In Search Of Customers Vendors Travel Far To Sell Their Goods

Posted: August 05, 1994

When it comes to African masks, sculptures and jewelry, Philadelphians aren't always the best customers, according to some merchants.

So, what do you do if that's the product mix you specialize in locally?

You hit the road.

And that's precisely what a number of local merchants do. Earlier this week, for example, a handful of them were at an outdoor marketplace in Atlanta, Ga., sponsored in part by the National Black Arts Festival. They were peddling everything from baby clothes trimmed with Afrocentric cloth to hand-carved African walking sticks.

The nine-day festival, officially called the Roots and Branches Folk Arts Festival, was sponsored by the National Black Arts Festival and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

Gracie Williams, who with husband, Otis, was selling African masks, statues and jewelry from one of the booths, said they traveled to such events because Philadelphians weren't always interested in their merchandise.

"They are into it, but not more than down in Washington, D.C., and other areas," said Gracie Williams, who moonlights from her job in a jewelry store in the Northeast to help her husband run Universal Creations. "Philly people are moving slower."

The Williamses are part of a growing number of African-American merchants and street vendors targeting street festivals, cultural events and other activities as a way to reach ethnic-minded customers.

The trend is fueled, at least in a small way, by a growing interest on the part of African-Americans in things African, observers say.

"It's an attempt to use culture as a way of also increasing wealth," said Molefi Kete Asante, who heads Temple University's African-American Studies Department.

No one could say yesterday exactly how much African-Americans are spending annually on cultural items such as African paintings, wall-hangings and other items; however, anecdotal evidence indicates the numbers are increasing.

"It's not a fad," Asante said of African-Americans' increasing interest in purchasing African garb, art and artifacts.

He said as African-Americans become more aware of their heritage, they're drawn to things that reflect it.

"There's a certain aura of tradition and history which comes from a person's buying fabric which may well have been the same fabric his or her ancestors wore on special occasions," Asante said.

Lois A. Fernandez, director and co-founder of the annual Odunde street festival, has watched the number of vendors grow at her event from a handful in 1975 to a couple of hundred this year.

"I don't think it started really mushrooming until the 1980s," said Fernandez, who is helping to organize a national umbrella organization of African-American street festivals called "Celebrations, African American Festivals."

"More and more people started vending crafts and selling clothing," she continued. "People are making money . . . we are building an economic base."

Vendors learn of upcoming events in much the same way news historically has traveled throughout African and African-American communities - word of mouth.

"It's oral tradition, that's what it is," said Kofi Asante, founder and artistic director of the AfricaAmericas Festival, which will be held again in May. "The network in terms of the vendors is probably better than your best church network."

Vendors also stay abreast of upcoming festivals through vendors' catalogs, newspaper stories and listings from local convention and visitors bureaus, he said.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, local vendors are trying to make the most of the remaining days of the festival, which concludes Sunday.

"It has been worth it," said Terry Bell, a designer with A Matter of Taste, an Afrocentric children's clothing manufacturer in Devon.

Pausing from showing her store's collection of mud-cloth patterned kufis, African-print baby bibs and other children's wear, Bell said, "They're buying . . . it's big for us, because we're one of the only children's stands down here."

Sandra Broadus, owner of Chosen Image, an African-American art gallery at 65th and Broad streets, was in Atlanta to acquire rather than sell. She used the opportunity to chat up artists whose paintings she hopes to sell.

"This is a place to find the artists," Broadus said as she strolled through the marketplace.

Then, there were the Williamses, who plan to be in Philadelphia for the Caribbean festival on Penn's Landing on Aug. 21. After that, it's back on the road.

"We're just not the type of people to sit and wait for customers to come to us," Otis Williams explained. "Nobody's going to be (knocking) at our door. We have to take all that into the community."

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