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Black in Business

Along Albany’s Central Avenue corridor, minority entrepreneurs are changing the commercial landscape—and providing the neighborhood with new role models

By Nancy Guerin

John Whipple

It’s 9:30 on a Tuesday morning, and already the three barber chairs at Tru’ Images Barber Shop on Albany’s Washington Avenue are filled with customers. As people stroll in and out, it’s not hard to tell that most of them know each other quite well.

“Yo, man, how’s it going?”

“How are the kids?”

“Did you catch the game last night?” These are the types of conversations that can be heard over the sound of the TV set that is tuned to Black Entertainment Television.

The owner of the shop, Jon Wafer, works out of the barber chair closest to the door. While he is busy cutting a customer’s hair, his watchful eyes are constantly peering across the shop, keeping track of everything that goes on in his store. He says that although this is where people come to get a cut or shave, it also is where people come to get away from the hustle and bustle of the world.

“This is a place to get a haircut as well as a place for people to let their hair down,” says Wafer. “People come in here to see one another, to socialize, to catch up on the latest news in the community. We laugh, we joke we go back and forth talking about everything. We enjoy coming to work, and people enjoy coming in here.”

Wafer is proud of his success. His business has been open for six years now, and he is already looking to expand. But as an African-American business owner, as well as a barber—a job he takes quite seriously—he knows that he holds a great responsibility to the community.

“In some ways, I am a role model for kids,” says Wafer. “When I was growing up, you didn’t see many black business owners. I think it’s very important for kids to see that black people can do this, so that they have something to aspire toward and to look up to. And one day they will become the next generation of entrepreneurs.”

John Whipple

Wafer says that although there has been an increase in—and improvement of—black role models on TV, those images are not as tangible as the local barbershop or restaurant owner in the neighborhood.

“Seeing successful black people on TV doesn’t have the same impact on kids as seeing, day in and day out, successful black people living and working in the community,” says Wafer. “We try to show by example, by the way we dress, the things we discuss in our shop, that you don’t have to be what you see on the news.”

This is one reason why Wafer is enthusiastic about the recent boom of businesses owned by people of color on Central Avenue. Creative Technologies, Helen’s Just Enough Florist, Top Notch Clothing, Circle City Gallery, 2 Brothers Urban Apparel and Monique’s Cafe are just a few of the many businesses that have opened along Central Avenue in the past couple of years.

Anthony Capece, executive director of the Central Avenue Business Improvement District, says that there is a real upswing in activity on Central Avenue, and that minority businesses are sprouting up everywhere.

“In the past two years, things have really taken off for this area,” says Capece. “A real change has taken place. Where we used to see a lot of transient stores opening up and then closing shortly thereafter, we are now seeing a lot of really solid minority-owned businesses, like contracting companies, computer stores, plumbers and parts stores moving in.”

As a result, Capece says, the neighborhood is stabilizing.

“It’s really been nice,” he comments. “We see a lot of people who feel this is a good place for minority ownership. We have an opportunity to make this a real multicultural niche.”

Deborah Williams Muhammad, cofounder of Gelede Center Inc., a nonprofit consulting business, says she can’t emphasize enough what an important impact it has on a community when people of color open their own businesses.

“Ownership equals empowerment,” Muhammad says. “Just as it is important for the kids to see people of color going into business, the impact this has on adults is equally important. It lends itself to self-sufficiency and to be able to sustain yourself.”

However, Muhammed says, there are some unique challenges people of color face when they decide to go into business for themselves—challenges that most white business owners don’t come up against. For one, she says, people of color have to work harder to prove that they are committed to their work.

“The hard reality is that many black businesses get judged with a different yardstick than white businesses,” she says.

For example, when she meets with a realtor or an attorney on behalf of one of her clients, more times than not, if her client is a person of color, the realtor will question the client’s seriousness and ask whether Muhammad really thinks they have the ability to pull it off.

Blacks also tend to become easy targets for stereotypes that may hurt their ability to prosper.

All too often, when a black business is successful, some people automatically think it is a front for drug money or a gambling ring, and therefore don’t shop there. All types of people, she adds, not just white people, believe the stereotypes.

