreuk (a storefront on Amazon.uk associated with Bropastures LLC), I found a book on industrial electricity, a set of fake facial wounds and a “No Stress Tech Guide to Microsoft Works 8 & 8.5.” Another storefront called Kingdom Kber, this one on Amazon.de and associated with Agapao LLC, advertised a miniature whale, nail gel and a copy of “Undocumented Immigrants and Higher Education.” When I clicked on these items, though, none of them were currently available. A good number of the storefronts were completely empty.
One thing these LLCs had in common was that their registered agent was named Jonathan Park.
Even though the packages being sent to my student’s parents’ home were addressed to Valley Fountain LLC, one of the packages had a return label taped to it that indicated it came from an Amazon store called Sendai Book Store. I looked it up and found that it was on several cautionary lists of unauthorized resellers, and had more than 400,000 things for sale. But once again, the offerings seemed chosen at random.
They were also strangely expensive. You might be hard pressed to imagine someone paying $42.66 for 6 ounces of Ulcer Ease Anesthetic Mouth Rinse, $52.00 for three boxes of Queasy Pops, or $127.09 for beige compression stockings in medium. But perhaps not having done their research, some people do.
I decided to order something: L.A. Girl Matte Flat Velvet Lipstick (3 pcs) for $25.63. (I pretended not to see that the same item was listed at $10.74 by another reseller.) Amazon informed me that the lipstick would come in two weeks; there was no tracking information.
1. Orders and Fulfillment
As it happens, uncanny ecommerce is a passion of mine, which is why my student mentioned the packages, and why I suspected that whoever was behind these retailers was doing something like “dropshipping,” just taken up a notch.
Dropshippers are online sellers who don’t keep any products in stock. Instead, they advertise a product and, if it is purchased, they buy the item from overseas and ship it directly to the customer.
In this case, it seemed that Valley Fountain LLC and other companies were posing as traditional retailers — usually by setting up Amazon storefronts like Sendai Book Store — and were just reselling items from other Amazon storefronts at inflated prices. It sounds confusing, but ultimately, it’s pretty similar to scalping concert tickets: A middleman makes money by ratcheting up the price.
The items in many of the storefronts associated with 235 Montgomery, Suite 350 had an unusually long shipping time and consistently low stock, so it made sense that items purchased from them might be coming from elsewhere.
While I waited for my lipstick, I returned to the list of LLCs, and noticed that there was something else that the companies had in common. According to LinkedIn and Facebook, at least a handful of the listed agents were alumni of Olivet University, a Bible college based in California.
If Olivet University sounds familiar, that’s because it has been in the news lately. Earlier this year its offices were raided as part of a fraud investigation being conducted by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
2. The Newsweek Raid
Olivet University was established in California in 2000 by an evangelical pastor named David Jang. His global religious community — often referred to, simply, as “the Community” — has been the subject of numerous articles that allege labor violations, fraud and abuse. That includes a 2014 Mother Jones story in which former religious followers of Mr. Jang said that the Community recruited them from China and brought them to the U.S. on student visas to study at Olivet University. In reality, the followers said, they spent most of their time working illegally, for very little pay, churning out clickbait for the International Business Times.
The International Business Times, or IBTimes, was started in 2006 by two of David Jang’s followers, Etienne Uzac and Johnathan Davis. It began as a small business and commerce website and grew by aggregating stories about basically everything. By 2013, it had enough revenue to buy the struggling Newsweek magazine from Barry Diller for cheap.
The IBTimes then rebranded as Newsweek Media Group, and increased Newsweek’s web traffic, in part by gaming search engines to bring in more clicks. Over the past few years, the pressure on employees to increase page views got worse and worse, even as Google and Facebook changed their algorithms to crack down on clickbait and traffic to the website fell.
As it also happens, here is where the story converged with another of my interests. My boyfriend had worked at Newsweek as an editor for a year. He was let go in April 2017.
