Daniel Johnson didn’t think his business would be one of many burned down during protests after George Floyd’s killing by police. Then he got the call.
“We get a call from the property manager saying, ‘Hey, check your cameras.’ And I checked the cameras — I just saw smoke everywhere,” Johnson said, remembering that he called family members to go to the store with him. “As soon as we arrived to the scene, in front of the National Guard tanks and stuff right in front of the store, we watched it crumble and fall.”
Johnson, the owner and designer of LVLS House of Hoodies, has worked hard to rebuild since then. His apparel business has new locations in Rochester and the Mall of America, and is among many organizations being supported during Small Business Saturday.
For shoppers and employers, the day emphasized the triumphs and challenges small businesses face today.
If you ask Johnson, his building burning down was a blessing in disguise.
Droves of community members showed up to support his Rochester location after the incident. Business has been rough at times, but Johnson’s focus on electronic commerce has led to advertising and sales across the world. But he says support from the community was crucial for him to thrive.
“We consider ourselves a community-based brand, especially after losing everything and being able to build back up strictly and solely by the community,” Johnson said. “Without them, I honestly wouldn’t have made it this far.”
Greg Bellanger, store manager of Northland Visions in Minneapolis, might say the same about the community support.
Bellanger’s father, an Ojibwe from northern Minnesota, started Northland Visions in 1999 as a gift store to sell native foods like wild rice and wild berry jellies. The shop grew and changed with the times but ran into new challenge when the coronavirus pandemic began.
“Before, things were going really well. We had just moved a few years prior to this new location … and then it just kind of dropped,” Bellanger said.
Northland Visions closed its storefront and shifted its focus to the internet. Schools, tribes and community members started ordering online to support them. Sales grew from three or four packages a day to 30 or 40. Bellanger said business is steady now, and their doors are open to in-person shopping. But inflation has brought new challenges.
“It’s gotten tough because shipping is really hurt,” Bellanger said. “When the cost of materials and then the cost of the product goes up, it has to be passed on. So the consumer ends up as the one who actually ends up paying for it because I can’t keep eating all of these costs.”
Despite such challenges, many businesses are finding ways to succeed.
Dozens of people gathered at Black Garnet Books for Small Business Saturday, browsing the store as “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men and “Gettin Jiggy Wit It” by Will Smith played through the speakers. House plants caught light beaming through the windows. A dog named Nova sniffed at new customers before bowing to let them pet her.
Dionne Sims owns Black Garnet Books, which she started in 2020. Sims said she was able to grow her business by launching pop-up book shops where community members asked her to, sometimes at the site of protests. Her online following bloomed into a support system, and a $100,000 Neighborhood Star Program grant secured the money she needed for a permanent location.
Sims has a lot planned for the business and wants it to be an open and welcoming space.
“[We’re] just trying to do more and more events that help people feel like this space is for them, and help them feel more like they’re part of being in this space,” Sims said. “Just really want to establish ourselves as a neighborhood book store.”
Bre’jhnae Washington and Danielle Bieri, Washington’s mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters, noticed Sim’s efforts. Washington’s friends told her about Black Garnet books, and she said she liked the store’s atmosphere.
To Bieri, who also owns a small business, the bookstore’s growth does good for the neighborhood.
“It’s just really exciting,” Bieri said. “In a place where every time you turn around there’s another small business closing … it’s really important for us to support people in our community.”
Black Garnet Books and other owners and artists will be part of a BIPOC Holiday Extravaganza event Sunday. That event, held at the New Rules Building on Lowry Avenue North, runs 3 to 5 p.m.