Identity shapes business: Three local Black-owned businesses share stories of survival and perseverance during the pandemic
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, local businesses across Washtenaw County have struggled to adapt to prolonged shutdowns and repeated closures. Yet the pandemic has not treated all business owners equally — a January study from University of Michigan researchers found that Black business owners were about 30 times less likely to receive government assistance than white business owners.
In light of both the unexpected challenges and successes of the past year, The Michigan Daily spoke with the owners of three Black-owned businesses in Washtenaw County about the role of identity in business ownership, their dedication to their businesses and how COVID-19 has impacted their ability to provide for the community.
Black Stone Bookstore
In 2013, Carlos Franklin and Kip Johnson opened Ypsilanti’s Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center. Located a few blocks away from Eastern Michigan University’s campus, Franklin said he founded the store because of his deep love of books. Some of his favorite authors, he said, are Richard Wright, Donald Goines and Leo Tolstoy.
“I think the key is not so much going out trying to be a Black or white-owned business,” Franklin said. “The key is to open up and do things that represent yourself.”
Though the store features a lot of books about Black culture, Franklin acknowledged that his selections cannot represent every identity or experience.
“I choose Black (books) because I am Black,” Franklin said. “I think it's better for people of color to speak about people of color, and we still can't speak for everybody.”
Franklin said selling books and featuring Black authors allows him to represent his experiences through his business.
“I enjoy reading books which happen to be written by Black authors. I also read all kinds of books,” Franklin said. “But I wanted to get some books that reflect me. I could see myself in those (books).”
He also said his identity as a Black person also informed his vision for the bookstore — Franklin said he hoped the bookstore would double as a cultural center for customers to “learn about the different cultures of people.”
While still pursuing the store’s vision, Black Stone has followed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s regulations for store openings and closings, which have fluctuated throughout the pandemic. Franklin said though his business has faced certain financial challenges, he remains optimistic.
“It's a bookstore, so you really don't get into it for the money,” Franklin said. “You get into it just to provide a service. So, as long as the doors open, we’re doing good.”
The pandemic has also shifted their approach to business — Franklin said the store started a website when the pandemic arrived in order to generate revenue.
“I never really liked the online stuff,” Franklin said. “I like meeting people and exchanging thoughts. But, like everybody, we had to adjust.”
Franklin is excited by the number of community members, including EMU and University of Michigan students and professors, that have frequented the store and shared their experiences with the shop on social media in the past few years.
“As a bookstore, we want to have a close relationship with schools, especially knowing that there are not many bookstores, not only in town, but bookstores in the country,” Franklin said.
Forging bonds with customers and engaging with them over books is his favorite part of the job, Franklin said.
“One customer will come in and we’ll be able to talk, enjoy and have a good conversation,” Franklin said. “Then my day is complete. Just me talking with you, sharing my story, and maybe share something with somebody else. I mean, what more can we ask for? Just to be here, to be alive.”
Finesse Hair Salon
Like Black Stone, other local Washtenaw County Black-owned businesses have woven their identities into the fabric of their passion projects.
Shawn and Hala Green, co-owners of Finesse Hair Salon in Ypsilanti, have been in the hair industry for 37 years, opening their own salon after working for other businesses on commission. They said they value the customers in their community, many of whom they have known for years.
“We’ve seen three or four generations of customers that have been coming to us since we’ve opened up,” Hala Green said. “You see people growing up, and then they have kids and their kids have kids, and then there’s great grandkids getting their hair done, so it’s like a family.”
Finesse was shut down from March 15 to June 15 due to statewide orders limiting the operation of nonessential businesses. According to Shawn and Hala Green, the only aid they were able to get was from unemployment checks and government loans.
“We were able to get a portion of the unemployment and that’s how we were able to survive,” Shawn Green said. “I’ll tell you the truth, if it wasn’t for some of the relief from social work and food stamp aid, we wouldn’t have survived.”
The Greens stressed the importance of having a Black-owned hair salon in their community. As culture and popular styles change, they said, it is important for their business to change alongside it.
“We service a lot of people that have a lot of culture and hair, from natural to straight — there is a lot of culture in Black hair,” Shawn Green said. “And the culture changes, from straight styles to natural styles, from box-perms to keratin treatments, it changes and we have to change along with it. If you don’t change with the styles, it’ll leave you behind.”
They said that going forward, Finesse employees will continue to teach themselves new styles and techniques in order to best serve their customers.
“We want to keep educating, keep learning new techniques and whatever new comes out, you just got to keep learning and being able to be there for the customers,” Hala Green said.
Sean Brezzell, owner of 24th Cheesecakerie, said he carries the torch of tradition from his mother and grandmother, who ran a catering business.
With locations in Ann Arbor’s Briarwood Mall and downtown Ypsilanti, Brezzell’s entrepreneurial spirit spurred his small business into a fast-growing and community-supported venture.
“We like to put ourselves in a position to grow, but unfortunately with COVID coming in, it kind of deteriorated,” Brezzell said. “A lot of our abilities to get the customers we want went away.”
Like Black Stone’s choice to go digital during the pandemic, Brezzel said there were positive aspects of the crisis for their business.
“It helped us put our model together and really hone what we were trying to accomplish by not only selling cheesecakes, but be able to open locations for other small businesses to highlight,” Brezzel said.
According to Brezzell, part of 24th Cheesecakerie’s mission is to uplift other local small businesses. At their Ann Arbor location, Brezzell said they sell t-shirts made by the local business With Mrs B. Their Ypsilanti store also sells hats from the Ypsilanti Hat Company.
“Black Americans deserve the same kinds of economic liberties that everybody else has”
Public Policy senior Cydney Gardner-Brown, vice speaker of the Black Student Union, echoed the importance of supporting Black-owned businesses and empowering their owners in the community.
“Increasing their representation is really important,” Gardner-Brown said. “Like for example, I go into a Walmart. And I'm looking for (products for) my hair, and all of the minimal products that they offer is in a small corner, titled ‘ethnic hair care.’”
Gardner-Brown said Black-owned businesses are important for two main reasons: because they cater to the unique needs of Black patrons and because they empower Black entrepreneurs and business owners.
“Ask any Black girl or guy, the barber and hair salon situation is really difficult,” Gardner-Brown said. “It’s tough to find people in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti who can style hair for girls, and not just a press, but styles like braids. We even have a group chat dedicated to Black hair, and we share resources.”
Gardner-Brown said she knows that injustice in business ownership continues to disproportionately affect Black people, making it even more important for communities to invest resources into Black-owned businesses.
“It's important because Black Americans deserve the same kinds of economic liberties that everybody else has,” Gardner-Brown said. “This country has done an injustice to Black American entrepreneurs by not investing the same kind of resources compared to other communities. It's important because Black Americans are important.”
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