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It’s a crisp, sunny Friday afternoon along Chicago Avenue just east of Ashland.
There are no pedestrians on the street and The Realm Furniture and Art Store is empty. Fred Martin, owner of the 10-year-old business, says this is just a typical day around here these days. January will mark five years at his current West Side location, 1430 W. Chicago Ave. Martin, who has traveled the world picking up his store items – some centuries old – points to his front window looking outside. Just beyond his clearance and sales signs are storefront locations that former businesses once called home.
“There was a frame store across the street. That’s gone. There was a restaurant next door. Gone. There was a loan store on the corner. Gone. So that has cut down on a lot of foot traffic,” he said.
Martin recalled his business doing well in 2005 and 2006. In those years, it wasn’t unusual for him to make upwards of $20,000 in a week. “Now, I can go three months without making a sale and I can’t even make $3,000 in three months,” he said.
A graduate of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, Martin admits having to turn to banks for help, but has been unable to secure a loan. “It’s the old Catch-22. The banks will only give you a loan if you are generating sales.”
Martin smiles, adding, “Well, if I was generating sales, I wouldn’t need a loan.”
The Realm’s show room is lined floor-to-ceiling with fine African and Asian artwork-both contemporary and antique. He also sells hand-made furniture, as well as music. Martin and his wife, Jomlong, have traveled to many countries and hand-picked all the items in the store. Many of them, he noted, are exclusives. There are tables, masks, wall art and woven baskets from such places as Zaire, Nigeria, Cambodia and The Congo. Martin says you can point to any piece in the store and he can provide the background of it. He also went “green” long before it was the thing to do. Every piece of furniture is from recycled-products of city dwellings, some three and four hundred years old.
“No trees were cut down to make any of this furniture,” he said.
Martin said his Chicago Avenue location was booming, as were the other businesses along the strip when he first opened. The sinking housing market beginning two years ago was the first blow to area businesses. New condos kept sprouting up, and the cost to rent or own one steadily increased. When the housing bubble finally burst, Martin explained, homes shuttered and residents fled the area, leaving existing shop owners struggling to find customers. Meanwhile, more restaurants opened in the area rather than other types of businesses. Some of Martin’s neighbor businesses closed their doors. He maintained he’s still hanging on.
Martin is optimistic that the economy will turn around by the first quarter of next year, but for now, he makes trips to flea markets to try to liquidate some his products.
“I need at least $6,000 a month, just to break even. I’ve got so much stuff. For everything you see here, I’ve got twice as much stuff in the basement,” he said of the lower-level, just below his large floor room.
He jokingly sent out an email stating that the store was having a “Going out for business sale.” But Martin admits if things don’t turn around soon, he really will be changing the wording to “Going out of business.”
Closer to home
Back in the Austin neighborhood further west on Chicago Avenue, three women from the Westside Branch NAACP are inside the Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center. They’re seeking out potential office space to rent. The center, located at 5820 W. Chicago Ave. and which opened in 2007, includes The Nelson Mandela Hall, a large banquet hall. There are also offices available for rent, as well as a store that sales afro-centric items.
Stacia Crawford, who co-owns the center with her husband, Malcolm, said she hasn’t noticed a big drop in sales at their store, African Accents, which was previously located just across the street in a storefront building. The store offers wall art, room décor, picture frames, books and traditional African clothing.
“We have regular customers and our sales have been plenty steady,” she said. “During the holiday season through Black History Month, our African attire is highly sought after. Those move very fast during that time.
“What we sell aren’t really necessities. We just want people to be able to pick up unique gifts when they need them,” added Crawford, who stressed that there will be no “Going out of Business” signs in her window.
That’s largely due to their ability to rent out office space and The Mandela Hall, which hosts banquets, baby showers and other events – it can hold up to 300 guests, many of whom can come through the store and purchase items. And the business’ move from across the street was a good thing, said Crawford.
“Had we still been located in a stand-alone building, we might be in trouble right now, but the center has kept us going.”
Over in Oak Park at Afri-Ware, 266 Lake Street, the store is also empty on this Friday afternoon. This Afro-centric gift shop has more of a bookstore feel with plenty hard-covers and paperbacks on its shelves, but it also sells African clothing, jewelry, music and other items. According to Petrina McKinnor, the store’s manager, they lost a lot of foot-traffic when they moved from their previous location in downtown Oak Park a couple of years ago. She also noticed a significant change in sales around the time George W. Bush was on his way out of office. Business was able to pick up when Barack Obama made his bid for the White House.
“While he was running and after the election, we had so many people coming in buying up all the Obama memorabilia,” McKinnor recalled.
The store’s sales for August of this year through October, however, have been down. But in November, there was a slight improvement and Afri-Ware expects things to pick up during Christmas and Kwanzaa.
“I’ve been here practically every day for four years,” said McKinnor, “and usually around this time, business picks up.”
Finisha is a freelance writer covering Austin’s business community. The Enterprize Zone is a regular feature in Austin Weekly News.