At the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Mike Street, a Harlem-based senior digital strategist, talked about the neighborhood’s harsh retail landscape to more than 200 small business owners at the recent 10th Annual Harlem Business Economic Summit. As Mr. Street explained the importance of using social media to innovate marketing message under today’s harsh business environment the crowd barely stirred.
But when he shouted “Harlem in crisis,” everyone nodded.
Several months ago, Lenox Lounge, a famous jazz club on West 125th Street and Lenox Avenue closed after a rent dispute between the club’s owner and the landlord. Located at West 121st Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, Harlem Vintage, one of the first wine bars in Harlem, was also closed after struggling financially.
“When you came in, did you see any customers? No. That’s the reality,” said Souley Lareytou, owner of Kourtey, a 5-year-old shop at 430 Malcolm X Blvd, that mainly sells T-shirts, Phone Cards and African DVDs. This year, the average monthly income of Mr. Lareytou is $3,000, while his rent is $2,200 per month. “[The rent] is still increasing,” according to Mr. Lareytou. Kourtey’s rent has increased from $2,000 to $2,200 over the past five years. “It’s not profitable, that’s why I don’t hire people,” said Mr. Lareytou. To help support himself Lareytou also works as a part-time security guard at Crown Protective Services Inc. which pays him $800 every two weeks.
Small businesses in Harlem are struggling to survive, not only because the increasing retail rents, but also because of the lack of diversity of the types of business. For instance, there are more than 25 small corner delis on the stretch of Lenox Avenue from West 140th street to West 125th street.
Moreover, an increasing numbers of national retailers, such as Whole Foods Market, the Gap, and Burlington Coat Factory, plan to locate on West 125th Street and Lenox Avenue further squeezing smaller shops by pushing commercial rents out of reach to independent entrepreneurs.
To protect and help local small businesses, the Harlem Business Alliance spent $700,000 to set up a Small Business Support Center (SBSC) this past March. Jule S. Webster, program coordinator of SBSC, said that the center aims to assist and train local small businesses owners by providing professional business consulting, offering affordable office space, and various workshops.
“I love it,” said Charmaine DaCosta, a personal chef, who uses the office space at SBSC to grow her startup.“The center matched me with a professional in the space who is able to help me bring my business to next level.”
Jelena Pasic, the owner of a newly opened restaurant Harlem Shake, who attended the SBSC’s Crash Course Workshop is also a fan. “[This course] is quite useful in financial management,” she said.
However, just a few blocks away from the SBSC, Mr. Lareytou had never heard about this center. After reading the course’s flyer, he was doubtful it could help his current situation arguing that it is too theoretic.
“It’s hard,” said Mr. Lareytou. “But you never know what’s gonna happen tomorrow.”