Twenty-two years ago, Rosemary Reed-Miller decided to quit her government job and become an entrepreneur. So with little capital and a lot of drive, she opened a designer demonstration showroom at 2009 R St. NW, just off Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle.
Reed-Miller said the area west of Rock Creek Park had a large white population, with Connecticut Avenue as the "invisible dividing line for business and residency. Very few blacks were on this side of the street," Reed-Miller recalled. She said the "international clientele" in Dupont Circle led her to establish the shop there.
Reed-Miller's store has remained rooted in the same location for more than 20 years, becoming one of the city's oldest black-owned retail businesses.
The boutique is called Toast and Strawberries, a name she and her college roommate conceived as a reminder of their daily breakfast cuisine while working in Jamaica.
"Strawberries are the type of fruit that is rarely grown in the tropical weather of Jamaica. So when we got them, we ate a lot of them because they were a treat," Reed-Miller said.
Some might consider the store's history a rarity. Reed-Miller is a black woman who established a small boutique in a predominantly white, high-price retail area of Dupont Circle in 1966. Amid the competition of other boutiques and clothiers along the avenue, she initiated her dreams during a period of social and political strife in the District.
In 1968, just two years after the store's opening, many of the city's small businesses were devastated in the riots after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
"It was a risk, but there was a demand," Reed-Miller said. "When we first started, people wanted a store that was black in orientation . . . a place where they could buy things that would not be hanging on the racks at regular department stores. It made a political statement."
Eleanor Traylor, a specialist in Afro-American literature who has been a customer at Toast and Strawberries for 15 years, said Reed-Miller's approach "was to make use of wonderful artists in the community who had very unique designs, and we love it."
Traylor added: "We felt very comfortable around the store. There was an ambiance in the whole town centering around cultural awareness, and the store was a part of the community."
Reed-Miller remembers carrying her infant daughter Sabrina on her back in a "baby-back carrier," one of the designs she helped market and promote during the early 1970s. "Everybody knew us for those carriers, which became our trademark. They were very practical and safe for women who were into natural childbirth or breast feeding."
Everything from two-piece sequined ensembles to scarfs made of carefully stitched leathers are hanging from the ceiling and racks of the cozy shop. An old, worn chair covered with handmade pillows has provided comfort over the years for customers engaging in casual conversation.
An antique cash register dating to 1916 still functions to ring sales. Reed-Miller says all of the items add "a personal touch that customers seem to enjoy."
Toast and Strawberries has gained a reputation as a place to purchase "unique and creative" items, but Reed-Miller distinguished her boutique as more than just another shop in Dupont Circle.
"We are not just a store . . . we reach out. It's hard to exist when you have a community around you that is disintegrating. For me, it's a natural cycle to give back to the community . . . . That's the only reason we've survived so long," Reed-Miller said.
Over the years, Toast and Strawberries has sponsored fashion shows, image and business consultations, internship programs, poetry readings and book signings for a number of local civic and social groups. Reed-Miller is the recipient of several business awards for her tenacity and enterprising spirit.
She is one of the first members of the Association of Women Business Owners and was appointed in 1980 to serve as a delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business.
Having shrewd business sense is a characteristic that Reed-Miller says "is essential to the survival of any business." Although her academic background is as a historian and anthropologist, as a manager Reed-Miller has weathered the storm of consumer trendiness and change.
"When the dress-for-success syndrome was in, we carried the traditional conservative blue suits, only to discover the people did not come here for that. So we had to go back to being what the customers come to us for . . . uniqueness."
Bea Jackson, a local designer who specializes in clothing for large women, said she appreciated the opportunity to display her garments at Toast and Strawberries.
"If you don't have a name and nobody knows you in this town, it can be hard to get things into larger stores. Rosemary gave me that chance and I have sold many of my dresses as a result."
Statistics have shown that black-owned businesses generally do not last long for a number of economic and social reasons. In recent years, problems of property buyout and the lack of community support have crippled the stability of "mom and pop" establishments.
Reed-Miller said the location of Toast and Strawberries has created a lull in customer traffic, causing her to consider relocation as a way to stimulate more business.
"It's not easy, but we've survived from hippie to yuppie. It's been interesting to see how things have changed and how we've either adopted new concepts or preserved old ones," Reed-Miller said.
She added, "I just want people to know that we still exist . . . providing the type of things that the community expects of us. No matter what happens, that connection will always be there."