BLK MKT Vintage is preserving black memory and meaning through antiques

The Bed-Stuy business is part nostalgia shop, part community space.

February 6, 2020 Michael Stahl
BLK MKT Vintage
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Old-timey TVs and clock radios. Upholstered furniture with perfect proportions of weather and charm. Classic novels and out-of-print magazine covers that read, “The Jeffersons Family: New Black TV Show Joins The Ranks!” These are just some of the items scattered about the showroom floor inside BLK MKT Vintage, a recently opened corner antique store on Marcus Garvey Boulevard in Bedford-Stuyvesant. 

Owned and operated by a couple with Brooklyn roots, the 900-square-foot BLK MKT Vintage combines commerce with community space, and is part of a greater push to ensure small business sustainability in the borough, especially for local, minority entrepreneurs.

“Gentrification has definitely taken its toll,” said Kiyanna Stewart, who co-owns and co-curates the shop with her business and life partner Jannah Handy. “We needed black kids to see that there could be a space devoted to antiquity that looked exactly like them.”

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Antiquing and thrifting has been a part of Stewart’s life since she was a little girl, growing up in East Flatbush half a block away from Handy, though the couple didn’t meet until their 20s. Stewart’s mother frequently took her to flea markets, thrift stores and antique shops, hiding the hobby as best she could from Stewart’s father, who just couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of buying someone else’s aging stuff. 

Stewart moved to New Jersey to attend Rutgers University, and stuck around the school after graduation to work as a co-adjunct professor and an assistant director at a black cultural center. She met Handy, who also became a co-adjunct after spending some time in investment banking, at a social justice training session. 

It wasn’t long into their relationship before Stewart began taking Handy out on antiquing and thrifting excursions. In mid-2014, the pair began rehabbing and re-selling their purchases at weekend flea markets, including in Brooklyn.

“It felt like we were definitely [filling] a void or a need,” Stewart, now 30, said. “We were not seeing black folks in the industry, in the space, on either side — as the customers at these flea markets [or] on the sellers’ end as well.”

By November 2014, Stewart and Handy, 33, had incorporated BLK MKT Vintage and opened an online store.

“Once we decided to scale and grow, we were able to … fine tune everything we were doing,” Handy said. “Not just how it looked on the front end — or the customer-client experience — but also what we were doing on the back end.”

BLK MKT Vintage
Shoppers peruse vintage goods at BLK MKT Vintage. Photo courtesy BLK MKT Vintage

While holding on to their full time jobs, Stewart and Handy, who now live together in New Jersey, also spent long hours filling BLK MKT Vintage orders and further promoting the business. (The store now boasts over 102,000 Instagram followers.) Though they were aware brick-and-mortar retail outlets were closing at a rapid pace, due mostly to the online shopping boom, they strived to open a storefront of their own in Brooklyn, regardless of the financial risk or the eventual commute across both the Hudson and the East rivers.

“We just needed to be able to interface with folks in person,” Stewart said. “Also, being from Brooklyn, I think that there’s a need [for spaces like it] in communities that are changing rapidly.”

On Small Business Saturday this past November, their goal came to fruition. They’d left their Rutgers jobs, and, after raising nearly $24,000 with an Indie-Go-Go campaign, piecing together savings of their own and attracting another private investor, the BLK MKT Vintage store opened for business. 

The months since have been “a whirlwind,” Stewart said, but she and Handy have enjoyed the store’s warm reception. Handy said some visitors have scoured their offerings for hours at a time, leaving to grab coffee and then returning for additional browsing. Customers have expressed glee over the space, and Stewart and Handy say outings to the store have been organized by various interest groups and companies. 

According to the entrepreneurs, business is good enough that they’re now seeking their first employee. They’re ramping up event programming as well, including a fundraiser for historically black colleges and universities on Feb. 23, which they hope will get more people through the front door for the first time. 

The success of BLK MKT Vintage and other ventures like it fronted by people of color in Brooklyn is a welcome sight for Robert Cornegy, Jr., the City Councilmember who represents the district. Cornegy told the Eagle that he feels compelled to help the proprietors of BLK MKT Vintage in any way he can because the store “marries a lot of ideals that I have.”

“The appropriation of artifacts of African descent … should be controlled by the very hands that produce [them],” Cornegy said. “I can’t tell you how frikkin’ excited I am.” 

BLK MKT Vintage
Antique memorabilia for sale at the shop. Photo: Michael Stahl

Cornegy is jazzed not only about BLK MKT Vintage’s opening, but also the apparent increase in minority owned businesses across the borough. 

Neither the mayor’s office, the Department of Small Business Services, nor the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce keep data on the number of black-owned businesses in the borough, according to a recent New York Times article on the topic. The city does, however, keep data that indicates a recent increase in Brooklyn-based, city-certified black contractors, according to the Mayor’s Office of Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises. The number of such contractors, in industries ranging from construction and capital work, to designing and catering, leapt from 295 to 319 between 2015 and 2017. 

Cynthia and Tayo Giwa, the pair behind the website Black-Owned Brooklyn, which maps black-owned businesses in the borough, told the Eagle in an email that they can’t be sure how many new black-owned businesses have sprung up of late either.

“Anecdotally, we can say that we started the project after noticing an abundance of black-owned businesses across Brooklyn in recent years and finding that most of them had not been written about in a substantive way (if at all),” they wrote.

In September, the Department of Small Business services launched “Be NYC,” an initiative to help grow black entrepreneurship in the city. A press release for the program revealed only 2 percent of businesses in New York City are black-owned, despite black people comprising over 20 percent of the city population. 

That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a relative growth spurt, however. Cornegy told the Eagle that last summer alone he “cut the ribbon on at least 12 black-owned businesses in the Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights area.” He said, “I think there is an absolute resurgence” in black-owned entrepreneurship in Brooklyn, and added that, in spite of the borough’s changing demographics, he believes there remains a “need for authenticity in communities” that has a “market value.” 

A number of black entrepreneurs have been able to benefit from that shift, through circumstances he called “ironic,” because “while we’re under this huge crunch of gentrification … there are all of these black entrepreneurs who are taking this plunge.”

“People are moving here to experience what the integrity of the community has been,” Cornegy continued. “The value in African and African American artifacts and art is arguably at an all-time high.” 

Handy and Stewart told the Eagle they’ve observed an uptick in black-owned businesses, and those owned by black women as well, in the area. They cited the clothing store Indigo Style Vintage as one of many such businesses near their store that have opened within the past year or two, which have encouraged the pair by proxy, and are sure to have an impact on the budding entrepreneurs of the future.

“That spirit is still there,” Stewart said about the business-minded dreamers within her community.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Handy added. “In a decade, in two decades, the kids who are walking around these spaces and seeing these black-owned businesses … who knows what inspiration may come from that?”

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