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Obama presidency offers economic silver lining

 

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Owners of the small stores that dot South L.A.’s historic Leimert Park shopping area see one bright spot in this year’s gloomy retail season—Barack Obama.

The president-elect has caused a surge in interest in all things Obama and many things African. Shopkeepers in the traditionally black district have rushed to meet the demand with a dizzying array of memorabilia and collectibles.

“It’s a moment in time and it ain’t coming back,” says Jackie Ryan of the Zambezi Bazaar shop as she rings up an Obama jigsaw puzzle and ski hat for a shopper. “You’ll have this to hand down to your children and grandchildren.”

“I should have made something Obama. They are selling like hotcakes,” the customer replies.

The Obama frenzy is one upside to an otherwise dreary outlook for the 2008 holiday season. Consumer spending is expected to fall as the country slips further into a recession. Retails sales were down 1.8 percent in November compared to the previous month and 7.4 percent lower than the same period last year, according to new numbers from the U.S. Commerce Department.

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Shop owners in Leimert Park say they have witnessed the downturn for the past few years, starting with the housing market collapse. The area’s demographics have been especially hard hit by the slowing economy.

The neighborhood was designed in the 1920s by Frederick Olmstead Jr. and developed by Walter Leimert starting in 1928. It was largely a white community until the 1970s when black shopkeepers moved in. Today the village area is known as a hub of black culture and arts, even drawing some comparisons to New York’s Greenwich Village.

The Leimert Plaza Park on West 43rd Place plays host to concerts and gatherings throughout the year. Despite the area’s history as a hotbed of cultural arts and activism, shop owners today say their customers are still typical Angelinos. The neighborhood remains a black middle class community of small stucco homes.

“Our customers are average working people. They are teachers, bus drivers, they have average working jobs, but their wages are lower,” Ryan says. With less discretionary income, shoppers have held back on big spending so far this year.

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At Gallery Plus, a store filled with a jumble of stationary, clothing and artwork, owner Laura Hendrix says she has resisted offering deep discounts across the board.

She says she looks for ways to work with individual customers, coming up with “incentives” to keep them coming back to the store. In some cases, she has even agreed to barter for other services.

“My hairdresser loves this place,” she says.

The shop has been in the village for 18 years and Hendrix explained her strategy lies in careful planning and management of the store’s inventory.

“I try to carry items that last throughout the year,” she says. “Otherwise you get stuck with them at the end of the season.”

She is selective with the holiday merchandise she does carry—opting for higher quality note cards and Christmas ornaments and hoping there are not too many leftovers.

However, the opposite seems to be true with Obama paraphernalia. Baskets overflow with Obama buttons and shirts hang from all parts of the store.

“There’s a focus on African American products with Obama,” Hendrix says She believes there is a stronger interest in African culture and many people want to reconnect with their roots.

However, that focus has not translated into strong sales at the more expensive Kumasi Gift Shop.

“We can’t even make $100 a day,” says Patricia Sarpong, who is originally from Zimbabwe and has run the shop with her husband for the past five years.

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The shop carries ornate African artwork and instruments, along with a variety of traditional clothing. However, shoppers have not been snapping up items like $500 hand drums.

“They want small, small items,” Sarpong says, noting that the $10 to $20 gifts have been selling the best.

The store is currently holding a 50 percent off sale in an effort to generate enough cash to at least cover rent. However, foot traffic in the shop remains light.

But Sarpong has her eye not just on the Obama inauguration, but on February’s Black History Month. She said interest in genuine African products typically peaks then.

For now though, it is people’s pocketbooks holding them back. “You can tell, they like the things, but they don’t have the money,” she says. “Of course you can say ‘50 percent off,’ but they still struggle.”

Sarpong says she is hopeful that stimulus plans under Obama will infuse enough cash into shoppers who will then go for the high-end items.

At the Bazaar, Ryan says the key to her survival lies in the reliability of her shoppers. “They are conscientious buyers,” she says, explaining that shoppers know that they are supporting a local business.

“They are people who come here to shop and they come here to buy,” she adds. “People tell us what they want and we have to listen to them.” She says customers even start calling in October asking about Christmas cards for the season.

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The shop boasts an assortment of knickknacks, incense, board games and clothing. But the small stores cannot carry everything. A man walked in looking for basketball jerseys. He was told to check out the Culver City Mall instead.

Word of mouth remains the most powerful advertising tool, she says. Women from the neighborhood stop by to catch up on a book club or chat about old friends.

But the year has its ups and downs, Ryan says. “To me, the holiday season is kaleidoscopic.” There is a churn that she must stay on top of.

The neighborhood has also been rough. Ryan complains that the city has done little to help the homeless and mentally ill in the village, and their loitering hurts the shopping experience. Rent has also outpaced the store’s growth. Ryan says her rent has ballooned from $500 to $2200 a month, and the village does not enjoy the rent control or government subsidies seen in other districts.

Ryan and Hendrix are both involved with the Leimert Park Merchants Association, and say the city does help by organizing tours of city workers to come shop in the district. The history of the park remains a big draw for shoppers.

For now, Ryan says she has no immediate plans to leave. “It’s amazing that we’ve been able to maintain our store as long as we have,” she says.