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  • Cameron Morsberger

Black-Owned Small Businesses in Boston Find Ways to Persevere through Pandemic

Suffolk County is home to over 40,000 small businesses. From Allston and Mission Hill to Roxbury and beyond, Boston is a hub for local startups and entrepreneurial ventures.

Of those 40,000 Boston restaurants, clothing stores, bookshops, and more, nearly half have disappeared since January of last year, according to data from Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker.

Black-owned businesses compose only a fraction of that total — about 335 exist in the city, according to a list published by the Mayor’s Office last month — yet they have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Forty-one percent of the country’s Black small businesses had shut down by last April, meaning they were twice as likely than white businesses to go under, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

In a city defined by its minority populations and communities, Black owners expressed the ways in which the pandemic has changed their businesses — for better or worse.

At Rhythm 'n Wraps, an Allston-based “mom and pop” comfort-vegan restaurant, restrictions imposed since last March forced business to adapt, said co-owner Niles Cohen. Without indoor seating, they relied on outdoor seating for in-person dining, which became impractical when the winter set in.

Without other options, Cohen said Rhythm 'n Wraps became a majority-takeout enterprise.

“There definitely was more of a focus on takeout as a result of the pandemic, and I don't think that'll change,” he said. “I think that'll continue or, if not continue, grow to be even more based on that.”

While businesses have slowed or shut down elsewhere, Rhythm 'n Wraps is still operating as usual and is even looking to expand. Cohen said the restaurant will be hiring more staff, adding to the menu and bolstering their social media presence.

When it comes to online engagement, fans of the restaurant have been showing their support to garner more business — an effort that Cohen said has helped immensely.

“If we didn't get all the support from our customers,” he said, “we probably wouldn't still be around.”

Social media has driven much of Esohe Amadin’s business, Mission Hill-based trendy loungewear boutique Essence by Esohe, as well. Amadin orders, models, photographs, posts and ships all of her clothing through her Instagram, TikTok and professional website.

But the past year has greatly shifted that commitment. Amadin works primarily as a flight attendant for JetBlue, but after being forced to take a leave of absence at the start of the pandemic, she now works on the online boutique full-time. As a result, she said her sales have actually improved.

“[Sales] increased only because I put in more work because I had nothing else to do,” Amadin said. “Some weeks are slower than others, but I’ve definitely been open the whole time.”

While fulfilling his responsibilities at Rhythm n’ Wraps, Cohen also makes money as a filmmaker. Since graduating from Wheaton College in May of 2020, he said this side hustle has helped him save up some “extra spending money” by being creative outside of the restaurant.

POC communities have been hit the hardest by the economic downturn resulting from the pandemic. Just twenty-seven percent of Black Americans reported having “rainy day funds” in the event of an emergency, according to the Pew Research Center.

In Boston, Black residents have, on average, $700 in assets and a net worth of $8, leaving little room for emergency funds or security. Unemployment across Massachusetts steadily increased last summer, eventually reaching 16 percent in July — then the highest rate in the country.

The Massachusetts’ state legislature recently passed a $626.5 million economic development bill, with $35 million devoted to small business aid that will prioritize businesses owned by women and minorities. In December, Gov. Charlie Baker launched a $668 million relief initiative for the state’s small businesses, which could also aid Black and POC businesses faltering as a result of COVID-19.

That relief may help, but the next few months will likely still require businesses and its owners to invest in personal protective equipment and adhere to COVID-19 protocol. For Amadin, who works alone and operates out of her home, many of the social distancing guidelines and capacity limits in store don’t apply. While she is still taking precautions, such as frequent sanitization and mask wearing, other consequences of the pandemic have impacted her operations.

Besides adhering to those safety guidelines — which she said become somewhat “tedious” — Amadin makes daily trips to the U.S. Postal Service office to ship out orders and said there have been extended delays in deliveries.

“A lot of post offices, the shipping center, have been closing down or delayed because their staff are getting COVID,” she said.

For brick-and-mortar stores, those pandemic restrictions have been more tangible. Clarrissa and Leonard Egerton’s Frugal Bookstore in Roxbury — the only bookstore in the neighborhood and only Black-owned bookstore in Boston — has been able to stay open with online sales.

Frugal Bookstore took an initial hit in March, but Clarrissa Egerton said sales were picking back up as a result of in-store shopping once businesses were open again. However, when May rolled around, she and her husband were driven to create a GoFundMe for additional support.

“We weren't doing the business like we were,” Egerton said. “People, they were so used to coming to the store that they didn't realize that we had a website.”

Things changed for the Egertons last summer, as the rise in Black Lives Matter protests and discussions on racial injustice motivated customers to support Frugal Bookstores and purchase books on anti-racism and Black history. Despite warehouse slowdowns and supply shorts as a result of the sudden increased demand, Frugal Bookstore has since been on a steady sales track.

“We're just fortunate we're blessed and we're very thankful for customers,” Egerton said.

The store is partnering with a number of local institutions, including Emerson College’s On The Same Page Boston, where students support Boston Public schools by expanding their libraries to include more inclusive books. For this semester’s campaign, which will fund book additions at Excel High School, Frugal Bookstore will source all of the books on the registry.

On its own, the bookshop has become a staple in its neighborhood since it opened at its current location almost five years ago, with frequent repeat and multi-generational customers — who Egerton calls her “Frugal family.”

Their patronage and loyalty has made all the difference, Egerton said.

“It's almost like ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name,” she said. “A local bookstore, independent bookstore, in your community goes a long way.”


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