Every year, back when she worked for the National Education Association, Sheila Simmons would talk to board members who traveled from across the country to Washington for a November meeting.
“Even if you don’t buy anything, you learn,” Simmons, who is Black, said of the market on a recent morning. “You learn about the artwork. You learn about the music. You learn about the clothing. And you learn from people who have used their own hands to create these things.”
To hear Simmons and others talk about the “Shop Til Ya Drop” market is to quickly understand that for many people in D.C.’s Black community, the holiday bazaar is more than a place to pick up unique wares. It’s a chance to come together and support Black-owned businesses. The majority of the vendors are Black artists and entrepreneurs. Many come from the D.C. area, but others travel from as far as Atlanta and even Africa.
Simmons, who retired as the director of human and civil rights for the National Education Association, uses the words “equity,” “parity” and “representation” when talking about the holiday market.
“This local marketplace not only builds up our community in terms of what it makes available for us by us, but it has also been an opportunity to create local jobs,” Simmons said. It helps narrow the wealth gap, she said. “The other thing that I think is so important about this is you get an opportunity to build fellowship. You get a chance to re-engage with people you’ve known over the years, and it’s around food, it’s around fashion, it’s around culture.”
Simmons is not a vendor or an organizer for the event. She is a longtime customer and volunteer. Her home is decorated with artwork, and her closet filled with clothes she has bought there in years past.
“I’m not dressing for Black History Month; I dress to represent my culture every day,” she said. “That is something I took on as a lifestyle beginning with things I bought at the very first ‘Shop Til Ya Drop’ event.”
Friday will mark the 30th anniversary of the event. The first one was actually held 32 years ago, but the pandemic prevented the market from opening the past two years.
This year, Juanita Carol Britton, who is widely known by her nickname “Busy Bee,” was determined to bring it back.
“I could not take the stress of not having the show,” she said. She knew too many people were depending on it. “I’ve gotten over 800 phone calls and emails from people inquiring about it.”
They’ve all, she said, been asking the same question: “Are we back?”
The significance of the event returning this year has not been lost on many people who know about it. In the Washington region, the pandemic took from everybody, but it took disproportionately from D.C.’s Black community. Britton said there are past vendors who won’t be returning this year because either they or their businesses did not survive.
For those that did, she said, the event provides a way for them to make needed end-of-the-year sales.
Britton, whose company BZB International operates more than a dozen businesses in D.C.-area airports, said the idea for the market came to her after visiting Brixton Market in London. There, she saw a “beautiful, eclectic community of Caribbean people” selling their handmade items and started thinking about how she could replicate that model in Washington.
In 1990, the first year the Shop Til Ya Drop event was held, people stood outside in the snow waiting for it to open. Britton recalled buying them coffee. The event took place on a single day, and about 800 people showed up, she said.
Now, the event will be held on the Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving and on every Saturday leading up to Christmas at the Shiloh Family Life Center in Northwest Washington. Britton expects it to draw thousands of shoppers on those days and raise more than $500,000. While the vendors are mostly Black-owned businesses, she said she hopes people of all races and ethnicities will come to shop.
“I’d like for it to bring people together,” she said. “I’m always wishing to get a wider mix of shoppers.”
Aaron Johnson said he would like to see a line down the street of people waiting to get in.
“That’s what it should be,” he said. His family runs Unitees, a handmade fashion collection, and they have long been a presence at the market. “It’s a very unique space, in that you have handmade fashion and creations from African American artists and designers from all over the country. Having a space like that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
Lorraine Green, who retired as an executive at Amtrak, was among those who shopped at the first event. At the time, her daughter, Leslie, was about 10 years old. Now, that child is a grown woman, has her own business and will be a vendor at the event on one of those Saturdays. Many items in her line of apparel and gear bear the word “Grateful.”
“I watched Juanita inspire this new generation, and that’s one of the things I’m most proud of her doing,” Green said. “I don’t know many visionaries, but I would say Juanita is one. I think you would have to be a visionary and a futurist to do what she did.”
Green said when she has told friends the event is back, they have responded with excitement. Part of that, she said, is that the pandemic has left so many people eager to get back to some sense of normal, and the event “brings us back to a feeling of everything is going to be okay.”
Simmons described it as a needed “bright light in our community.”
“Our light has been dimmed a lot through the pandemic, through losses, through George Floyd,” she said. “And now it’s like, ‘Wow, we can come together again.’ ”
She now has a home in Florida, and she was there on the day we talked. But she plans to travel to Washington in the coming days, in time to attend the market.
“I will definitely make it,” she said. “I can’t even imagine not being there to see this.”