By Kristi Eaton
Venita Cooper was getting excited about the upcoming spring months for her store Silhouette Sneakers & Art. Like many small business owners, she said sales were a bit stagnant during the months immediately after the holidays. But springtime – and its beautiful weather – offered optimism for her store in historic Black Wall Street.
Cooper sells high-end, limited-edition sneakers and street wear.
But then, around early and mid-March, everything changed for Cooper and her fellow business owners in Black Wall Street. The coronavirus hit, and non-essential business were temporarily closed until further notice, leaving a community that had started thriving once again unsure of what the future holds.
Cooper closed Silhouette about a week before Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum issued an order closing all non-essential businesses, a move she said she wanted to make to stand at the forefront of the crisis.
“There was already a feeling in the community that it was unsafe to go into businesses, especially those that are non essential,” she said during a telephone interview. “I wanted to be a leader. I thought the right thing to do was to listen to what the scientists and the data was saying about the best way to slow or end the spread of coronavirus.”
Cooper said she appreciates the steps Bynum and other city leaders have taken. She is also thankful for organizations like the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, which have created funds for those affected by the pandemic. Cooper has already applied for federal aid, and is researching what options are available to her and her business locally.
The issue, she said, for her _ and many others _ is how much debt to take on when it’s unknown how long the crisis will last. “For some businesses, unfortunately, I think it’s not going to be easy to take on more debt, even at zero percent,” she said, later adding: “For me, right now, I’m wondering if I can get by with the federal aid and current cash reserves.”
Fortunately, Silhouette already had an online presence through its website and social media, she said, so there have still been some sales coming in, and she’s hopeful the online component will open up the business to customers outside of the Tulsa area.
Still, she recognizes that as unemployment rises to unprecedented levels and cash-strapped families and individuals focus on essentials, her business may feel the impact.
“I deal in luxury goods – limited-edition sneakers are not inexpensive, and so I think as everybody is impacted by what’s happening in our economy – whether they are still getting a paycheck or not – we’re affected by just the unknown,” she said.” I think people are kind of holding on to cash until they get greater clarity on things.”
She said she is working under the idea that the brick-and-mortar store will remain closed through the end of May, but she’s ready for when businesses can reopen.
“We’re not just sitting idly,” she said. “I have big plans for when we reopen. We’re going to be ready for them when we’re out of all this.”
Dr. Ricco Wright, owner of the Black Wall Street Gallery, also had to shutter. But that has meant Wright has been able to focus on some other projects and endeavors, including a new fashion brand that will be unveiled on April 20.
“I’m also very appreciative of a moment to pause and reflect because I often don’t get to,” he said.
The temporary closure of the gallery has Wright thinking about virtual offerings, including an online store.
Like Cooper, Wright is thinking a lot about what offerings will look like when non-essential businesses are allowed to reopen.
“What am I going to do when everything is lifted?,” he said he often thinks about. “What am I going to provide to the community, because they are going to be itching to get out. As I’m curating the culture, I’m thinking about the people. I’m thinking about the people out in L.A. who need Black Wall Street in their lives somehow, so how am I going to bring Black Wall Street to L.A. virtually?”
One business in Greenwood that has stayed open – on a limited basis – is Wanda J’s Next Generation Restaurant.
Manager Glory Walker said they are offering take-out orders, but no deliveries. The restaurant has seen a steady stream of customers order for dinner, but less so for breakfast, forcing the restaurant to change when it opens in the morning. Wanda J’s continues to see a lunch time crowd, though, it comes later in the afternoon, she said.
Walker said she is unsure if the restaurant will apply for any federal or local aid, but she is proud of how the community has come together. “The community has responded really well and they’ve been supporting us. I think each week is getting better and continuing to get better,” she said.