In January of this year, things took an even darker tone. Investigators from the Manhattan district attorney’s office raided Newsweek’s New York office, taking 18 computer servers with them. The magazine’s own journalists investigated, and found that over the past few years, Newsweek Media Group had paid Olivet University millions of dollars for “licensing and research and development agreements” — all while the magazine was in financial distress.
Newsweek’s journalists also found that their company had offered about $149,000 worth of free advertising in the print magazine to New York’s Dutchess County, where Olivet was turning an abandoned psychiatric hospital into a satellite campus of Olivet University. The deal — which resulted in 10 full-page ads promoting local tourism and the Hudson Valley Regional Airport — was facilitated by Marian Rebro, the president of the company overseeing the construction.
Mr. Rebro’s company, which was at the time called Dover Greens but was formerly called Olivet Management, had previously gotten into trouble over the renovation of the psychiatric hospital. In 2016, it settled a case for $700,000 with the Department of Labor for exposing workers to asbestos and lead hazards. At the time of the advertising deal, the company was seeking tax exemptions in the town of Dover, which is in Dutchess County. But Dutchess County officials told Newsweek that they made no promises of favorable treatment in return for the ads.
Next, the Manhattan D.A. raided Olivet’s campus-in-progress. According to the Poughkeepsie Journal, the nature of the search warrant was unclear to state police who helped with the raid, but Mr. Rebro said the search was for “Newsweek servers.”
“Olivet University was not the subject of the visit,” he told the paper. “They didn’t take anything from the campus.”
Several of the Newsweek journalists who had worked on the investigation of their company and its relationship with Olivet University were fired earlier this year. A spokesperson for Newsweek Media Group declined to comment.
3. A San Francisco Startup
Thinking about that one office at 235 Montgomery Street, I pictured 141 Olivet alumni, each at a tiny desk, carefully minding his or her Amazon storefront. After all, a 2011 Olivet University news bulletin stated that students from the Olivet Institute of Technology and Olivet College of Business were collaborating “to explore features in E-Commerce websites.” Or maybe it was Jonathan Park, the registered officer of many of these stores, alone in there with a laptop? Or no one at all — just a humming, automated system trawling retail sites to make listings of random products on Amazon pages?
I went to 235 Montgomery Street to check it out, and found a set of locked double doors outfitted with a camera, a blinking light and a card reader. On the building’s directory, Suite 350 was listed as IBPort, Inc.
The name was familiar to me by then. IBPort is another one of Jonathan Park’s companies, registered in 2012. But far from being another sparse Amazon storefront, IBPort appears to be a full-fledged online business that sells its own products (although still for seemingly inflated prices). Several of the items, like the Asavea hair straightener and the SeaSum bluetooth speakers, are trademarked and have, or had, convincing websites of their own, even if they use a lot of stock imagery.
For example, Little Martin’s Drawer is a baby products company with a website that combines stock images with some pleasing pastel graphics. (Intriguingly, the company is also described on its website as a “brand concept and San Francisco headquartered startup.”) All three of the aforementioned brands, as well as other products on IBPort’s site, have trademarks that also belong to Jonathan Park.
If you look for Jonathan Park on the current Olivet University website, as I did, you won’t find him. But in an extremely long article that he wrote in 2012 for the Christian Post, a website that was itself founded by David Jang, Mr. Park describes himself as the director of the school of journalism at Olivet.
Perhaps the Olivet connection explains why Mr. Park originally registered IBPort with another address in Scotts Valley, Calif., just outside of Santa Cruz. That address is the former site of Bethany University, a Christian school that shuttered in 2011 due to financial trouble. Olivet University operated at that campus for part of 2011 and 2012, and upon Bethany’s shuttering, asked for permission to use its name and “adopt and carry forward the mission of Bethany.” Olivet’s bids to buy the campus — and the nearby Borland Software Corporation — were ultimately rejected.
But back to IBPort. It isn’t the only place you can find Jonathan Park’s many trademarks. If you want an “Essy Beauty” charcoal blackhead remover mask or “Spreaze” 3-D building blocks, you’ll have to head to a store called Everymarket. The strangely expensive items on sale there also recall the postmodern assortment of the Amazon storefronts. In New Arrivals, for example, I found a children’s dinosaur costume marketed alongside a bottle of psoriasis shampoo and a canister of butane fuel.
