African American Arts

by Tonya Dixon | February 10th, 2011
African American Art

Jackie White and Eresterine Parker Guidry of African American Arts

When Jackie White was young she recalls visiting a store in Four Seasons Town Centre in Greensboro, N.C. She vividly remembers seeing a print by Joseph Holston titled, “Merry Go Round.” It was a print of some black children riding a merry-go-round. She instantly fell in love with the picture and wanted it for her bedroom.

Despite her desperation, her mother Eresterine Parker Guidry, told her to wait and she would return for the print later. Unfortunately when her mother returned to purchase the print for her daughter’s birthday she could not find it, in fact the entire store where the two first saw the artwork was completely gone.

After searching high and low for the picture, they finally located it in Baltimore, Md. Guidry realized she couldn’t be the only person in Greensboro looking for African American art. Understanding the law of supply and demand, she decided
to start her own business selling black art. The business began with a simple red three-ring binder that contained samples of various art prints. She held art showings and once she had secured enough orders she would place her order. The simple idea and three-ring binder would soon come to be known as African American Art.

Guidry started out in a small rented space on High Point Road that was opened by appointment only. In the summer of 1990, she had a new vision which led to her being the first African American owned business
to open in the Four Seasons Town Center for the coming Christmas season. It has been 22 years and African American Art is still in business, still located on the second floor of Four Seasons Town Centre and still North Carolina’s number one source for all things of African American interest.

“Creating a brand with the sustainability of the African American Art name started with a love for black art over 20 years ago,” says White. “My mother wanted consumers to know exactly what she sold when they saw her store. Today, the name ‘African American Art’ is a misnomer because we have had to restructure and bring new items into our product mix. Quality however has not changed.” Consequently, the store strives to stock as many quality, affordable items that African Americans want but may be difficult to find. The store provides a unique gift shop experience.

Although African American Art still carries fine artwork from legendary black artists such as the late Ernie Barnes (best known for his print “Sugar Shack” that was featured in the 1970s sitcom “Good Times), the store has expanded its inventory to include, among other items, black figurines, Greek, Mason and OES paraphernalia, jewelry, books, incense, black soaps, raw shea butter, greeting cards, rasta and most recently natural hair care brands such as: Miss Jessie’s Original, Kinky-Curly, Mixed Chicks, Uncle Funky’s Daughter, Jane Carter, Oyin Handmade and many more. Customers come from all over, many purchasing several at one time just for the specialized hair products.

African American Art also has an extensive assortment of President Barack Obama collectibles. The changes the business has made in no way indicate a decline in business, on the contrary, African American Art has learned to listen and be sensitive to the needs of its patrons. “Giving you more of what you want,” the shop’s slogan is more than just a motto it symbolizes their absolute commitment to customers.

It is almost inconceivable to find a local shop that caters solely to the needs, wants and interests of the African American culture. Often mainstream retailers have not felt it necessary or lucrative to meet the needs of the African American consumer, but the philosophy of African American Art will always be to meet the needs of African Americans.

“We do ‘little things’ that wow our customers and make them want to return to our business. This type of personalized service lets customers know that we value and appreciate their business,” says White. “We would rather sell you something for $12.99 that you only purchase once a month than sell you something that cost $50, that you take home, and do not like and then never return to the store.”

Investing in the African American experience is par for the course for the store. Guidry and White are intensely committed to the customer. Their dedication and years of providing for the community proves to the naysayers that the business is here to stay. “Many companies jumped on the ‘black’ bandwagon in the ‘90s (when black art and culture was popularized), but in 2011 it is hard to find suppliers that manufacture items that we specialize in,” says White. “But we try to remain true to our business model which is to supply affordable gift items that represent images that look like us.”

Yes the specialized shop caters to the African American consumer but anyone is welcome to patronize the store. During the 2008 presidential election, the store became a self-proclaimed Barack Obama central station. Guidry and White noticed other ethnicities began to patronize as well as African Americans.

“We laugh because we had more white people shop with us in 2008 than we had in the previous 19 years combined,” says White. The store received widespread attention from several media outlets because of the wide selection of Obama novelties they carried. It is moments like the 2008 election that are most memorable to Guidry and White. They’ve had the pleasure of meeting many celebrities over the years including Michael Baisden, Vicki Winans, Flavor Flav, Anthony Hamilton, Ed Gordon and many more. Many customers have even met their spouses (including Guidry who met her husband, Floyd Guidry) within the store.

The consistency and stability of African American Art certainly has something to do with the store’s ability to stay afloat during tough economic times. Nevertheless, White and Guidry say they have had to endure many challenges, work extra hard and even downsize to just the flagship store, just to remain in business.

“Retail has many challenges. We sell items that are wants instead of needs. We experienced a decline in black art sales in the late ‘90s due to the bootleggers making pictures without the artist getting any rewards,” says White. “Consequently, many artists stopped painting and went to work in other industries. We constantly have to find suppliers who allow us to purchase items that will compete in the larger market in which customers shop today such as big box retailers and the internet.” White admits if an item comes in and sits then it is time for it to go.

Guidry and White are also very financially cautious. They haven’t been in business for over 20 years without learning a few things about being financially savvy and being able to maintain and even increase profit. “My mother also watches every penny,” says white, amusingly. “My nickname for her is Penny.” However, there are just some challenges that White says are simply out of their control. She remembers the year the mall was under construction. “Business was horrible in Four Seasons that year (1998) due to the construction. We also had another test during Christmas 2002 when the weather was bad. We have weathered the storms though, good or bad,” says White. “We try to remain prayed up and we know that God is in control of this business.”

The mother and daughter team are undeterred by the bumps in the road. They continue to be inspired by their desire to meet the needs of every customer. They remain encouraged by a flow of steady customers, but it’s the simple moments that make it all worthwhile. It’s the stories White tells of watching two children in the store with their grandmother marvel at a black history calendar showcasing prominent African American women such as First Lady Michelle Obama, Dr. Dorothy Height, Shirley Chisholm and many more. “When we see people young and old come in our store with a new found love for being black that is what keeps us going,” says White. “If the big box retailers don’t want to sell Princess Tiana or Iridessa (Tinkerbelle’s black fairy friend) we will gladly sell them with pride.”

Guidry and White love being in business and the freedom that comes along with it, but they stress there is an even greater responsibility that follows. As owners they must be prepared to feel in the gaps when something goes wrong or employees don’t show up. There are certain restrictions and governmental guidelines that have to be adhered to. White admonishes anyone looking to follow in their footsteps to get up early, get educated, read, research, learn everything from those that came before, multitask and the three “P’s,” pay your taxes, put your trust in very few and PRAY. Nevertheless, there is very little the two would change about their journey. They simply say to remember adversity can only make you stronger.

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