4W Circle of Art & Enterprise: Retailing in the spirit of a tradition more than a century old

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Selma Jackson, proprietor of 4W Circle of Art and Enterprise in Brooklyn, N.Y., has survived the ever-changing face of the retail industry for 13 years by focusing on a niche market: the Afrocentric shopper, primarily the 35-year-old female who “doesn’t get caught up in name brands and body-conscious clothing.” With cultural celebrations, art exhibitions, fashion shows, book and CD signings, and workshops, plus a unique selection of specialty gift items, art and clothing, she has maintained a loyal clientele.

“We wanted to provide a warm and inviting space to showcase the art of the African Diaspora and work with the community,” Jackson says.

4W is part of a fashionable shopping enclave on Fulton Street between South Oxford and Flatbush Avenue known as Bogolan, a West African term meaning “the graceful interweaving of the threads of the mudcloth.” The term alludes to the Black entrepreneurs from the United States, the Caribbean and Africa who created the shopping district in the spirit of a tradition that started in 1827 after the abolition of slavery in New York. At that time, “Breuklen” was the county’s largest township, with Fort Green home to the biggest population of freemen, who launched businesses in record numbers, particularly in the Bogolan area.

Jackson’s inspiration for 4W came after a 1991 trip to West Africa and a subsequent trip, with a friend, to the slave markets of North Carolina. Returning to New York, the two set about finding a location, with two other colleagues, that would house four individual stores showcasing the art of the African Diaspora. Between them they had more than 75 years’ experience in marketing and management. But their lack of retail know-how eventually forced them to offer their location to entrepreneurs seeking more viable and affordable commercial space.

Under the theme “Women, Working & Winning for the World,” and in honor of women’s history month, the four opened for business on March 16, 1993.

Sole ownership of 4W passed to Jackson in 2002. Jackson says she attends the International Gift Show in New York and the International Black Buyers Marketing and Expo Conference (IBBMEC) in Washington, D.C., each year to find new items and vendors. This year, she’s hunting for items that will appeal to men and help increase the number of male clients.

Obtaining adequate financing from the banks she patronizes is a major obstacle to expansion, but Jackson says she is hoping for better results elsewhere. Her expansion strategy calls for more special events and workshops, partnering with other organizations, restructuring 4W and buying a building, a move she regrets not making from the beginning. 

One of only a handful of retail cooperatives in the city, 4W has “incubated” nearly 150 businesses, many of which have branched out to retail spaces of their own, Jackson says. Jackson is now turning to entrepreneurs who see 4W as a place of learning and who are aware of the going market rates in the retail industry. “Profitability is a goal we wanted to achieve but find challenging, because we offer services at below market rates to those who lack adequate resources,” she says. Today, this concept of Afrocentric retailing can be seen in businesses such as The Brownstone in Harlem as well as the Zawadi Gift Shop and the Atlantic mini-mall in Brooklyn.