Albany’s Central Avenue corridor, minority entrepreneurs
are changing the commercial landscape—and providing the
neighborhood with new role models
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
man, how’s it going?”
are the kids?”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
As a result, Capece says, the neighborhood is stabilizing.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
like people think that they should pay less for a service
provided by a black company than a white company,” says
To combat these prejudices, Harrison tries to overact the
part of the perfect business owner.
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.
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.
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
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.”
All in This Together
between independent entrepreneurs mean good business—and good
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
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
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
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
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.”
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.”