Georgia Ave. It’s the The District’s longest commercial corridor and for years was considered the heart of the city. With its dozens of beauty parlors, barber shops and liquor stores, “the Avenue,” as it’s affectionately called by many, has seen its share of good and bad times, but through it all it’s been a place where many black businesses were able to thrive.
As the District changes, so does the Avenue. In the past several years, the upper northwest part of Georgia has slowly added shopping and residential space to the carry-out and convenience stores, with the help of both public and private investment. There are new condominium projects, upscale restaurants and wine bars which have replaced many of the black-owned mom-and-pops that have long characterized the strip.
But now, a crop of black-owned clothing and retail stores is starting to pop up along Georgia as well: From consignment to haute couture to ’70s throwbacks, these new businesses are hoping to take advantage of the changing neighborhood.
Indeed, how these businesses will fare is a topic of conversation for local residents. Elizabeth Banks, 80, has seen a lot of change in and around Georgia. “It’s been quite gradual for me, so I’ve been grasping it as I go along,” she said.
The retiree knew that change “was inevitable” but hopes that black-owned businesses still have “a piece of the rock. I don’t want to see them lose out.”
A local real estate agent said he is optimistic about what the avenue can become.
“What we’re seeing [is the] filling in of the whole life cycle of services that address people’s needs,”said Phil Di Ruggiero, co-founder of the recently opened Green Line Real Estate LLC, which sells commercial real estate around the Washington area “When [residents] can go only a few blocks to get their groceries, get their hair cut, go grab a drink, go stop by the farmers market — all close to home — that makes it feel like a complete community. And the neighborhood, quite honestly, in recent years has really not had that.”
He added: “It helps people feel as though, ‘I can live there. I can live my lifestyle there without having to go elsewhere.’ ”
Dan Silverman, whose blog Prince of Petworth has chronicled the rise and fall of local commerce for the past six years, said that it may take some time for the corridor, especially in Petworth, to bloom.
“Even though the Petworth area is less expensive than, for instance, Logan Circle, it still is expensive,” he said. “What I’ve seen is that restaurants are one of the few places that have been able to afford those leases.” Even though several independent business are coming up on Georgia, Silverman anticipates it’s only a matter of time until chains such as Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts open stores. “The inventory of buildings exists — and it’s going to get filled.”
Nonetheless, many owners are optimistic. Here are profiles of three of the new businesses.
Starr’s Second Story Boutique
Kristy Wilmot, proprietor of Starr’s Second Story Boutique on Georgia, was content operating her growing clothing business out of her home. The self-described “organized hoarder” was primarily selling her clothes on eBay and keeping inventory in the basement of her home. When a co-worker came across the space, located above Petworth Cleaners, Wilmot knew it was for her.
“I saw the place, I looked at it, I was like ‘this is it’ — I was home immediately,” she remembers.
She moved in in March, opened in June, and has received a warm reception from the community. But she still had concerns about the location. “I was worried — this neighborhood wasn’t the best years ago,” she said. “We’re all women, we’re in here by ourselves, we’ve got high-end items.”
Her store carries children’s clothing for boys and girls and women’s clothing of all types, including vintage and couture pieces with prices falling between $15 and $40. The layout resembles walking into your best friend’s closet, with sections divided for business, formal and ready-to-wear items.
“There are people that I’ve met in this neighborhood [with] serious skills and talents that don’t know it,” said Wilmot, who has also allowed a few local designers to sell their products in her store. Since opening her doors in June, Wilmot has received nothing but positive feedback from customers and the neighborhood. “I’m not used to people walking up on you and just talking to you,” she said, “Some people come in here — don’t even shop, don’t even buy — just want to say ‘welcome,’ and that’s important to me.”
Cookie Wear Couture
Just a few blocks down, retro has found a new home in Cookie Wear Couture, a small business run by designer and radio DJ Michelle “Noodles” Smith. Step down into the small and colorful store and you feel as if you’re entering an eclectic den of retro finds.
“I’m a vintage girl — I love the ’70s and ’80s,” she said. “Everything that we grew up on tasted better, worked better, looked better.”
Smith’s business retails local designers as well as her family’s merchandise. Visitors can choose from her custom-designed suitcases,
crocheted hats and scarves and screenprint tees designed by her pre-teen daughter. One of her daughters also does custom embroidery and design, which is also sold in the store. “We’re crafty women,” said the mother of three.
Cookie Wear is Smith’s third local business. She first invested in a night club, then opened a nail shop in the mid-1990s near Howard University. The neighborhood was radically different back then, Smith remembers. “There was a lot of drama and a lot of crime,” she said, recalling a robbery victim who died on her store’s steps. “I wound up opening up my home on Sundays after church doing their pedicures ... because [the customers] weren’t comfortable — and I needed the money,” she said. The store closed in a matter of months, and Smith resigned herself to working in branding and promotion for other businesses for the next several years. But she missed owning her own enterprise. “I always had the entrepreneurial tastebuds,” she said, and officially launched her brand in 2004.
“I know I want to do this for-ev-er,” said Smith, and she has set a goal of opening up a second store on the top floor of the building. “I’m excited when I come here — I don’t want to leave.”
Fia’s Fabulous Finds
As both a Petworth resident and owner of consignment store Fia’s Fabulous Finds, Safisha “Fia” Nance has kept an eye on the growing value of her community. After a year of consigning to women in her neighborhood, Nance knew that the time was right to open up a free-standing store. “I saw that there was a need for nice, wonderful clothes at a very low price,” she said. “I had a very good following for one complete year, and that’s when I realized ‘Wow, just in the Petworth community alone, this could be successful.’ ”
Nance’s store on Upshur Drive opened in June and is just two blocks from her home. “I saw Georgia Avenue and Petworth grow, and I believed in the community, and so I thought to myself, ‘What better way to be able to just open up a store as well as be walking distance from the store?’ I can marinate a chicken, and then go down the hill, tag some clothes, and then walk back up,” she said of her space.
The small yet accessible store has neat rows of suits, dresses, shirts and shoes, with special African batik-print pieces hung in the back of the store. The artwork on the pink walls rotates monthly, said Nance, as she has started doing a monthly reception and showcase with one artist in the area, where they can simultaneously decorate her space and sell their pieces. The store is “more than just an opportunity to sell clothes,” she said, and she is hoping to blend the store’s image into that of a community space as well. The familial feeling and neighborhood outreach is “what I’m sincere about,” she said.
Nance has signed a two-year lease but has embraced her local live and work lifestyle, and hopes to stay for as long as she can. “I ride my bike to most places — I don’t drive very much. I believe in not only buying used clothes but used everything. This is a lifestyle change for me, and if I’m able to generate funds as well from it, that would be even better.”