Everymarket’s Twitter account, outside of a notable emphasis on patriotic U.S. holidays (including the “birthday” of the Continental Army), mostly tweets out generic lifestyle photos alongside advertisements of the products it sells. The images have a synthetic dissonance to them. One tweet, for example, features a hair straightener by Asavea — a trademark that belongs to Jonathan Park — photoshopped into a royalty-free stock photo.
The “About” page of everymarket.com is also vaguely unsettling. A long explanation of how the “founder” used to travel to New York with a suitcase that couldn’t hold all the great products he bought there sounds like it was written by Tommy Wiseau of “The Room” fame:
If only there was a credible and affordable online store where he could conveniently order authentic products from around the world! This is what he thought a countless number of times!
Who could this cosmopolitan shopper be?
Until recently, Marian Rebro, the president of the Olivet-affiliated management company that is developing the abandoned psychiatric facility in New York, was listed on business websites as the manager of Everymarket Inc. But Mr. Rebro said, in a statement: “I am not the founder of Everymarket.com. I may have advised the company at one point many years ago, but have never been an employee there.” He also said: “I am not, nor have I ever been, a manager or employee of Everymarket.”
Everymarket is also listed in the U.K. as Everymarket Limited, but it has been dormant there since it incorporated in 2014. The listed director there is Dev Pragad, the C.E.O. of Newsweek. He took on that role in 2016 after the IBT Media acquisition.
It’s not hard to see the oddly overpriced Essy Beauty peel-off mask or Asavea hair straightener as a kind of product version of clickbait. After all, what is the experience of clickbait other than realizing we have vastly overpaid, even if only with our attention?
News, information and products are simply someone’s inventory.
This is what I thought a countless number of times!
And just as clickbait is often a mish-mash of copy-pasted content, aggregated from other sources, the products on retail websites run by people who are affiliated with the Community often seem less than original. For example, the Little Martin’s Drawer baby nail grinder is nearly identical to some that are available wholesale on Alibaba, in a range of color combinations. Listings on Everymarket for Essy beauty products sometimes blatantly feature images of other brands.
This has gotten some of the companies listed at 235 Montgomery in trouble.
In 2017, for example, a company called Curv Brands LLC — the owner of the trademark for the Keysmart Key Organizer — sued Goldeast LLC, one of Mr. Park’s many companies, for producing an extremely similar key organizer under the trademark “Kiartten.”
On the now-defunct kiartten.com, the key organizer had a name that even sounds like clickbait: “Portable Key Holder/Organizer From Kiartten Eliminates Bulging Pockets Holds Up To 14 Keys Compact Easy To Carry Durable Construction Fits Most Keys Great Gift Idea Find The Right Key Instantly.” Despite the lawsuit, the Kiartten keys were still being sold until recently, at $140 for a unit of 10, on Ibport.com.au.
In another legal dispute, from February of this year, Adult Printed Diapers LLC sued Faithfulness LLC, another one of Mr. Park’s companies, for selling “Aww So Cute” diapers, which are an Adult Printed Diapers trademark. It’s not clear where Faithfulness LLC got the Adult Printed Diapers diapers, but the lawsuit alleges that Faithfulness LLC’s co-defendant in the lawsuit, Rearz, Inc., made an unauthorized purchase of diaper inventory directly from Adult Printed Diapers’ supplier in Shandong, China.
4. A Better Life
Deep into my internet rabbit hole, I came across another online store called Olivesmall, which appeared online in May 2017.
