Recycling Black dollars is not a new idea in Los Angeles. From the 1920s through the ’50s, Blacks in the city had Central Avenue as their core shopping district, where the street was lined with small shops, jazz clubs and “colored” hotels. Nowadays, in a more integrated city, scattered pockets of Black businesses are desperately looking for patrons to walk in their doors this holiday season.
The 42-year-old CJ’s Elegance, one of the oldest Black retailers in the city, recently participated in “Small Business Saturday,” a program that annually–between “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday”–urges the support of smaller businesses in order to help fuel the economy. Its slogan: “When we all shop small, it will be huge.”
President Barack Obama agrees, noting in a recent speech that the U.S. economy added 140,000 private sector jobs in November, capping 21 straight months of growth.
“We have to keep our economy going and opportunity rising,” Obama said. “Now’s the time to step on the gas, not put on the breaks.”
CJ’s Elegance founder Orlean Dubclet worked at Peak’s Dress Shop before starting her own business, and her daughter, Carolyn Shaw, once worked as a buyer for the Broadway Department Stores.
“My mother and I actually began our business at home in 1969 and moved here within a year,” Shaw said of her Slauson Avenue location, just east of Overhill.
“We picked the Windsor Hills location because we already had clients living here.”
CJ’s has endured, even though most of its original clients moved on in the “White flight” from the area, and Dubclet has retired.
“But I still consider her my business partner,” Shaw said, noting her mother’s financial expertise. “She sets the budgets, and that’s how I buy.”
Shaw explained that she thinks through her purchases, taking her client’s tastes and current trends into consideration.
“I don’t worry about the economy; service comes first,” she said. “We get fresh merchandise and turn it over quickly. We’re known to be different, and our clients come here for that reason. These clothes aren’t duplicates.”
Back in the day, the store used to occupy nearly half of the block and was dubbed “Mini Saks,” selling everything from couture designs to casual attire, Shaw explained. But she has since downsized and become more specialized.
“Now we sell more middle-of-the-road fashion, day-to-night elegance,” she said. We dress
women from 45 years old to 90 years young. If she’s a socialite, she shops here.”
Shaw will soon open CJ’s at Home, a décor salon just two doors down, which will feature gifts and art pieces for the fashionable home.
Next door, Glamour Girl picks up on CJ’s theme and carries it to a young, chic clientele. Bling-bling jewelry dazzles the eye on entrance to the shop and fashionable miniskirts abound in the store, which opened just last year.
A house neighbor of Shaw’s, Francesca Anuluoha moved her shop, Africana Imports, which is believed to be the oldest African store in the city, to the Overhill location 12 years ago.
“A lot of times we as a people don’t recycle the Black dollar,” she said. “But African traders bring by jewelry and I’m a shopper here, too.”
Anuluoha explained that she came from Zambia to do social work and her Nigerian husband was working in real estate, when they started a little African shop to cater to their people. Since 1971, Africana Imports has grown into a community fixture where clothes are designed and created on the premises, combining American fashion trends with imported fabrics from Mali, Senegal, Zambia and Nigeria.
Ponchos are designed from African-themed mudcloth, jean skirts are imbedded with brightly colored African prints and men’s agbada outfits, complete with pants and shirts, and kufi hats are custom tailored.
“I like unique things,” Anuluoah said. “I listen to my customers and create what they need. We do import some ready-made garments, but mostly we combine fabrics with the modern and custom create a more modern look, according to the demand.”
“We give the best,” she said, then asked: “Don’t you think we deserve the best?”
The owner is proud that she is able to provide job creation and continuity by buying from and selling to the community. Over the years, they have changed locations three times, with each move bringing more success.
“I have no idea how,” Anuluoha said, pointing heavenward. “Maybe we were divinely inspired.
You just have to listen to Him.”
Naomie Webb, owner of the Windsor Hills Christian Book Center next door, agrees wholeheartedly.
“You just have to do the best you can and allow God to do the rest,” Webb said. “God speaks to us in different ways. He doesn’t come up in a cloud of smoke for everybody.”
