They came not only from the not-so- distant Bronx, but from really far-off Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Maine; and internationally from places like England and Japan. Zawadi Gifts served its in-store clientele with quality and distinction. A warm, friendly atmosphere encircled customers and invited them to explore. Why else would so many continue to come back again and again through the years, and from so far?
Most certainly, Zawadi=s drawing power beyond its stellar merchandise was its owners; three equally charming women, each with interestingly first names beginning with the letter L: Leonette, Lois and Lora. Thomaseena Huggins, a wonderful worker, also lent her special character and presence to the store in recent years.
Zawadi can be described as a money- making business with a huge heart, an idea not to be taken lightly in today=s mad-dash economy devoid of customer service. To that end, it must be noted the reason Zawadi is closing its doors (yet another Black-owned business) is not the result of being poorly run. On the contrary, merchandise at fiscally sound Zawadi was carefully selected and displayed for utmost maximum effect. Once through its doors and caressed by its perpetual charm, a visitor stood little chance not making a purchase; at least one item would usually draw them in.
Zawadi Gifts became an oasis of culture, commerce and frequently rapt conversation at 519 Atlantic Avenue (doors away from Lewis Gallery, another Black-owned fixture) 13 years ago as a spin-off from a short-lived Atlantic Avenue Mini- Mall where it was first housed. Two years later, Zawadi Gifts moved to its present location. Originally, there were six women who formed the business. Over time, for various reasons, that number slipped by half. (Zawadi is Swahili for Agift@)
Customers tend not to notice, but the front door=s the inscription reveals much. Named are the four original companies that comprised Zawadi. One of those named, Lewis Gallery, is currently owned by a co-founder of Zawadi Gifts.
Leonette Butler and Lois Kinley, first cousins, are Personal Design, and buy jewelry merchandise for Zawadi. Lois, a retiree and frequent traveler, chooses to carry only pieces with flair but never too pricey or overly extravagant. Lora Brown, the third partner and also a retiree, has a keen eye for memorabilia and antique furniture. She is the owner of Do Remember Me.
Together, their collaboration resulted in a successful enterprise for more than a decade, taking pains to maintain a stylishly appointed shop that each woman kept close watch over. African-inspired art, jewelry, antique furniture, a universe of collector dolls, Black memorabilia, hard-to-find greeting cards, stationery, personal items and the most gorgeous wedding accessories found anywhere was their inventory.
Zawadi Gifts also specialized in a cluster of standout items by designers, artists and artisans who, they say, possessed sizzle. A handful of select book titles were carried; always special, ranging from spiritual notions, affirmations and food recipes (Are they not all the same?). The place just had more cool stuff than you could shake a stick at. It can now be divulged. There was always more in the back.
A hub of activity, Zawadi was replete as a fertile meeting ground with its own special kind of magic. Customers had rightful expectations to meet new friends there, gain networking resources and be welcomed into great conversations on the fly. It was that kind of place. You just liked being there. Besides, there was always something on the shelf to fall in love with and buy.
For all those reasons and more, Zawadi and businesses like it are priceless. Its uniqueness cannot be replaced. Then, why oh why, on September 30th, will Zawadi Gifts be closing its doors for the last time? The answer is simple and not surprising — real estate. But the explanation is twofold.
The partners do not own, they rent. Like many tenants of buildings in the area, property is being flipped. For Zawadi, that meant the property where they are housed has been bought and sold two times in the past year, each time its worth increased by millions. Rent skyrocketed with each new owner, no reasonable lease agreement in sight. Sadly, this is a common scenario.
According to Lora, the demographic of the neighborhood has also shifted radically
the past few years. It is without the same orientation or interest in African-inspired culture as in the past. ANow,@ she adds, Athe young Black people who we depended on as customers are >Eddie Bauer and Old Navyized.@
As a result, the sister-friends whose partnership sparked something very special for over a decade, thought it best to quit while they were still ahead. Their smiles, laughter and relieved demeanor are legitimate. They bear no sadness. Indeed, they express gladness for all there had been. Each also looks forward to a long and much-deserved rest, they say. Afterward, they will see.
In an age of Internet and e-business, where shops like this one can reach a world marketplace online at even a bargain, Zawadi Gifts may yet be reborn.