Hosted on Shopify, Olivesmall sells just about everything. It also shares a motto — “A Peace of Mind, A Better Life” — with Everymarket.com. Although the registrant of olivesmall.com is hidden, Jonathan Park registered Olivesmall as a trademark in December 2017. In October, he also registered olivesmalltoy.com and olivesmallhealth.com, and over the span of two days in November, he registered olivesfashion.com, olivesoffice.com, olivespet.com, olivesfoods.com and olivesgames.com. Almost all of these sites recently began displaying the same “store unavailable” message on their homepages, but Olivesmall still hosts the familiar cornucopia of high-priced hodgepodge items — for example, a jar of “Natural Butt Enhancement Cream for Women and Men” goes for $23.64 and it’s $56.12 for a bottle of “Vimulti Grow Taller Pills will Increase Height.”
This is the point at which the connections between these mysterious retailers and people affiliated with the Community became seriously disorienting.
The Olivesmall trademark was filed by Yen-Yi Anderson, of Anderson and Associates, a small firm that has filed many of Mr. Park’s trademarks — including Faith Beauty, Essy, Vassoul, P&J Health, and Spreaze. Ms. Anderson also filed the trademarks for Bible Portal, Christian Today, Christian Daily, Christian Examiner, China Topix, Music Times, Adprime Media, and, last but not least, the Christian Post — the same publication that published Jonathan Park’s defense of David Jang.
And according to old course catalogs for Olivet University International, Yen-Yi Anderson has also been on faculty during the past three years.
The catalog PDFs were recently all replaced with versions that exclude Ms. Anderson’s name, but even after, she was still listed as the executive director of the Veritas Legal Society, which is featured on World Olivet’s website under its “Justice Ministry” page. (Ms. Anderson’s husband, William Anderson, is also involved in the Community, as a trustee of Olivet University. He is also the former publisher and C.E.O. of Christian Media Corporation, the umbrella entity for Bible Portal, Christian Today, Christian Daily, Christian Examiner and Christian Post.)
When it’s not registering trademarks for hair straighteners, pet slings and Christian media companies, Ms. Anderson’s firm also practices corporate and immigration law. In 2016, Anderson and Associates represented Jonathan Park when he registered for an H1-B employee for IBPort’s warehouse in New Jersey.
In a statement, Ms. Anderson said that the law firm’s policy prevented her from commenting directly on matters that are protected by attorney-client privilege. “In many cases my firm has assisted entrepreneurs with new product launches and ventures,” she said. “Due to my volunteer engagements, my firm is often sought after via referrals from those who share the same Christian faith and values, among other referrals of all types, and thus I have formed a strong business and entrepreneurial network.”
5. An Empty Store
The New Jersey warehouse wasn’t the only brick-and-mortar manifestation of IBPort. According to its website, IBPort also has “extensive partnerships with well-known department store Trinity Place in Manhattan, New York,” which it says is “one of the fastest growing department stores in recent years.”
Trinity Place appeared suddenly in downtown Manhattan in 2012, the same year that IBPort incorporated. That year, Racked wrote about how the department store had popped up to sell brands including Sylvia Lee, Trollied Dolly, Rock’n Royalty and Burkinabe Couture. The Racked journalist wrote, “If none of those names mean anything to you, you’re not alone.”
But Trinity Place is quite real. It’s now called Leez Department Store.
On a recent visit to Leez, recognizable brands were mixed in with disconcerting objects, like a $59 hat that said “Oslo Iceland” on it and something called “Granny Attic Bubble Foam.” Both items appeared to be made by JNG Korea Co. Ltd.
Products from Little Martin’s Drawer and Asavea were prominently displayed.
Along the wall was a giant stockpile of Kim’s Living Cutetok UV sanitizer for baby products, marooned perhaps, after a Korean supplier’s failed Indiegogo campaign. (Not to worry, however; the Cutetok sanitizers are still widely available on Alibaba.)
A sorry assortment of wooden furniture haunted the second floor, while the third floor remained dark, empty and forbidding; visitors were informed that it is now an event rental space.
Business cards displayed at Leez named Chris Liu as the Chief Operation Officer there. Chris Liu’s Linkedin profile lists a previous position in Business Development at IBTimes Australia.
When I looked up the origins of Trinity Place, I learned that the chief executive at the time of its opening was Marian Rebro — the Olivet-affiliated developer who is renovating the former psychiatric hospital in New York, and who helped secure free advertising for the county in which it is located.
