Almost 20 years ago, Janifer Wilson noticed that Harlem’s bookstores were disappearing one by one, something she couldn’t stand as a woman dedicated to preserving African-American culture and history.
She decided to launch her own, and rented a space on the ground floor of her apartment building that would become a community hub for literature, art and culture.
Her shop, Sisters Uptown Bookstore, is becoming something of a rarity as bookstores in general face stiff competition from online sellers like Amazon.com, but the overall number of black-owned businesses is falling, too, according to a 2017 report by Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office.
From 2007 to 2012, gentrification helped shutter many black-owned businesses, the study says. Whereas in 2007, African-Americans owned 13 percent of all businesses in the Bronx and 5 percent in Queens, they owned 6 percent and 3 percent, respectively, in 2012, the report says. New York City is one of only three large cities to see a decline even though the number of black-owned businesses across the nation actually grew by 2.4 percent in that time period.
With August designated as National Black Business Month — an effort to bolster the black business community with support — we spoke with African-American entrepreneurs about how they are surviving in New York City.
Here are some of their lessons:
Running a business is challenging and if you’re not in love with what you’re doing, it may be impossible to last.
When Wilson was on the verge of opening Sisters Uptown Bookstore, people told her outright “you’re not going to make it because black people don’t read,” she told amNewYork.
She faced that negativity as well as the realization that a rising cost of living wouldn’t leave her shop very profitable because it was the realization of a dream.
“This is a passion of love,” the 65-year-old said. “It is a must. A lot of people want to have a business, but what I found is that it has to be a purpose. The business you open may or may not yield an enormous amount of money. My word to folks is to find out what your purpose is and choose that kind of business. It’s a challenging journey but it’s worth it.”
In Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Omar Thorpe, 43, runs an ice cream shop called Creme and Cocoa Creamery with his wife, and it’s been a wild ride — literally. After rebranding his cafe to an ice cream shop, Thorpe bought a bicycle cart and rode it from that neighborhood all the way to Manhattan’s Fulton Market two weeks ago in the pouring rain.
“You’ve gotta love it to actually continue,” he said. “Everything has adversity. Sometimes I’m second-guessed because of who I am and sometimes I don’t get community support because the new business can be seen as a symbol of change” in a gentrifying neighborhood.”
Crown Heights’ Rituals and Ceremony owner Sarah Williams, who opened her lifestyle and home goods shop in November 2017, said it was very difficult to branch out on her own to open a business, especially because she had to learn as she went along, but she encourages others not to give up when they’re facing adversity.
“It’s tough navigating and figuring everything out,” she said. “I took my life savings and put it into this space. It was a matter of stepping out, adventuring and doing.”
She said sometimes families can place expectations on youth to become a doctor or lawyer, but “let that go and be on your own,” she said.
“It’s a big step and a tough step,” she added. “Even if you don’t have any blueprints, let those people know you have the desire to push through and go for it. Somehow the universe always provides — whether it’s through someone suggesting something or lending a helping hand.”
Be community-minded and pay attention
Wilson has made her bookstore all about community, and it has sustained her.
Not only does Sisters Uptown Bookstore sell literature, but it acts as a hub for artists, poets, avid readers and others who need a space to share in the community.
“I’m housing and presenting my culture so folks who come in back of me would be able to connect to that and not have the same sense of feeling invisible,” she said.
Growing up in southwest Georgia, she did not see depictions of people who looked like her in the literature she was reading. After moving to Harlem with her father, she was finally able to connect with her heritage and made it her mission to help others do that, as well.
“I exude my love of people and light in this community and that’s sustainability — it’s why I’ve lasted this long,” she said.
Williams noticed that the neighborhood was missing a shop dedicated to self-care and wanted to bring that to those around her.
“There really wasn’t a space like this to go to,” she said. “Everything was in Manhattan or there were shops but they had a different feel aesthetically. It’s been well-received. At first when we were opening, people walking in would say the store doesn’t look like it belongs and ask if it is a black-owned business. When I say ‘yes,’ they get excited.”
Thorpe’s business has undergone multiple iterations. He and his wife Astrid have transformed the long-standing family grocery store into a cafe and then rebranded it as an ice cream shop. Now, the duo are developing packaged pints that they want to get into stores by mid-August.
“This is an evolution of the previous business that was there 30 plus years,” he said. “This is the 2.0 version of what we had. We’re doing this because of the rapidly changing neighborhood.”
With change comes criticism, of course, but the Thorpes have made it a point to not stick to their comfort zone by expanding their branding and approach, he added.
Like them, Wilson’s bookstore changed over time. When she realized book business revenue was limited, she decided to open the space to the community to also bring in foot traffic.
“I find that you have to stay creative,” she said. “They tell you to do a business plan, but none of that stuff actually works. It’s a day at a time and I’ve had to co-create with the universe.”
Now with a juice bar, an African artifact market/gift gallery, poetry workshops, two book clubs, sound meditation classes, storytelling for children, art exhibits and an open mic night every month, the space has become a huge resource for people and “allows us to pay our bills,” Wilson said.
“People should think outside of the box because the box won’t yield the freedom you need to sustain it,” she added. “You need to be creative.”
The African-American community has “an overt and obvious” dedication to community, according to Cynthia Gordy Giwa, a former journalist turned director of marketing who runs Black Owned Brooklyn with fashion exec Glenn Alan. The website and Instagram account acts as a guide to black-owned and Brooklyn-based brands and the entrepreneurs who run them.
The Instagram-centric guide (@blackownedbklyn) features portraits of the business owners (taken by Alan) with snippets of interviews they have done — and it’s growing.
From Wine-O in Bed-Stuy to Breukelen Coffee House and so many others, the project is a delight to scroll through with entrepreneurs looking directly at the camera while in their shops.
“We started as an online resource that we felt was missing from the internet,” Gordy Giwa said. “It’s hyperlocal service journalism. There were places that were being overlooked and we started Black Owned Brooklyn so we could celebrate the creativity, the ingenuity and excellence of black businesses that people don’t know about but should know about and make it easier to support them.”
The purpose is really threefold. Black Owned Brooklyn gives visibility to businesses that are in the midst of gentrifying neighborhoods, helps people make conscious decisions to support them and thus the community, and offers a different perspective of the black experience, Alan and Gordy Giwa say.
“I think black people are interested in putting their dollars toward black businesses, which in turn will have a communitywide impact — there’s a likelihood their dollars are going back into the community,” Alan said. “It’s about supporting the community around you and the large part of the community of business owners in Brooklyn is black.”
In addition, more and more white people are reading Black Owned Brooklyn, Gordy Giwa said.
“They are thinking critically about the impact of their presence in the waves of gentrification occurring in the borough and wanting to make conscious decisions about where they’re shopping.”
And portraying images of blackness, unity and entrepreneurship offers an alternative narrative to the black experience, Alan added.
“The portraits are really important,” Gordy Giwa added. “I think they’re showing the diversity of black people — showing different genders, ages, cultural backgrounds and people from the LGBTQ community — all types, standing proudly, looking directly at the camera looking amazing.”
Having the support of the community has especially touched Williams at Rituals and Ceremony. Customers have told her they’re happy to see a young, black person with her own business. Plus, they’ve even offered a hand in helping her.
“This community is really supportive — they tell me ‘I have an accountant’ and have advice to share that I can utilize,” she said. “It’s important to speak verbally and with your dollars as well by continuing to support black businesses. It’s good to have diversity in any field or genre and good to have a different perspective and point of view. We need to keep these spaces and businesses open.”