The large gift bag included a white teddy bear, a box of chocolates and a set of furry, pink handcuffs. The asking price was $25, but the seller was willing to take $20. After all, Queeny Belfon likes a deal.
On Monday night, Belfon and her two daughters, Adana and A’sha, pulled out three bags full of candy and cute stuffed animals near the massive Columbia Heights shopping complex on 14th Street NW. She set a navy blue table cloth on a wooden table and waited for customers. When Valentine’s Day approaches, love is in the air and the time for guerilla entrepreneurship is nigh.
Next to her is a man she called “flower guy,’’ who was selling red roses by the dozen. Across the street, another man sold blinking heart-shaped lights, blinking glass scepters and blinking rings outside of a van blasting praise to Jesus. Around the corner, there were more teddy bears and more flowers.
“That’s ten dollars, but I’ll [charge] you five,’’ Belfon tells a woman as she peruses the gift bag. “You’re my friend. I’ve known you for a long time.”
“Ooh, I love it,’’ said Maria Pimentel, a teacher’s aide. “I used to teach her daughters, so I like supporting the family. And all these prices are better than anything I could get for CVS.”
Columbia Heights still receives great buzz for its full-on embrace of big-box stores. Under the fluorescent glow of Target’s iconic bull's-eye, the old-time sidewalk street hustle pulses. Some vendors are licensed. Many more are unlicensed and willing to play cat-and-mouse games with the police during this season of love, when their roses are red and prices are cheap.
Belfon has been a seasonal street vendor for two decades, about a dozen of them unlicensed. Each year, she treks up to the warehouse district in New York to fish out the best stuff. She invested $450 in knickknacks for this holiday, then wrapped them in clear, heart-shaped sheets of wrapping paper.
Her customers are old-timers who’ve known her for years, hospital workers too busy to deal with long lines, teenagers who can’t afford anything more extravagant. They all look for her, she said.
On noon on Monday, Belfon stuffed herself into three pairs of jeans, five shirts, a hoodie and a scarf and started selling. Her two daughters joined her, simply because they wanted to help mom.
Belfon spent Monday evening oscillating between smiling at throngs of pedestrians and eyeing a police car to check if it was still empty, fearful of being ticketed. Many know her by name. “Hey Queeny!” one woman said as she was rushed away by another man.
“Didn’t that man have another woman last year?” 17-year-old A’sha asked. “Is that why he was rushing?”
“And they say kids aren’t smart,” Belfon laughed. “We all know what’s going on there!”
Belfon has never tried another job. Simply put, she said she was born to “hustle.” When she was growing up in Trinidad, she and her six siblings would help their father as he managed a local bar.
“Before I could do math, I remember doing multiplication,’’ she said. “One Guinness, two Guinness.”
At first, she sold dry seasonings for food. Then she moved to Columbia Road, where her big business was cell phone cases, which were a hit before Best Buy swallowed up the foot traffic. She followed the crowd to 14th street.
When the winter comes, she sells hats and gloves. Valentine’s Day: stuffed animals and chocolates.
For the sellers, there’s a bit of a strategy. George Kemp, 54, who is known around the corner as Bling-Bling because of all the blinking lights he sells, spends the afternoon outside the Anacostia Metro station. In the evenings, he’s outside Columbia Heights. By 9 p.m., he’s gone. That’s when he says he would encounter more robbers than customers.
As Kemp discusses his strategy, a woman handed him a note saying that she is hearing impaired and in need of help. She points to a blinking heart and mumbles that she would like to give it to her mother.
“You can take it, no charge,’’ he tells her.
“God bless you,’’ she said then walks off. Fifteen minutes later, she is half-a-block down the street, trying to sell off her donation for $5.
By 8:15, foot traffic begins to slow down. The vendors are still, but business is a little slow. Half-a-block down from Belfon’s stand is another table full of teddy bears operated by Jorge Martin, a contractor who proudly wears his vending license on his chest. This is his second year selling on 14th Street. He knows many of his competitors aren’t licensed, but doesn’t mind.
“It’s a hard life out there,’’ said Martin, a native of Puerto Rico who works as a carpenter during the days. “But I could use the extra money. So I thought I’d try. But last year was much better.’’
By 9 p.m, Belfon tells her two daughters they should pack up before the cops come. “Let’s try not to push it,’’ she says, until a group of teenagers shows interest in buying two gift bags for $30.
Thirty dollars is fine, she said. But no furry handcuffs.