Amid all of this, my lipstick arrived! Inside the package was an invoice for $10.75 from “Crispy Beauty,” an unfortunately named Amazon seller that was decidedly not Sendai Book Store, the store on Amazon I paid $25.63 for the lipstick. When I went back to Amazon and generated a return label, the address was for Valley Fountain LLC.
Part II: Zooming In
I was not prepared for the way a simple question about some mysterious packages would spiral into a dizzying network of Amazon storefronts, web domains and badly written “About us” pages. But the more I looked into it, the more it seemed they were being run by a handful of people, each operating in different capacities depending on the needs of the moment. More surreal was how these websites were linked to the physical world.
6. The High End Furniture
On Leez’s Yelp page was a January 2018 review — hidden by the algorithms that Yelp uses to detect fake reviews — that expressed great excitement that the store would be selling furniture. Posted by Chris L., who has never written a Yelp review again, it reads: “My favourite is the high end furniture that they recently got in store, ‘Hunt Furniture,’ made in NY since 1926. It’s 100% hand made with solid wood.”
Chris L. also made sure to throw in a plug for the third floor: “The 3rd floor of the store is open for rent. It’s quite spacious and bright. Good for all kinds of event.”
True enough, the sorry assortment of wooden furniture on the second floor of Leez was by Hunt Country Furniture. And on first glance, the website for Hunt Country Furniture seemed real enough.
But if you want to actually buy something, you have to click on the “Shop Now” tab, which according to snapshots on the Wayback Machine, was added to the website sometime after July 2017. That tab takes you to the Shopify-powered, surreal shop.huntcountryfurniture.com, which hosts images of furniture overlaid with strange phrases like “Find the Wooden Furniture of your Dreams” and “Tradition, generational.”
In March 2017, a resident who lived close to the Hunt Country Furniture factory in New York (which is located in the same town as the abandoned psychiatric facility), wrote a sorrowful Facebook post after hearing the place was closing after 90 years. The post was accompanied by a photo of the front of factory building, covered in orange “Closing” signs. When I contacted that person, who asked not to be named, he told me that Hunt Country Furniture had indeed closed and that it had sold its name, designs and property to a member of the Community. From what he could tell, the new factory owner wasn’t making more than “piecemeal quantities.” He also said that the prices for the furniture sold at Leez were “astronomical” compared to what they used to be. The only logical explanation was that someone from Olivet had taken over the factory.
But what would the Community want with a furniture store?
7. Books Can Minister When No One Else Can
Hunt Country Furniture is not the only business the Community has taken over. One of Yen-Yi Anderson’s “likes” on Facebook is a page for Stevens Book Shop. Its store logo notes that it has “served readers since 1954.”
Again, on a quick visit to its website, stevensbooks.com, nothing seemed amiss. The bookstore appears to have been founded in North Carolina by a man named Dick Steven. But in a 2013 Yelp review of the Raleigh, N.C. location, one reviewer wrote: “I was told by the sales clerk that the store while once owned by Steven, is now owned by a Christian University in California. WHAT?”
You’d be hard pressed to find any trace of the Community on the Stevens Book website, but a 2008 article published on Olivet University’s website announced that the school bought it, calling Stevens Books the “world’s largest Christian theological bookshop.” Snapshots on the Wayback Machine of the company’s original URL, stevensbks.com, illustrate the turnover. Up until 2010 the website was relatively simple, with a black background and a brief “About” page. But between June and July 2009, stevensbks.com changed to look more like an online store and its “About Us” page began redirecting to a separate site, stevensbooks.com.
A year later, that URL changed back to stevensbks.com but began sporting a “Stevens Book” logo. This is extra confusing because there was also a third site in the mix: stevensbook.com.
