When in Brooklyn, Tompkins Avenue is the place to buy clothing, incense and jewelry that is just as unique and colorful as the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood it runs through. Despite gentrification that has changed the racial composition of the area, Black women know they can still depend on stores along Tompkins to find the goods and services they love.
But the COVID-19 pandemic brought lots of uncertainty to the businesses in the area. Customers stopped coming in, and sales began to dry up as people stayed inside to avoid getting sick in a city that was one of the hardest-hit parts of the country. “It was like a ghost town. It was more the despair. Just people feeling very uncertain. Not knowing what’s going on, not knowing what’s happening,” as Isha Joseph, owner of Make Manifest, a clothing and jewelry store located on Tompkins Ave told NPR.
And it wasn’t just happening in Brooklyn. By April of 2020, the number of Black-owned businesses dropped by more than 40 percent across the country. Joseph knew that her livelihood depended on keeping her sales up even when people weren’t coming into her store to shop. So she joined forces with other women business owners in the area and promised to help one another remain open during the difficult economic times. Their collaboration helped the businesses stay afloat, and the area came to be known as “Black Girl Magic Row.”
Tiecha Merritt is the owner of The Bush Doctor juice bar and the president of the Tompkins Avenue Merchants Association. As the pandemic began to ravage their community, she knew other area business owners would need support. So she began helping them apply for various loans and grants to help them stay afloat. The association also worked to help businesses modify their services to include offerings like online and outdoor sales.
Many of the Tompkins Avenue business owners even changed some of their product offerings to include things that were more practical in the age of COVID. Hekima Hapa is a sewing instructor and one of the owners of the clothing and home decor shop Botanical Life & Style. She says it was the sale of homemade masks that helped her keep her business going through much of the pandemic. The Tompkins Avenue business owners also created a WhatsApp group to check in on each other and talk about issues like the constantly changing and often confusing health and safety requirements they needed to follow.
As things begin a slow return to normal, the number of Black-owned businesses in the country has risen to nearly 30% above pre-pandemic levels, with Black women responsible for much of that growth. As the business owners on Tompkins Avenue have proven, just about anything is possible with a little bit of Black Girl Magic.
“Black women have been able to really rise up in times that you just have to get it done,” Joseph says. “It’s like a magical thing. Like you can turn chitlins into a gourmet dish. Black girl magic is all about how women literally can turn dust into gold.”