The fragrance of scented candles swirled out when the door opened. Inside, Kenya Renee, the owner of Absolutely Anything Essential, welcomed customers with a gold-lipstick smile.
Absolutely Anything Essential is a gift shop located at 35th Street and King Drive. It is also a retail corridor, which means it leases out space to other vendors while still selling its own products. Inside, dozens of shelves and booths are scattered around the store, each of them rented to one of the location’s ten vendors, who then decorates it with handmade jewelry, assorted body scrubs, home decor, and the work of local artists. On the third floor, the inviting scent of cream and butter from the baker’s booth hangs in the air.
On November 26, the space hosted an event for Small Business Saturday, an annual event started in 2010 by American Express to designate the Saturday after Black Friday as a day to promote small business. In 2016, the resolution was unanimously passed by the U.S. Senate to make Small Business Saturday an official day of celebration. For small business owners, it usually means a surge of customers and an opportunity to expand their brand. But for Renee, this year’s holiday was extra important because she is responsible for more than her own shop: Absolutely Anything Essential (AAE) was selected by American Express as a “Neighborhood Champion” this year, putting her in charge of setting up a community fair for local vendors to sell and local residents to shop.
Whenever a customer entered the store, they were greeted with warm smiles and hugs—a lot of them are local residents, with whom the staff of the store were already acquainted. At the end of the day, Renee posted photos of herself and her customers on Facebook, with a caption that read, “So many shoppers, people were impressed, people checked out the place, ate, and watched the Carolers sing.”
“American Express has had a Neighborhood Champion program encouraging local businesses to advertise the Shop Small Business Saturday Initiative, which is just encouraging the community to shop within their community,” said Renee. “So [it does] not only help one business, but that one business helps other businesses as well.” Neighborhood Champions can reach out to small business owners in nearby neighborhoods. Renee herself invited not only vendors from Bronzeville, where AAE is located, but also vendors in Hyde Park, the South Loop, and Kenwood.
She says it’s important for small businesses to stay together. Programs like Neighborhood Champion do offer such opportunities, but she thinks that small businesses should join forces even outside of events like this.
“I want small businesses to keep being encouraged, continue to line with other business owners, to associate themselves with other business owners that are ready to assist them going onto the next level,” she says. “I want them to associate with small business owners that don’t mind sharing their insights on how to advance as a business owner…You need the support from businesses that have been in the community for three or four years when you just moved into the community.”
For vendors of smaller scale, such collaboration is more than welcome. Lois Stone, the president of Stone Art Supply, is one of the small business owners presented in AAE. Stone Art Supply is completely online, since a physical walk-in-and-order place is hard to get.
“I was glad to have a space like this because it allows me to show my art, show my art supplies. I can talk to people about arts, and I can offer some art classes,” said Stone, an experienced artist and illustrator.
However, as expansive as the Neighborhood Champion program seems to be, for Stone, there could be more. When asked if there were a lot of similar opportunities, she said. “Not on the South Side. They’re trying to open up a little bit more. This is really unique to Bronzeville where there are a couple of places in the area, like Entrepreneur Incubator where you can do things like [vending, showing goods and teaching]. I know there’s Bronzeville Retail Initiative [and] also Quad Community Development Corporation. They’re making up opportunities for people to vend when their own capacities can’t afford their own places.”
While recognizing that those vending opportunities are “a great starting point,” Stone also said that a lot of small business owners want a physical place of their own: “Vending is really hard. You have to set up your stuff and take it down. For me, I want a retail place because I don’t have to take things around all the time and I can get a walk-in-and-order place in conjunction with a gallery. If I can get a gallery, an art supply store, and some teaching space, that will be ideal for me.”
This desire for a place of her own is also because not all the vending opportunities can give her the same level of freedom. “[AAE] is the place where I can vend and teach. But for QCDC’s program, they might not have space suitable for teaching. Space might be limited and they may not want a painting class there,” said Stone.
The problem comes back to money. While there are opportunities for small business owners to get financial support, those opportunities entail procedures, and small business owners should be prepared with the necessary materials they need to apply for a program. “I feel that there are opportunities out there. There are loans out there, yes…[but] small business owners have to be prepared for what is requested of them,” said Renee. “Because a lot of the time it’s not that there are no opportunities. There are more opportunities now than five years ago. But you have to make [an] income [statement] for the previous year and you have to make sure your taxes are in order. You have to talk to your accountant and the accountant will tell you what you should do for the next year.”
Renee herself received assistance from the Entrepreneur Center at the Chicago Urban League, where she attended a Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) Business Entrepreneurship Development Program. The program provided both entrepreneurial training and necessary funding. “They basically started a program in partner with the Chicago Urban League to help low-income families start their own businesses,” she said.
“[The program] is through the Chicago Urban League but the funds came from the Chicago Housing Authority,” said Diane McDonald, who used to work for the Chicago Urban League, where she met Renee. Now she owns her own small business, Remree’s Bling’s & Thing’s, which vended in Renee’s store on Small Business Saturday.
When asked whether there are similar guidance programs for small business owners, McDonald said, “I know there are programs out there. But what’s unique about Urban League, from what I saw, was the actual consultants who taught the class. They did a great job teaching the class because they were sincere about their teaching. Sometimes you got someone who is doing it just for the money.”
In addition to the inconsistent qualities among different guidance programs, a lot of small businesses are facing other financial problems, too.
“Some people they don’t want to take a loan. From what I see, it actually takes a while for businesses to actually get up and going,” said McDonald. “Depending on how long you have to give the loan back, some people will be like ‘Hey, I don’t want a business loan,’ because they can’t afford to take out a business loan.”
Second, there are small businesses scattered around who don’t know about the existence of such programs or about opportunities to collaborate with other small business owners. “What I did over the summer was that I went out to some of the small businesses and asked them whether they were going to celebrate Small Business Saturday this year,” said McDonald, “some of them didn’t know there is Small Business Saturday.”
Both of the problems tie back to Renee and McDonald’s shared call for more collaboration among small business owners. Collaboration between small businesses, the kind that’s offered by the Neighborhood Program, provides starting vendors with a necessary transition phase where they can accumulate their capitals. And a general sense of unity among small business owners ensures communication, which tackles the second problem.
According to McDonald, the responsibility of uniting small businesses should not solely rest on the vendors themselves. “You know who I think should be responsible for getting these small businesses collaborate like that? It’s the Alderman,” said McDonald when asked if she has more insight to offer about how to support small businesses. “They need to bring the businesses more together. They should make it a requirement that there’s a meeting for businesses on certain dates, because a lot of the businesses they don’t know about a lot of things.”
“Kenya sent the flyers throughout the community and there were customers who came in and said, ‘I got this flyer and I came to check it out,’” said McDonald, who was at AAE on Saturday. “The Alderman should be pushing on things that businesses already got going on, find out what’s going on, visit small businesses more. Some other businesses probably got more visits from the alderman than small businesses like Kenya.”
McDonald was referring to 4th Ward Alderman Sophia King, whose office is right next to Absolutely Anything Essential. “There was a time when [King] was asked to advertise for the location [of AAE], and Kenya was turned down,” said McDonald.
Alderman King, who was appointed by Mayor Emanuel in April, had not responded to McDonald’s comments by press time. This article will be updated online if the Weekly receives a response from her office.