The current website for Stevens Books shows locations in Raleigh, N.C. (the original store), La Mirada, Calif., and San Francisco. But according to the Wayback Machine, the website also listed a previous address, in Manhattan at 22 Cortlandt Street, on the 21st Floor. That’s the same address as several of the media companies Yen-Yi Anderson helped trademark, as well as Olivet Institute Inc. (It is also, as an article in Paste noted, the address listed on the old website of a company called Oikos Networks, which is the company that sold Newsweek Media Group the computer servers that spurred the Manhattan D.A.’s investigation.)
When I visited stevensbooks.com recently, the assortment of books for sale was heavy on textbooks and business topics. A copy of “Fundamentals of Human Resource Management” was marked down from $264.25 to $30.21; “Basic Marketing: A Marketing Strategy Planning Approach” was down from $197.50 to $51.60.
I decided I had to go to the San Francisco store.
A few local blog posts from 2016, when it opened, identify the owner as Joseph Volansky, and a YouTube video from June 2016 called “Stevens Books” features a monologue by Mr. Volansky, sitting on a couch inside the store.
In what sounds like a thick Eastern European accent, he says that “Stevens” is the last name of a man who was in the bookstore business for 60 years. “This gentleman is actually my friend,” he said. “We used to work a couple years together, and this is in memory of him.” There’s a cut in the video, and then: “He’s still alive, but this is like a tribute to him. That’s why it is called Stevens Books.”
I began to wonder if “Stevens” may have been more of an idea than an actual person. On Facebook, there is a profile for “Joseph Stevens,” who is listed as the manager of Stevens Books, but his profile photo is clearly the man from the video identified as Joseph Volansky. This Joseph Stevens (or is he Volansky?) posts prolifically about the store, and his list of friends and “liked” pages contain almost no references to Community-related entities. But there is another profile for someone named Jozef Volansky who is Facebook friends with Jonathan Park, and his “likes” include two separate pages for Stevens Books, two separate pages for Stevens Book Shop, stevensbooks.com and Stevensbook, along with the Christian Post, International Business Times and Olivet Theological College and Seminary.
When I walked into the San Francisco store, the first thing I encountered was a bookshelf that looked remarkably like a real-life version of the online shops I had been visiting. Interspersed among the staff picks (Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs,” Mehmet Oz and Michael Roizen’s “You, Staying Young: The Owner’s Manual for Extending Your Warranty”) were some “Happy Monkey” finger puppet toys, anti-snoring mouth devices, silicone pads for the insides of bras and retinol skin cream. Along the window there were fidget spinners, “Piero Lorenzo” wallets, dartboards and squishy toys for sale.
Of course the store also had books, many of them Christian and collected from churches and schools. The featured titles, however, were largely business-related. Joseph/Jozef Stevens and/or Volansky was there, moving things around between the shelves and a storage area. His employees, three young people, loitered about, looking at their phones and checking Twitter from the store computer. When it came time for me to buy my two books (a memoir by Benoit Mandelbrot and something titled “Redeeming Halloween: Celebrating without Selling Out”), I approached one of them tentatively.
“Do you want to check out those books?” the guy asked. No, I said. I wanted to buy them. “Oh!” he said, and then laughed to himself. “That’s right … we’re not a library.”
8. Who Is Mr. Stevens
When I later looked up the non-book items from the store, the names were familiar. The anti-snoring devices were from P&J Health, a Jonathan Park trademark. The Piero Lorenzo wallets had a trademark filed by Anderson & Associates for Kenosis International LLC, a business registered by an Olivet faculty member at Olivet University’s address in San Francisco. Things that weren’t associated in some way with people affiliated with the Community appeared to have just been directly imported from China, without further branding. I found the “Happy Monkey” finger toys — box and all — on several wholesaler sites on Alibaba.
The retinol cream and the silicone pads were both “Reejoys” brand, and I found that the Reejoys LLC trademark belongs to Jozef Volansky himself. That Mr. Volansky had branded and imported these, and was selling them in his own store, seemed almost endearingly straightforward compared to everything else I had encountered. Still, the image used for the Reejoys Facebook profile and cover photo is a placeholder image for a Shopify template. If a post is liked on the Facebook page, it is usually by Joseph Stevens. Several of the photos are clearly taken in the bookstore; one photo of the retinol cream, accompanied by a not-totally-convincing review, appears to have been taken on the same red couch from the “Stevens Books” video.