Edsel, Naomie’s late husband, had an accounting office in their Slauson building in 1973. When her son, Sean, came of preschool age, Webb could not find the kind of facility she wanted for him, so they divided the space and opened a preschool in 1977. Although she closed the school 10 years later, the space sat vacant for a while because she just didn’t feel she wanted to rent it to anyone. In October of 1991, Webb felt inspired to open a Christian bookstore.
“We’ve been going full force every since,” she said, noting the many cars speeding by. “We don’t have a lot of foot traffic, but we have a pretty good clientele. People have been with us since the opening.”
“I have a client who moved to Sebastian, Fla., but still orders his Sunday School materials through me,” she added proudly.
Sean grew up in the business and has recently redesigned the store–the same space where his parents kept his playpen years ago. In the new isles, you can find frankincense and myrrh year-round, in the form of natural anointing oils.
Also, in addition to personalized Bibles, clerical garments, spiritual gifts, books, greeting cards, church supplies and music, the store also has a wide selection of non-Christian works by African American authors.
“We try to stick to those works that are moral and more uplifting,” Webb said. “We like to promote positiveness.” Shop early, though. The store will be closed from Dec. 23-26.
Over on Pico Boulevard, in the Wilshire Vista area, Yvette McNalley grew her store, Cordially Invited, from her passion for paper.
“You know how some people say they can’t come out of Target without buying 10 things? Well, that’s how I was with Office Depot,” McNalley said, explaining that owning a store full of stationery, pens, decorator thumb tacks and such was a dream on her “bucket list,” something to do after retirement.
That is, until about a year and a half ago, when she was driving down Pico and happened to see a space for lease.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy to open a store in this economy, but it’s been good,” McNalley said. “If one new customer walks out feeling like ‘I found a gem in the community,’ it gives you the impetus to keep going. I know I’m doing the right thing.”
Most of the goods in the shop are priced under $30, and services include custom invitation printing, as well as gift-wrapping, even if items are purchased at another store.
Cordially Invited is bright and pretty, modern and whimsical, brimming with wrapping papers, gifts and unique stationery items.
“We want to bring back the art of letter-writing,” McNalley said. “It’s almost extinct in this time of social networking.”
McNalley shares her space with Cultural Interiors, a home décor shop featuring imports from Africa, Asia and South America; and Southern Girl Desserts, a cupcake vendor who moved in just two months ago to sell her confections, which include pecan, banana pudding and red velvet cupcakes.
To get to Cultural Interiors, just glide through Cordially Invited’s side door and stroll into the attached bungalow.
Down the street, Malia Cobbs is getting ready to have her first, free holiday fashion show from 4 to 9 p.m. on Saturday to raise awareness and bring in new customers.
Glamlustlife opened on Pico in April.
“I thought it would be easier to become a boutique owner,” she said. “But it’s tough, really hard, so we try to support each other.”
Designer clothes and jewelry, ranging from $5 to $20, will be featured in the show.
Driving due south on La Brea Avenue to Inglewood, you’ll find another string of small, Black-owned shops vying for your attention.
Kerry Newsom grew up in the area and has one of the oldest boutiques on the street, opening Newstyleweb.com eight years ago at 1041 N. La Brea Ave. after first selling handbags, shoes and clothing on the web.
“I’ve been in retail for a while,” he said. “I started selling shoes at the age of 17.”
After graduating from Inglewood High School, Newsom worked at The Broadway department store in Westchester selling ladies’ shoes and as a department store manager at stores like Robinson’s and Nordstrom for more than 20 years. But those stores weren’t promoting him beyond manager.
He also noticed that in different parts of the city, shoppers could walk their dogs, buy a coffee and shop in the neighborhoods just outside their doors.
“Now we can do that here,” Newsom said, pointing out the other shops and eateries that are doing business on the street.
“I’m invested here, in our neighborhood” he said. “That gets my blood going. Sure it’s about being an entrepreneur and making money, but it’s also about community.”
Natasha Bull has never really had a regular job, or worked for anyone else.
“I don’t like to have someone to tell me what to do,” she said, explaining she sold clothes, shoes and hair from her home and a small store before opening Boughie (pronounced “boo-gee”) two and a half years ago on La Brea.
