A black customer base means everything to Vera Warren-Williams, owner of Community Book Center. "That's why I exist," she says, sitting in the back of her Broad Street building, in one of a group of folding chairs that is a familiar meeting place for many local activists and community members.
In an hour, a group of people will be sitting here planning this year's Kwanzaa celebrations. But right now, it's pretty quiet. A few people are shopping in the mid-section of the store, which carries clothing. Several others are browsing in the main, front section, a bookstore that carries everything from kids' books to the latest in fiction hardcovers to hard-to-find politically outspoken titles.
Warren-Williams has run the Center for 18 years, seven of them at the current location at 217 N. Broad St., and nearly a dozen years prior in the Treme. So it's safe to say that Warren-Williams, as a longtime successful business owner, knows exactly who comes into her shop. "I have a mixed base of customers," she says, "but primarily African-American, split between men and women, roughly 23 to 50 years of age."
It is also safe to say that Warren-Williams knows who isn't coming into her shop. Which is why she's part of a current local effort encouraging blacks to spend their money in black businesses. A flyer put out by the coalition urges black-on-black spending for the holidays. It reads: "A community that gives its wealth away will remain poor. Spending money with black businesses is important!"
Similar efforts are being launched in many cities across the country, including Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles and Milwaukee. Campaigns like this are not a new idea -- the concept of a "double-duty dollar" was discussed by Booker T. Washington and others of his era, and one of Marcus Garvey's key principles was "Support Your Own." The basic tenet is that a dollar spent within the black community is invested back into that community. The New Orleans flyer puts it in a different way: "Money in a community is like blood in a body. When it circulates it gives strength. If it flows out, it causes death."
Right now, most of that money is flowing out, not circulating. The U.S Census found that nearly all of the money earned by blacks -- approximately 95 cents on every dollar -- is spent outside the black community. And black money is a hotter commodity than ever before. Nationwide, blacks are now being courted by everyone from Sears and Cigna to Microsoft, Merrill Lynch and Jaguar. The past year has seen numerous business-news reports about how marketing firms are trying to get a piece of the reported $550 billion spent each year by black consumers.
Yet black wealth is not necessarily good news for black businesses. A survey in Milwaukee showed that Hispanic businesses had grown significantly while black businesses had declined. Other studies have shown that Asian shoppers are more likely to shop in Asian-owned businesses than blacks are to shop in black-owned businesses.
This could be because there are fewer black businesses and so people simply can't "shop black" for everything they need. Some people suggest that there are fewer black entrepreneurs because blacks have traditionally had a more difficult time getting access to capital or being approved for bank loans. That problem still continues today, as witnessed by a recent predatory lending study, which showed that shady lenders preyed primarily on the black community. Because of these difficulties, some say, black parents steer their children away from entrepreneurship and instead emphasize a good college education that would prepare them for a job in corporate America.
Warren-Williams agrees that those are all factors, but adds that getting the full picture requires a look back in history. "Because we as African people didn't come through Ellis Island; we came here under different circumstances than other people."
Ironically, many say the best period for black businesses probably was during segregation, when blacks weren't allowed to shop on Canal Street and other "whites-only" places. Blacks couldn't eat at the lunch counters on Canal Street and they couldn't try on clothing. Some black maids, however, did buy apparel for themselves on Canal Street -- they would say that they were running errands for their employers.
At that time, blacks mainly shopped on Dryades Street (now Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard). Not all businesses were black-owned, Warren-Williams explains, but because they allowed blacks in their stores, it became known as a black shopping-district.
When Canal Street integrated in the 1960s, parents took their kids there to window shop "just because they could." It was a tough time for the black-owned businesses in town, who had not only sold milk and bread but had also supported the larger community. When she was growing up, says Warren-Williams, the corner bars and groceries in black neighborhoods sponsored ballclubs and organizations for youth. She believes that those groups -- supported by her neighborhood -- prevented her generation from becoming drug dealers and juvenile delinquents. As those corner establishments fell out of black hands, those types of sponsorships declined, leaving today's youth without the same community support.
For his part, Bruce Thomas would like to spend more of his money in the black community. "But," he says, "there's just that much that you can put into the black community because there's not that much out there. All we have is beauty salons, barbershops, and barrooms. And I'm not a barroom person."
Thomas is a beauty salon person, as is his wife, Shalita Thomas. They've owned La Mirage Hair Care Clinic since 1985. According to Wayne University Professor Robert Silverman, an expert on minority business development, the Thomases are part of a long line of black entrepreneurs who chose to enter the hair industry. In fact, the first black millionaire was Madam C.J. Walker, who at the turn of the century developed and mass-produced haircare products for African-American women and ultimately bought a house next door to the Rockefellers.
"Selling haircare products or running beauty salons are traditional niches for black businesses," says Silverman. It also is one of the only black industries that consistently gains the loyalty of black customers, he adds.
Bruce and Shalita Thomas see that firsthand. Bruce estimates that "99.9" percent of La Mirage's customers are African Americans. ("99.8" of them, he says, are women.) Things are changing a little, says Silverman, as places like the construction industry attract more black businesspeople. But beauty is still a cornerstone of black business.
Thomas says that he thinks that has to do with a longtime focus on beauty in the black community. "Black people," he says, "are going to take care of themselves first. They're going to look good. Old homegirl is going to get her nails done, going to get her hair done -- the bill man can wait. The priority is to look good."
He takes a few seconds to explain why he believes this focus exists. "I don't really know, but I'm guessing that some of this could have begun when schools first started integrating, when we were teased about our nappy heads and our raggedy tennies and teased about looking bad. White kids at the time were well-kept, neat and stuff like that while our folks were living off a 50-cents-an-hour salary."
As a result, blacks now spend more money per capita to keep up that look. Black Study 2000, conducted by Simmons, a consumer research firm, found that black households, which take in -- on average --only two-thirds the income of white households, spend more in several retail categories, including apparel.
In fact, beauty and style are such priorities for La Mirage's clientele that the Thomases start work at 6 a.m. each Saturday. "We could start at 5," says Bruce Thomas. "That's because we deal with an older, more conservative office ladies, desk ladies. Professionals. These ladies, they work daily, and they need their appearance taken care of weekly."
La Mirage has been located eight years at its current location on Bayou Road near Broad Street. It's one of a strip of black businesses -- Mary's Floor World, Quality Printing, Joann's Budget Thrift Shop, Positive Vibrations reggae shop, and All About Joy -- that all patronize each other. When Mary or Joann or the other shop owners need their hair done, they come to La Mirage. And when the Thomases need appliances, printing, incense, reggae records, or upholstery, they step over to their neighbors.
When they travel beyond their little strip of businesses, the Thomases continue to patronize black businesses like Community Book Center, Sanders Grocery on Dorgenois and Orzaga streets, and Pack-A-Jug Liquor Store on Basin Street and Orleans Avenue. But, once again, Bruce says, he just doesn't see that many black businesses to patronize. He is a self-admitted clothes horse, but he doesn't wear the African look, which -- he says -- rules out many local black-owned clothing stores.
He explains that he makes other efforts to reach out. "Since I have a lot of clothes, I often just give it away. I do it for the brother on the corner, where I see that he may need a pair of tennis shoes, and there are tennis shoes sitting in my closet collecting dust. I would give that brother my tennis shoes instead of giving them to Salvation Army or someplace like that."
And so, says Thomas, although he may be unable to spend every dollar in black businesses, he makes up for it that way. "I can't always put my money in every black thing that's going on, but I do take pride in giving something that I have to someone who needs, in my community."