Muhammad says that she had one client who was standing on Central Avenue outside of his business, leaning on his SUV and talking on his cell phone; people automatically made the assumption that he was a drug dealer.

“They didn’t know that he was on the phone selling computers to one of the biggest businesses in Albany,” she adds. “These types of assumptions would not be made if he had been white. . . . But black people are given less benefit of the doubt, and it makes it harder for us to prove ourselves.”

Often, Muhammad says, when she is conducting her business by phone, she finds that she can get a lot farther by changing the tone of her voice to sound more like a white person.

“I have learned to turn it on and off—my voice that is,” said Muhammad. “Socially, I am not happy that I have to do this, but I understand how perception and socialized information plays into things, and that is just a reality. I deal with it every day of my life.”

For Antoine Harrison, owner of Creative Technologies at 169 Central Ave., managing these unique challenges is just as much a part of business as anything else.

“Although a lot of people swear that they are not prejudiced, they do things in a prejudiced nature,” says Harrison.

For example, Harrison says, people will automatically assume that Harrison works for someone else—that he is not the owner of Creative Technologies.

He says that when he goes into a meeting accompanied by one of his white employees, people will turn automatically to the employee first, or will try to make a deal with the white person rather than with Harrison.

He also notes that if his business and a competing white business carry the same products for the same price, people often will go to the white business because they seem to trust its product over his, even thought they are exactly the same. And Harrison has encountered people who tell him he should drop his prices.

“It’s like people think that they should pay less for a service provided by a black company than a white company,” says Harrison.

To combat these prejudices, Harrison tries to overact the part of the perfect business owner.

“I try to fit that stereotype of the business owner, business model, to a tee,” says Harrison. “I don’t have the room, like white businesses may have, to be the slightest bit casual in any of my affairs. It is not like I have the advantage of walking into a business and saying, ‘Hi, I’m Antoine and Johnny sent me.’ I am black and I am on my own. I am obviously not part of the good-old-boys club.”

Like many other minority business owners, Harrison enjoys working on Central Avenue and seeing black people patronize black businesses. He sees his role, particularly as a black man involved in technology, as very important.

“On TV, when we hear about black business, it is always entertainers like Puff Daddy, and it’s always clothing or music,” says Harrison. “You rarely see black mathematicians, engineers or those involved in technology. Hopefully, people will see what I am doing and realize that they can do it as well.”

Larry Woodson and Sha Thomson, owners of 2 Brothers Urban Apparel, a clothing store that has been open for eight months at 201 Central Ave., say that many people who see their store assume that it is run by drug dealers.

Woodson attributes this misconception to the hiphop clothing that they sell and wear. Both brothers also are recovering drug addicts, which they feel may add to some people’s suspicions.

“People assume that we are selling drugs,” says Thomson. “The police drive by and watch because of the clothes that we sell, and people start to talk. It is always going to be that way. There is always that outlook of the black person. But that is not for me to feed into.”

Woodson agrees and says that the significant role that they play, not only as black business owners but also as two people who have turned their lives around, outweighs its negative side.

“You know we are here all day, every day, and kids walk by and see us doing this, and we know we are making a difference,” says Woodson. “We are neighborhood people. People see us at the Price Chopper, at the Laundromat and the car wash. We are team players and we are showing them that this can be done and that is what matters most.”

We’re All in This Together

Collaborations between independent entrepreneurs mean good business—and good karma

By Peter Hanson

Dennis Phayre’s absence was noticeable. Because Phayre is the owner of Shades of Green, a vegetarian restaurant on Lark Street in downtown Albany, the eatery shut down during the six weeks he took off last summer. Phayre wanted to ensure that people who might normally spend money at his business kept their dollars in the neighborhood, so he took a grassroots approach to stimulating the economy: He put up a sign in the restaurant’s window encouraging customers to patronize neighboring business such as A Taste of Greece, another Lark Street concern, during his vacation.

“These are my neighbors,” Phayre says. “These are the people I see daily. I want to enjoy the virtues of friendship. It’s also in everybody’s best interest that businesses in the neighborhood flourish.”

