Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Knowing so little about the day-to-day running of a small business,

the work of re-creating Reid's Records proved to be more difficult than I'd ever imagined. The simple act of slinking out of my car (head down, chin on chest, quaking in fear) used up much of my energy. At that time the building had not been secured with safety bars, and -- after parking around the corner -- cringing past the drug dealers who inhabited my corner whatever the hour, I'd check the door for break-ins to assure myself that no one was inside waiting for me. It happened often enough to become the routine for opening up each morning. But if that was true, it was also true that Fred would stop by a few minutes after I arrived (watching for me from his window) to say good morning and to check to see if everything was alright.

Fred was veteran of Pearl Harbor. He'd served as a cook in the navy and was wounded in the bombing. But in subsequent years he'd become a victim of cheap wine and toxic wine coolers. He was always sober in the morning and progressed to a total stupor during the course of the day. I believed that he'd served as a lookout for Mel in the same way over many years and that was now one of the perks I inherited.

At first it was a bother, but over the first few weeks I discovered the man beneath the scruffy appearance and foul smells. He lived alone in a little outbuilding with no electricity, a crude shelter in the backyard of the house next door -- just beyond the fence. I'd notice him from time to time with an old broom sweeping off the sidewalk in front of my store, neatly gathering the debris into a concocted dustpan of some sort and depositing the trash in the dumpster behind the shop. He asked for nothing but a good morning smile each day. He also was eagle-eyed and would come in to report on any suspicious goings-on within eyesight. I learned to rely on his watchful concern as the weeks wore on and as I began to learn where to place trust. One morning -- after a heavy rain -- Fred turned up with a ratty old doormat, laid it at the front door with, "...Ms. Betty, this you gonna need so that folks don't track up yo' flows."

There was "Q" Martin, a barber who had a very interesting arrangement across the street from our shop and in the next block north of us. He owned a lot that ran from Sacramento Street to Stanton, just behind his little barbershop. The block was only as wide as one house and yard and fronted on the broad expanse of Sacramento Street. "Q's" shop was on the commercial street side -- and behind it stood a small structure that connected to the rear of his barbershop and opened onto his backyard. In time I learned that this was a gambling place that was frequented by the local men from around the general area. The pool hall was next door to his barbershop. Between the two structures -- most of the older men in the community would gather to socialize and place bets on sporting events, I later learned. I was also pretty sure that the police were very much aware, and quietly ignored it as a legitimate activity for this community, a difference in values as dictated from outside.

Q and his wife had raised a family of 12. In order to manage that, he'd earned a barber's license and ran a pretty efficient barbershop. I learned from one of the other men that he'd spent his nights for many years pouring over manuals that allowed him to single-handedly build the home they shared -- board by board and brick by brick. Each spring he would drive his truck to their old home in Arkansas where his extended family owned a farm. There he would butcher a cow or a hog, pack it in ice for the drive back to the Bay Area to freeze for winter. He made the trip twice a year, once in summer/fall to harvest and preserve fruits and vegetables that would feed the family throughout the year. This was an enormously resourceful man, and someone I learned to deeply respect and admire. It was my guess that, like many others in the neighborhood -- he'd come to the West during the war to work in the shipyards. When I met him he was in his sixties, I suspect. In time I learned that he'd once served time in prison for a crime of some sort -- but by the time that was revealed to me, I'd come to believe that any black man with such family obligations could hardly get through life without breaking one law or another, so it held no relevance for me. I'm sure that he'd taught himself to read, and eventually learned well enough to master those manuals and to build a home that met all of the codes required for construction. The community proved to be peopled by so many stories of wonderful inventive creative stubbornly resourceful people, and I found my place among them quite comfortably over time. It was only a case of finding the common denominators, something I'd become pretty good at. Those common denominators were far different from those I'd had to search out on campus, but in many ways the process was the same.

I learned some lessons in ghetto living that almost brought my grand experiment to an end. For instance, I could not get any insurance company to insure the building. I was told by agents that -- if I could lift the building up and move it six blocks in either direction -- they would write a policy. As it turned out, I was situated in a cauldron of illegal activity, and too high a risk. No glass insurance. No theft or property could be underwritten. Fire insurance was a condition of the mortgage so that was the only coverage possible, and only because it was secured by the credit union that held the mortgage for their protection, and not mine. It only covered the balance owed on the loan. I was on my own.

I installed iron security bars on every window (after frequent break-ins) and at one point realized that I had more money in bars than I had in inventory. In that, I had a lot in common with the other little struggling businesses on the street.

