GRAND RAPIDS, MI — The Black Market Pop Up Shop on Saturday is about more than selling holiday gifts.
The purpose of the Nov. 22 event is also to lay the groundwork for establishing Grand Rapids’ first black business district, said Jamiel Robinson, the event’s 31-year-old organizer.
“It’s definitely the first step in establishing a black business district and the first step in changing consumer behavior,” Robinson said.
He is the founder and chief executive officer of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, or GRABB, which officially launched in July 2013. But Robinson unofficially began his crusade nearly a year earlier when he began challenging himself and others to first shop black-owned businesses for products and services.
The payoff, says Robinson, is that those dollars circulate in black neighborhoods and create jobs in pockets where unemployment is the highest.
The Black Market will be from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at LINC, at 1167 Madison Ave. SE in Grand Rapids. It will feature at least 15 business selling a range of products that include clothing, jewelry, desserts, greeting cards, stationery, beauty and personal care products.
There are fewer merchants this year at the second annual event because of a scheduling conflict that put Black Market into the LINC’s co-working space instead of its gallery.
“We had to reduce the number of vendors because of spacing,” Robinson said.
Robinson expects this year’s Black Market to attract about 100 people. Next year, Robinson hopes to move Black Market to a temporary storefront that could potentially stay open during the holiday season.
Starting as a daylong event is chance to build up a customer base and prepare the small home-based businesses for a longer retail run.
“It’s not just about getting the consumers ready, but getting the businesses ready,” he said.
Robinson’s vision is a walkable commercial district filled with black-owned businesses frequented by African American customers and others.
There are several potential locations but Robinson has narrowed the top choices to Eastern Avenue SE between Wealthy and Franklin streets, and Kalamazoo Avenue SE between Hall and Burton streets.
He says he isn’t worried that by publicly sharing his intentions that he might give someone the idea to hike rents.
“There is a lot of gentrification taking place,” said Robinson. “That’s why I’m being vocal that these areas are the areas we are looking at.”
He doesn’t see a black business district as that much different than Chinatown or Little Italy in New York City.
Only 2 percent of black income nationally is spent at black-owned businesses, said Robinson.
“This is the way to shift that,” he said. “If we are able to go from 2 to 10 percent, it would create a few million jobs for African Americans.”
Those jobs are needed in the Grand Rapids area, where 42 percent of the 40,000 African Americans live at or below the poverty line, he added.
His stats come Manuel Pastor, a prominent demographer and sociologist with the University of Southern California, who spoke in Grand Rapids in September about the connection between the conditions of racial equity and economy.
Robinson is quick to point out that his vision of empowerment isn’t based on charity, or a mandate to shop only black-owned businesses. He sees it as sustainable economics.
“You should spend your money where you are appreciated,” said Robinson. “If the products and the services are not up to your standard, you shouldn’t shop there.”
Consumers, he believes, should first give locally-owned businesses the opportunity to earn their loyalty before taking their shopping dollars to big box chain if they want to support their community.
In February, Robinson was honored by Local First with the Local Hero Award for his efforts demonstrating a significant shift towards local purchasing and sustainable living.
Robinson believes that’s Grand Rapids’ development boom offers a window for the black community to make some grains that could pay off long-term.
“The dirt hasn’t settled,” said Robinson. “I think this is the time to make economic strides before the dust settles for the next 40 to 50 years.”