For eight years I have owned and operated Trade Secrets, a boutique on historic U Street NW. I sell clothing, jewelry and household items that have an ethnocentric twist. Mine is one of many African American-owned businesses on U Street, so I watched the drama around Sisterspace unfold with sadness and dismay ["Amid Lament, Sisterspace Evicted; U Street Store Closes After 5-Year Battle," Metro, Aug. 4].
Sisterspace -- the District's only bookstore owned by African American women -- occupied a space in the building in which I also am a tenant. The eviction followed a lengthy dispute about unpaid rent.
I am sad because I know how hard it is to run a small business and how much time, energy and emotion go into building one's own little corner of the American dream. But I also am dismayed by how racial politics have been invoked in this episode.
I hoped the dispute would be resolved amicably, but because some participants and observers in this drama have tried to make it into a referendum on racial loyalty, I must speak out.
First, the facts.
The previous owner of the building, an African American, operated a small business out of the building and kept it open when many others left for more welcoming parts of the city or for the suburbs. When the owner died, he left the building in trust for the care of his brother. So the rents from the building support an elderly African American man who lives in an assisted-living facility.
Some people seem to take issue with the fact that the attorneys representing the estate are white, but do they believe that all professionals in this city must restrict their services to people of their own race?
And after holding on to this building through all the city's ups and downs, is this African American man not allowed to benefit now that the U Street corridor is being revitalized and recognized as a showcase for commerce in general and African American-run commerce in particular?
Equally troubling is the argument that gentrification is somehow to blame for the failure of Sisterspace, the implication being that businesses that do not cater to white people are being driven out of the city.
Think about this. The unspoken assumption behind this reasoning is that African Americans cannot provide services to diverse groups and survive -- or at least not while maintaining their ethnic flavor. But if that were true, why are hip-hop and rap such popular musical styles? Why does National Geographic market a line of African-inspired bed linens through stores such as Neiman Marcus?
Closer to home, how to explain all the African American-owned businesses -- some new, some long established -- that are prospering on U Street and in Adams Morgan, offering everything from cakes to shoes to electronics, art, music, fine dining and, yes, books?
What about the veterans such as Ben's Chili Bowl, which draws visitors from all over the country, and stores such as Zawadi, which has sold textiles, clothing, household items and Christmas ornaments -- most imported from Africa -- for 12 years?
Running a small business is hard. That's why two-thirds of all small businesses fail within five years. Pepco wants its money even if you don't feel like coming to work. Vacations are nonexistent or spent buying for the store, thinking about the store or worrying about the store. Of course, rent increases are painful.
Let me go on record with my own reality. After my five-year lease expired in November 2002, my rent increased dramatically. I didn't feel the effect immediately, but now, almost two years later, my "cushion" is almost gone, eaten away by that increase. So I am not deaf or blind to the effects of rising rents.
I'm also invested in fighting to help keep rents within my reach and within the reach of other businesses like mine. But with changing demographics, store owners have to ask themselves whether their vision for a store or a product meets the needs of the marketplace.
When small businesses succeed, it is because they offer something not for sale anywhere else; or because they have a wonderful, welcoming environment; or because they open earlier or stay open later than the big stores. Maybe they remember your name when you come in, or what you bought the last time or what your wife would really like for her birthday no matter what she may have told you. Race might be part of it -- in this country, in this city, it often is -- but it's more complicated than that.
I don't know why things didn't work out for Sisterspace in its particular location.
No doubt, the rising costs of doing business on the "new U" were a factor. But we (black-owned businesses) cannot continue to hold "the white man" responsible for our disappointments. Institutional racism is alive and well. That's no secret. But isn't it time for us to abandon the victim role and seize the opportunity to create a collective power base?
We have all of the ingredients necessary to bake the cake. We simply need to gather in the kitchen and get cooking.
-- Marcia Duvall