In an email in response to request for comment, Mr. Volansky wrote “P&J Health anti-snoring devices and Piero Lorenzo wallets are not sold in Stevens Books.” He said he was not the owner, and that the store and the brand were owned by the Stevens Books Group. “I go by my own name, Stevens is a nickname because of Stevens Books,” he wrote.
Amazingly, Mr. Volansky has still other hats to wear. Until recently, he volunteered as an associate pastor at Gratia Community Church in San Francisco. The deacon there is Mark Roy Li, who is also on faculty at Olivet University’s business school, and is the owner of Kenosis International LLC, the company responsible for the Piero Lorenzo wallets I saw at the bookstore. The senior pastor at Gratia is Walker Tzeng, who is also listed as the chief operating officer of Olivet University. On David Jang’s personal website, Mr. Tzeng appears in several group photos alongside Mr. Jang himself.
9. “The future belongs to the one who has dreams”
Trying to map the connections between all these entities opens a gaping wormhole. I couldn’t get over the idea that a church might be behind a network of used business books, hair straighteners, and suspiciously priced compression stockings — sold on Amazon storefronts with names like GiGling EyE, ShopperDooperEU and DAMP store — all while running a once-venerable American news publication into the ground.
While I searched for consistencies among disparate connections, the one thing I encountered again and again on websites affiliated with those in the Community was the word “dream.” “Find the wooden furniture of your dreams” (Hunt Country Furniture). “Read your dreams” (Stevens Books). “Our company is still evolving every year, but our dream never changed” (Everymarket). “The future belongs to the one who has dreams; a company with dreams achieves the same” (Verecom).
Indeed, at some point I began to feel like I was in a dream. Or that I was half-awake, unable to distinguish the virtual from the real, the local from the global, a product from a Photoshop image, the sincere from the insincere.
Still harder for me to grasp was the total interpenetration of e-commerce and physical space. Standing inside Stevens Books was like being on a stage set for Stevens Books, Stevens Book, Stevens Book Shop, and Stevensbook — all at the same time. It wasn’t that the bookstore wasn’t real, but rather that it felt reverse-engineered by an online business, or a series of them. Being a human who resides in physical space, my perceptual abilities were overwhelmed. But in some way, even if it was impossible to articulate, I knew that some kind of intersection of Olivet University, Gratia Community Church, IBPort, the Newsweek Media Group, and someone named Stevens was right there with me, among the fidget spinners, in an otherwise unremarkable store in San Francisco.
Speaking with Jonathan Park, and reaching out to Olivet, provided some kind of clarification. Mr. Park said: “I currently own and operate several businesses that I started while I was at Olivet,” but added that he does not operate many of the entities that he helped incorporate, and that some entities have been spun off and are not related to him anymore.
He said he mentored students, including interns and graduates of Olivet, and helped them set up businesses from time to time: “My collaboration with Olivet was one of my life’s best experiences because the University and its students have an entrepreneurial spirit and great aspirations. It is truly a privilege to work together with these bright and gifted individuals.” The school and students, he said, “partnered and envisioned an incubating program similar to those of the leading research universities; including Stanford and Cornell. While Olivet and my businesses are of a different scale than that of Stanford’s and Google’s, this type of collaboration is commonplace today and has proven to be very successful and rewarding for the economy at large. Our results and volumes are not odd, but, I believe, are rather impressive and something to be proud of.”
