Nov 19, 2019

by Barney Blakeney

conNECKtedTOO, the Charleston Rhizome Collective’s TINY Business initiative continues the social activists/artists/educators group’s visionary expedition into using art as a medium to facilitate social change. The TINY Business initiative employs artists and apprentices in a unique approach to presenting how small businesses impact the communities in which they exist.

Gwylene Gallimard explained that the initiative envisions how the arts and culture can engage economic development. That’s a concept I had to get a grip on. As a kid growing up on the Charleston peninsula and in the Accabee community of North Charleston, neighborhood TINY businesses were infused in the activities of my daily life. But I never thought of them as economic engines until my conversation with the Rhizome Collective. Firetag Grocery at the intersection of Reynolds Avenue and Meeting Street Road in North Charleston, Hamilton’s Grocery at the corner of Amherst and Drake streets, Woody’s store
and Jimmie’ the Greek’s store on the peninsula Eastside were family owned businesses that supplied most of the consumer goods we used such as sugar, rice and kerosene. Businesses like Sindab’s Dry Cleaners on Morris Street and Al’s Barber Shop on Columbus Street were fixtures in the community, but I only saw them as providers of services. Pushing me deeper into a conceptual cloud, the collective’s members said even more than economic engines, such businesses were manifestations of a cultural heritage that also
epitomized and legitimized the ongoing struggles of people burdened by racial and class discrimination. The TINY businesses initiative through art and art expressions would bring focus on those roles and their importance in our past and future. That picture became clearer after I talked with some other folks.

Benita Brooks Smalls is the daughter of Benjamin ‘Bennie’ Brooks. In my growing up years Bennie Brooks was one-half of the prominent Brooks brothers’ business empire located on

Morris Street. Albert Brooks was the younger of the two businessmen. The Brooks team perhaps defined Black business during an era when small minority-owned businesses provided Black communities the amenities they couldn’t acquire in the mainstream business community. Their restaurant, motel, real estate office and poolroom provided services on one block of Morris Street unavailable to Blacks in many other parts of the city.

Smalls said her father and uncle’s businesses began in the late 1930s with a restaurant in Ansonborough at State and Cumberland streets in the historic district of the peninsula. That restaurant, owned by her father and Uncle Henry Brooks, moved to Morris Street when blacks moved further north on the peninsula to the Radcliffborough and Elliotnborough communities. Albert Brooks joined his two older brothers after returning from WWII. The mini–empire the brothers created eventually would employ scores of others and anchored a business hub that included drugstores, dry cleaners, hat stores and shoe repair shops.
At a time when racial discrimination made black consumers unwelcomed at many mainstream businesses, Black neighborhoods offered the goods and services they needed. They continued in those vital roles until the advent of the Civil rights Movement which ushered in unprecedented integration.

Perrin Middleton, CEO of Community Owned Federal Credit Union located at 117 Spring St. in downtown Charleston, shared some perspectives on the continued role tiny businesses play in neighborhoods. The credit union was founded by Esau Jenkins and a small group of visionaries in 1966 to provide low-income black residents of Johns Island with broader access to financial products and services denied to them by larger financial institutions. Like C.O Federal Credit Union, other TINY businesses still exist in significant numbers, Middleton says, although the racial demographics of many communities have changed. He sees the TINY business initiative as a vehicle that can unite businesses with the residents of the communities they serve. The initiative is identifying businesses and connecting them with each other and consumers in their communities.

It’s a novel approach, Middleton said. Too often residents walk past storefronts never entering or knowing what services they offer. The TINY Business initiative will bring them together, offer an opportunity to match faces with names, collaborate and connect neighborhood residents with goods and services they can use. It’s going to be most interesting to see how the collective uses artists do that.

Businesses have to adapt or die, Middleton said. He thinks a new wave of entrepreneurs understand that basic economic reality and foresees more inclusion and diversity in the urban business environment as a result. The TINY Business initiative is a vehicle that can help them do that, he believes.

Adapt or die. That imperative hauntingly capsulizes the fate of so many tiny businesses that no longer exist. But it also is a mandate for new TINY businesses.