Paul O’Donnell, proprietor of Saratoga Springs shop Celtic Treasures, echoes Phayre’s attitude. “As a shopkeeper who’s dealing with the public every day,” he says, “I’m often asked ‘Where would you go for lunch?’ I always send them to my favorite restaurants. It’s all about sharing the wealth and keeping people busy. If we don’t have a certain item in our store, we know where to send people.”

Susan Novotny, owner of the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, takes an even more aggressive approach to supporting other businesses: She lets fellow entrepreneurs display their wares in her shop. “We do whatever we can on a store level to promote a new business,” she explains. “We had a carpenter come in the other day who wanted to show off his work, so we put up a photographic display. If I had the time, I would go around to every single independently owned local business and form a network so we could put up a billboard on I-90 and say ‘We’re your locally owned business, and we support your communities and your churches and your synagogues. . . .’ ”

Collaborations between small businesses can take many forms. Restaurants and performing-arts organizations, for instance, occasionally do cross-promotions in which a ticket stub from a show entitles a customer to a discount on dinner, or a dinner receipt entitles a customer to a discounted admission price. Such collaborations can even be charitable in nature. Staffers at the Springwater Bistro, in Saratoga Springs, recently organized an event in which several local eateries participated, and which benefited the survivors of food-service employees who died last year at Windows on the World, the restaurant located atop the World Trade Center.

The most visible collaborations between businesses occur under the auspices of trade groups, such as business-improvement districts and chambers of commerce. Through chambers of commerce, for example, businesses often pool their resources to purchase collective advertising or to organize street fairs and other festivals during which consumers are encouraged to patronize several businesses at once. In these official collaborations, individual small businesses are able to reach more potential customers than they would be able to on their own.

Other benefits of membership in trade groups are less visible to customers. Phayre notes that restaurant owners sometimes form collectives in which members are able to get bulk discounts to which they wouldn’t otherwise be entitled. And O’Donnell sings the praises of the Saratoga Downtown Business Association, of which he is an active member. He notes that during the 2001 holiday season, the group mobilized 49 Saratoga Springs businesses to change their hours and stay open on Friday evenings for six weeks of prime holiday-shopping time.

O’Donnell acknowledges, however, that dealing with the quirks of individual personalities can make collaborations difficult, adding that not every Spa City business approached about the Friday-night plan came on board. “You’re dealing with a hundred mom-and-pops,” O’Donnell says. “They’re not big corporations. We’re all fiercely individual—we don’t want to conform to mall hours.”

The unwillingness to conform to the shopping-mall mentality is a big part of what makes small businesses vital, and the shop owners say that forming neighborly bonds with other entrepreneurs is a helpful means of combating the ongoing encroachment of big-box retailers.

“We’re all in it together,” observes Novotny. “We are sort of the backbone of the commercial community. Big chains can come and go, and they certainly do.”

“My theory is ‘You’ve seen one mall, you’ve seen ’em all,’ ” O’Donnell says. He adds that the more entrenched the mall mentality becomes among consumers, the more important it is for small-business owners to promote the alternative they offer to impersonal chain stores. “One of our pet peeves is that a lot of the big hotels [in Saratoga], they don’t know the town,” he says. “They send people to the mall to buy a pair of jeans.”

Novotny says that when small businesses support each other, they also support the vitality of the communities in which they operate. “We need to do it across county lines and town lines,” she says. “If we’re ever going to see the revival of downtown Albany, we’re not going to do it without a lot of small businesses.”

And while the motivation behind small-business collaborations often is self-preservation, Phayre says that one reason he enjoys working with other entrepreneurs is that it makes him feel like he’s part of a family. “I can go from one end of Lark Street to the other and I probably know 50 percent of the business owners. That’s a joy,” he says. “Everybody down here is down here in part because they care about the city.”

Phayre adds that a neighborly vibe between businesses comes in handy during everyday crises, and explains that he and the proprietors of A Taste of Greece help each other out if one runs out of clean aprons or the other runs low on, say, cucumbers. “You’re always going to find yourself lacking something at some point,” he says.

O’Donnell says that one reason he enjoys helping other businesses is old-fashioned good karma, which often can come back to him in the form of customers who’ve been referred to his store by other Saratoga entrepreneurs. “It’s a nice, close-knit community,” he says, “and the other business owners appreciate it when they know you’ve sent someone your way. It keeps customers all in the family.”

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