Olivet was more vague in its statement, made through its spokesperson Ronn Torossian. He wrote, in full:
“Following the legacy of our (late) Honorary Chairman Dr. Ralph D. Winter, Olivet University has always looked for ways to encourage growth in mission frontiers. This influence shaped the founding vision from Dr. Jang, who, as a devout Christian, believes a Biblical worldview can be applied across all varieties of fields. In that same spirit, the University has always been happy to help evangelical business owners, and we’ve had a good working relationship with IBTimes over the years. We are also proud of our business-as-mission network with various entrepreneurs going into the marketplace as part of our ongoing exploration into models about how to best plant churches and expand mission frontiers. We will continue to explore this paradigm. These are challenging times for Christian and secular higher education institutions alike. Olivet is continually learning the best ways to provide high quality education to raise leaders while developing sound and diversified income sources. One model is Stanford University, which derives 85% of its revenues from non-tuition sources including sponsored research. Olivet similarly recognizes the importance of finding new models for supporting education, and therefore the school encourages innovation and entrepreneurship for its student and alumni base. Many of our alumni are successful entrepreneurs in the U.S. and other countries and contribute to and partner with the University by donating, partnering on research projects, providing internship/training opportunities, and in other ways. We will continue promoting these values that have made America into the great country it has become. And we are proud of all our successful alumni and are thankful to all the friends, benefactors and partners of Olivet University.”
10. A Dream Without End
In the end, I decided to return the lipstick.
The Amazon return slip listed Valley Fountain LLC, but it wasn’t my student’s parents’ address. Thankfully, they were no longer receiving the packages, having complained about it to the postal service. This time, the Valley Fountain address was 501 Broad Ave., Ridgefield, N.J. When I looked up the address, it was the IBPort warehouse where Everymarket is also listed as a tenant. If you look it up on Google’s Street View just right, you can spy a small sign for IBPort pointing enticingly around a corner.
As for Newsweek Media Group, it got indicted.
First, the company split into two entities: Newsweek and IBT Media. Then, in October, the Manhattan district attorney’s office charged IBT Media and a number of co-conspirators with defrauding lenders. A month later, the office announced that Olivet University would be indicted, too. The charges — which include falsifying records, conspiracy and criminal contempt — revolve around money laundering that prosecutors say was carried out to fund Olivet’s operations and real estate acquisitions.
The alleged schemes include fictitious auditors (named “Karen Smith” and “Lynn Chen”) who came complete with their own fictitious emails, phone numbers and websites; networks of corporate bank accounts; and the computer server company, Oikos Networks, that is listed at 22 Cortlandt Street, which also happens to be the address where Olivet Institute, Stevens Books and Christian Media Corporation are all registered.
The indictments include charges against Etienne Uzac, a co-owner of IBT (and one of the original founders of International Business Times); William Anderson, an Olivet trustee, former chief executive of Christian Media Corporation (and husband of Yen-Yi Anderson); and John Xiao, Olivet’s finance director and dean of Olivet Business School. The general manager of Oikos is named only as an “unindicted co-conspirator.”
Mr. Anderson and Mr. Uzac maintain they are not guilty. A lawyer for Mr. Uzac described the charges as baseless, and a lawyer for Mr. Anderson described the charges as absurd. Mr. Torossian, the Olivet spokesperson, said: “Olivet University denies the charges announced by the District Attorney’s Office and will vigorously defend itself against these unsupported allegations — including the puzzling claim that lenders who have suffered no loss were somehow victimized. Olivet stands strongly by the individual members of its team who have been wrongfully accused. Olivet is a Christian institution dedicated to providing educational and spiritual opportunities to students around the globe — including in locations that are hostile to Christianity and Christian practice.”
I wondered about the fate of my overpriced L.A. Girl Matte Flat Velvet Lipstick and who, at the New Jersey warehouse, would be there to receive it. I imagined a person sitting surrounded by rejected dinosaur costumes, butane fuel canisters and butt-enhancing creams. Soon they would receive my lipstick, neither a return nor quite a gift, purchased, at one point, from a faraway place called Crispy Beauty. I wondered if they knew their place in this vast and vertiginous network — if they knew that they were helping to achieve Everymarket’s dream: A dream of being a marketplace “offering practically everything from everywhere for everyone.”
Jenny Odell, an Oakland-based writer and a lecturer in the art and art history department at Stanford University, is the author of the forthcoming book, “How to Do Nothing.”