The Enterprize Zone
At first glance, it’s a party store.
But once you’re inside UBU Party Store on the West Side, there’s a realization that it offers more than what’s advertised.
Formerly in the Austin community at Lake and Cicero, UBU Party Store has nestled itself into its new home at 4117 W. Madison in North Lawndale’s K-Town. It’s the only black-owned store in the city selling party supplies for events, and, according to its owners, boasts something most other party stores can’t offer – a fun room.
But the new space is the store’s third location since opening in 2007. The store’s sign hasn’t been moved from its former and very brief location just a few doors down at 4107 W. Madison. Still, passersby can get an idea of what’s inside from the balloon-filled windows.
Owner Paul Harris points out that he designed the balloons on display. He took a balloon-sculpting class, and is also able to design Palm trees for those customers wanting Hawaiian-themed parties.
The idea for the store came to him one day after having to go all the way to the Brickyard Mall on the North Side for party supplies. He recalled praying and asking the lord for guidance and came up with the idea for a party store closer to home. Paul talked to his wife, Denise, and sister-in-law, Regina, about his idea. The name, UBU, was originally his wife’s idea. She intended on using the name for her own fashion design business, but decided it would be appropriate for the party store. She insists it tells the children, “You do you. You pick your party, you pick your decorations, and you create your fantasy.
“The reason we moved from the previous locations was because it wasn’t enough space for us to have a fun room,” said Denise, adding that they started the business to benefit the kids in the neighborhood.
The fun room is just that, hosting birthday parties on the weekend in the afternoons and early evenings, from 1 to 4 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Occasionally, some are hosted during the week. Clowns and magicians are present to entertain partygoers, and the fun room also has a Kiddie Story Time, where the characters themselves tell stories to the children, who also dress up.
Paul recalled that the kids in the neighborhood gave him the idea for the mascots and clowns to accompany story time from the kids in the neighborhood. Once the party and story time is done, the children can take pictures with the mascot or clown that made them laugh.
“You see these kids acting like clowns out here. This is a way for the youth to put this on (costumes) and do something different and positive,” he said.
The fun room also hosts a Summer Lunch Program where youth, up to age 19, are able to come in and have lunch-about 85 kids a day participate. The fun room is also where Denise, a graduate of Columbia College, teaches sewing and art to the neighborhood kids.
She does this on her off days from the 21st Police District where she’s been an officer for nine years. Also helping at the store is daughter Jonise and niece Tiffany.
But it wasn’t all that fun in the beginning trying to open the store, Denise recalled. Getting loans for the business prove difficult. For two consecutive years, she has given her income tax return check completely to the store to help cover costs. Denise added that it’s difficult to get small business loans.
“There are people who help you fill out the paperwork for the loan, but there aren’t any people to help you actually get the loan,” she said. “I almost gave up. It’s hard if a person can’t see your vision the way you do.”
For costumers needing a little financial help themselves, the store has a lay-a-way plan. Denise felt that was an absolute necessity for those who want to buy for their children and loved ones, but don’t have all the money at one time. She initially got this idea when they were at their first location on Lake and Cicero in Austin. Her face lights up as she recalls the men who would put money down each week so they could buy balloons for their wives or grandchildren.
“They would come in and put $4 down one week and then $4 down another week. When the day came where they had paid the amount due, and I handed them their gift, they would say, ‘This is the first time I was able to afford to buy my wife balloons for her birthday,'” Denise said. “I couldn’t believe it. But then I started to realize, they were telling the truth.”
Denise’s cousin and best friend, Betty Johnson, recommended their newest location. Her Taste Buds restaurant is just two doors down on Madison. Johnson maintains that UBU Party store is now part of the “Black Blessed Block.”
“I wanted to make sure we put people here who everybody knows and would contribute to the neighborhood,” she said.
Paul and her wife are continuing to help the kids on the block as they set up tables out front every Friday and Saturday to give away hot dogs, polishes and chips to children passing by. On Aug.15, they will participate in a back to school parade, handing out school supplies. Other business owners, led by Johnson and Ernestine King, president of The Greater Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce, are working to get Madison Street between Keeler and Springfield blocked off for the event.
Paul Harris said his ultimate goal is to start a UBU Camp to take neighborhood children out of the city so they can learn outdoor activities, like fishing. Denise would like to start an Academy of Arts teaching students about the theater, music and having them put on plays each year. She also has visions of an “inside beach.”
“I want it to be an actual beach, but indoors. I want the water and everything to smell and feel like an actual beach,” Denise said. “Some kids have never been to the beach.”
The couple is in the process of trying to purchase an unused four-story building across the street to fulfill their dreams.
“The thing that keeps the business going is the community,” said Denise. “We would not be here if it weren’t for the people in the neighborhood. They have been very supportive.”
Finisha O’Quinn is a freelance writer covering Austin’s business community. The Enterprize Zone is a regular feature in Austin Weekly News.