Knowing little about the current market in music, I gradually re-built the stock by using a simple formula. I would allow the clientele to create the inventory. I began to keep a list. When I received 3 requests for any item, I would buy 5 at wholesale. Later the formula grew to 5 requests, order 10, etc. There was a One-Stop distributor in Emeryville that Mel had dealt with for many years and who was willing to work with me toward the recovery; a godsend to this amateur entrepreneur. He allowed me to buy in small lots as I re-built the business. I made the trip to Music People, Inc., every day in order to keep current. There was an indebtedness of over $15,000 on his books, and at the rate I was recovering -- we'd be lucky to get ourselves into the next century! But Elliott did have faith in my ability to handle things, and for that I was grateful. It was clear after a few months that the character of the store was changing -- maybe had changed radically over time -- and was fast-becoming a black gospel shop with a potentially large clientele in a growing field of music. Interesting development for a non-believer, right?

Gradually the Rhythm & Blues and Jazz were replaced by this entirely new and exciting form of African American music -- a specialty that had not yet been discovered by white music stores. I may have been the only one in the field who realized that jazz had not disappeared, but had returned to the choir lofts and was blazing away in new dress. The music was wonderful and was beginning to infuse all of popular music in the way that black music had always done. It brought the black church community into my store and introduced me to every African/American preacher from Monterey to Sacramento. Today it is hard to tell the difference between contemporary black gospel and white. The mega-churches in the South have crossed over musically in ways that are unheard of in other areas of the country. I had the field pretty much to myself for several years, enough time to have been able to rebuild the store back to its original level of success, but not before lots of anguish had to be lived through.

The second floor of the building held a beauty shop that was operated by a woman who'd been a tenant for many years, though we'd never met. She managed it and -- as in her the arrangement with Mel -- paid to me a percentage of her profits. She employed a number of other operators who paid rentals on their chairs. Her contributions supported the rest of my efforts in the beginning. I was such a novice, but pretended to be nothing else so everyone gave me the space to grow and learn, Rita most of all. Learned recently of her death, and that her beloved grand-daughter had been murdered by a stranger who shot her when she opened her front door.

There was also a male tenant who ran a program funded by CDGB funds from the city -- employment and training -- and was someone I had little or no trust in and who later proved to be a significant challenge. He presented my first experience at staging an eviction. His power was derived from a member of the city council "downtown" and was strong. He was known to "deliver" this community at election time. I feared him. I believed that his was the voice that pretty much controlled "The Street," and he was literally operating under my roof. Establishing "turf" was going to be dependent upon how well I could handle this situation. I was sure that I was being watched by the community. Q and the others "had my back" so to speak. Their quiet presence gave me strength to face the challenges.

The answer was to try to create a Merchant's Association made up of the little marginal businesses on that six block stretch; barber and beauty shops ("Q" Martin and Rita the beautician), the pool hall, a few liquor stores, dry cleaners (Jimmy Wiggins), two little grocery store operators, a real estate salesman, etc. They met for the first time in our upstairs offices one evening. It was fascinating. I learned immediately that these men were all armed. In fact, Q told me that he was concerned about my safety and offered to get me a "piece" to stash behind my counter! I was apparently the only person in the room without a gun. I also learned that they universally believed that vice was a necessary element in the black community, and that once cleaned up, no one could survive. Keeping my eyebrows properly aligned without having them bob up and down crazily was not easy to manage. This was a world I knew nothing about. Needless to say, I declined his offer.

It was clear to me at that first meeting that these men represented a thin slice of the community; that slice that edged on the street itself, and that just one house back -- all around -- lived the women and children and families of churchgoers who had an entirely different agenda. To do anything to strengthen the voice of these merchants would do a serious disservice to the rest of the community. We met only once more, then disbanded. But these men had made me one of them. I was a trusted member of the group. I've never known whether or not their trust was being extended through their allegiance to Mel or whether it was mine, alone. Walking lightly and remaining trustworthy in their eyes would become more and more important as time passed. I was entering a phase where heightened sensitivity would be critical to my ability to hang in. I needed them in order to survive. I needed to learn some of the skills of the streets that were second nature to most. And, as strange as it may be, there were several of these guys that I liked immensely, and trusted instinctively. We had developed a mutual respect that would serve me well in the years ahead. I was going to need them to help change the environment of the community. Without their buy-in, it would be impossible.

This was a long way from life as I'd known it; from the East Oakland of my childhood, from early Berkeley, from suburban middle-class life in Walnut Creek, and most of all, like my life among the intellectual pacesetters of the university world. This would erase most of my temporary truths, and would become the canvas upon which to paint an entirely new view of the world.

It was almost impossible to know whether I was taking a giant step forward of backward in time or simply caught on the cusp of I knew not what ... .

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