She admits that although her love of fashion has moved her from sewing her own designs to shopping in showrooms, the venture has been a roller-coaster of ups and downs. But she’s holding on.
“I decided I was going to make it work for me,” she said. “Besides, I like the daily money.”
Volner Bonner hopes that his customers like parting with their money, too.
V Boutique is not Bonner’s first store. He moved to his present location about five months ago, following a seven-year stint in another Inglewood location. His love of fashion began when he was a child playing in the clothes at his mother’s shop, “Low Ann’s Boutique.”
“I used to get spanked for running in the racks,” he recalls. “Then in high school I learned that I could go to school to learn about clothes.”
“This is what comes naturally to me,” said the graduate of downtown’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. “Ladies like personal attention, they want to look good, and they don’t want to wear the same things as everyone else.”
But hasn’t the economy been rough on small businesses?
“The customers didn’t stop coming, they just slowed down,” Bonner said. “I even got my mother to downsize her shop.”
Low Ann’s Boutique just moved into the spot next door to V Boutique, downsizing from its other 10-year location on Western Avenue near Manchester Avenue, where owner Low Ann Johnson is now holding a huge, pre-Christmas liquidation sale.
“We’re catering to women looking for that special piece,” Johnson said. “These are quality pieces; elegant, dressy couture.”
She has been delivering personalized service to clients for years and her love of all things fashion goes back to when she started sewing her own doll clothes at the age of 10. She later worked in the garment district doing piece work and got her first resale permit in 1971, selling from her car and home before opening a store.
“I raised two boys as a single parent,” Johnson said. “This business put them through private, Christian schools through 11th grade.”
She is especially proud of the long-wearing, hand-loomed, designer custom knits she sells. “Bodies”–samples of outfits–line the store walls. No two are the same and each one can be custom-designed to suit clients’ tastes.
“I can have this [garment] made with three-quarter sleeves, or a pleated skirt,” she said, “Nordstrom is not going to do that, St. John is not going to do that,”
“Church women don’t want to walk into service and see the same outfit on another member.”
Johnson admitted that the boutique has been a learning experience, and the economy has been a challenge recently, but she’s endured.
“Through prayer,” she said, pointing to the dressing room. “I just got off my knees back there. Right now I’m running two shops! But I’m a fighter.”
Shopping in the Black in 2011
African American retailers to patronize during the holidays listed in order of appearance in the story.
C.J.’s Elegance, 4446 W. Slauson Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 299-1141. Holiday hours through Christmas, 11 a.m..- 7p.m, Mon.-Fri., Sat 11 a.m.-6p.m., Sun. noon-5 p.m.
Glamour Girl, 4444 W. Slauson Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 299-4475. 11:30a.m.-7p.m. Tues.-Sat.
Africana Imports, 4442 W Slauson Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 294-8151. Holiday hours through Christmas, 11a.m.-7p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Windsor Hills Christian Book Center, 4438 W. Slauson Ave. Los Angeles. (323) 290-3079. 11a.m.- 6p.m. Mon-Sat.
Cordially Invited, 5571 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-0200. 10a.m.-8p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10a.m.-7p.m. Sat, 10a.m.-5p.m. Sun.
Cultural Interiors, 5669 W Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 292-1500. 10-8 a.m. Mon.-Sat., Sun 11a.m.-5p.m. (inside Cordially Invited).
Glamlustlife, 5443 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 936-4526. 11a.m-7p.m.. Mon.-Sat.
Newstyleweb.com, 1041 N. La Brea Ave., Inglewood. (310) 680-5517. 11a.m.-7p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Boughie Boutique, 1323 N. La Brea Ave., Inglewood. (310) 419-3015. 11a.m.-7p.m.
V Boutique, 1405 N. La Brea Ave., Inglewood. (310) 672-6295. 10a.m.- 7p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Low Ann’s Boutique II, 1405 N. La Brea Ave., Inglewood. 10a.m.-6p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Low Ann’s Boutique, 8705 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 758-8440. 10a.m.-6p.m. Mon.-Sat.