IN A WAREHOUSE OFF LEE STREET, Aiyetoro Kamau labels tubs of shea butter and places them into empty cardboard boxes. His eyes dart back and forth as he carefully checks the contents against each invoice, and then seals the boxes with packaging tape. Next, he fills a postal envelope with different varieties of black soap before he tucks in the invoice, seals the package shut, and smooths out the shipping label.
Every shipped package validates Kamau’s decision to keep his business, Afrikan Djeli, in West End, home to his most loyal customer base.
Because of the pandemic, his all-natural black soaps have become a hot seller, as have his shea and cocoa butter products, which moisturize hands chapped from frequent washing. So much so that he’s pivoted away from in-person retail to online wholesale and developed a supply chain that places his soap brand, Erzuli (Great Earth Mother), in both small co-ops like Little Five Points’ Sevananda to larger grocery chains like Whole Foods.
Checkered amid the neat stacks of his warehouse’s packaged products are large boxes that will, for now, remain empty. They aren’t for shipping. They’re in case he has to move again.
Kamau’s move to the Lee Street warehouse marked his third location in the neighborhood after being displaced by other property owners near West End Mall, a shopping center that, during its inception in the 1970s, spurred thriving economic opportunity for Black business owners during the era of white flight. Past moves forced Kamau to pare down the offerings of Afrikan Djeli, which started out in the 1990s as a vibrant arts and culture center and import shop in a two-story converted theater on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard.
Whether Kamau can put those moving boxes away likely will be determined not by his own products’ success, but by the eventual redevelopment of the mall site one mile away. An ambitious plan to transform West End Mall into offices, hotels, retail, and housing—with inclusion, affordability and preservation of current businesses as key pillars of the vision—recently stalled, as COVID-19 threatened their funding. As part of the plan, the developers sought to build affordable housing units in a neighborhood with rising costs of living and would pour in new tax dollars that eventually would fund initiatives led by the area’s community improvement district.
For Kamau, the mall’s unstable future will determine whether he can remain a part of a neighborhood defined by the economic opportunities offered to Black business owners.