Los Angeles, CA — After Debra Smith and Vanessa Howard decided to start selling Obama items in late October, the two Los Angeles-based entrepreneurs discovered what they were doing was so much more than another way to increase revenue coming into Spin Studio, their clothing manufacturing company.
It became the myriad stories people told them. It became the tears they shared with an 81-year-old grandmother. It became the friends they made from around the world while operating their “pop-up” store on Washington, D.C’s historic U Street. It ultimately became the part they played in making history.
Howard and Smith, sisters who grew up in New Jersey but moved to California, began their Everything Obama venture woefully ignorant of just how many vendors were out there hawking goods.
“We didn’t know that a lot of people had been selling Obama (items) for a while, and sometimes what you don’t know won’t hurt you,” admits Howard, who thinks they may have been deterred from going ahead had they known about all the competition.
The two started cautiously at first; selling in front of Smith’s Windsor Hills home, then moving in front of a Bank of America in Ladera Heights.
“People were eating it up. It was amazing. We couldn’t (keep) enough,” recalls Smith, who said the response came from across the spectrum–Asian, Hispanic, White and Black.
“And the closer we got to the election, it was just crazy . . . good crazy,” added Smith.
Convinced that what they had was winner, the sisters bought plane tickets to Washington, D.C., arranged to stay with a sister living in the capital and also applied to become one of the inauguration vendors. Then they went a step further.
“I said ‘Debra, let’s see if we can find a store to lease,” explains Howard, who had been following Obama since 2004.
A friend’s referral to a D.C. realtor paid off with a 1,900 square foot downstairs store on U Street and the ability to set up their Everything Obama store.
The retail outlet was not too far from Ben’s Chili Bowl, a 50-year-old Black owned eatery, where Obama became only the second person to eat there free.
The sister’s store sold everything you could image that carried Obama’s image. There was air freshener, flip flops, T-shirts, soap, hats, etc.
“We had people from around the world; from everywhere buying things to take back as souvenirs to friends and family,” says Smith.
But Howard and Smith’s shop became more than just a specialty retail location. It became some place cab drivers dropped off passengers to shop. It became the headquarters for taking a photo with a life-sized Obama cut-out. It also became a place were one day folks started dancing in the aisles.
“It was midnight on Martin Luther King’s birthday,” remembers Smith. “Stevie Wonder’s song came on, and we were just grooving to Happy Birthday to you, and the next thing we know, people came in and saw us kind of grooving. That song went off, and another came on, and we had a Soul Train line going on.”
And then there was Lee Jackson, a customer who came in and enjoyed the hospitality so much that he went across the street to another noted spot, Cake Love, and bought cake and coffee and brought it back.
The whole thing was an amazing experience, said Howard and Smith, who estimated that they spent about $25,000 setting up and operating the store for that two-week period.
And while the two said they did not necessarily make a “killing,” it was something that they will always remember and treasure.
“Its something we can hand down to our grandchildren,” points out Howard. “We didn’t know what to expect. When we got there, to see it all unfold in front of our eyes . . . .”
Today, the sisters have closed their brick and mortar store, and migrated to the Internet at www.everythingobamaonline.com, and sales have definitely slowed down. But that sense of camaraderie, and unity that they experienced in Washington, D.C. has left an indelible imprint on their psyche.