Gigi Berry is not one to mince her words. For three years, she has designed and sold colorful and snarky enamel pins emblazoned with messages of the Minneapolis sound, Simpsons references, gay pride declarations and the occasional pop-music lyric.
But her most recent creation, though simple in design, might be her most outspoken yet — a black glitter background in the shape of Minnesota with “Black Lives Matter” in raised gold lettering.
Berry, who is black, has seen a surge in demand for her pins in the month since the killing of George Floyd, a black man whose death while in police custody has led to the firing and charging of four Minneapolis police officers and global demonstrations on racial equality.
Other Twin Cities black retailers also say their sales have soared as race-conscious consumers have rushed to show support for black-owned businesses through the “Buy Black” movement.
But while black retailers have voiced their gratitude, some are having trouble keeping up with demand, especially as their businesses recover from disruptions because of coronavirus shutdowns. Some also wonder how they should respond to possibly fleeting consumer interest spurred by tragedy.
“It’s the most traffic I’ve had since the beginning of (the pandemic),” said Berry, whose physical store has been closed since mid-March because of the threat of the coronavirus pushing her to an online business. “It sucks that it had to be because of this.”
Gigi’s Flair Emporium is in the same south Minneapolis area of Powderhorn where Floyd was pinned down for nearly eight minutes before he died. Currently, she has close to 900 orders to fulfill as she awaits shipments from her overseas manufacturer, which has been delayed because of the spread of the coronavirus.
Normally, Berry ships about 100 pins herself a week. Now, her pins are available for pre-order as she works to keep up with demand.
Earlier this month, Berry decided to create two types of Black Lives Matter pins as customers were asking for them and she wanted to give local acknowledgment to the movement.
Berry is donating 20% of sales of another pin that says “Home of the Revolution” to the Black Visions Collective, a Minnesota-based organization whose vision through collaboration is “to expand the power of black people across the Twin Cities metro area and Minnesota.”
Still, despite her efforts to help, Berry said she had mixed feelings of disgust and guilt about how interest spiked due to Floyd’s death.
“It’s not lost on me that I only got these sales because of the murder,” she said.
It has been challenging for her to keep up with all the orders, but she said she’s grateful because it’s her only source of income.
Alfonso “Fonzie” Mayfield, owner of Twin Cities-based Allure Cigars, has seen on social media that there has been more support of black-owned businesses with homegrown lists of minority retailers being shared.
“There’s this call for justice and also there’s this call for we have to keep our dollars in our black community,” he said.
This June has been the best month he has seen in sales since he started the company in 2018, Mayfield said. The cigar business is a hard industry to break into because customers have fierce brand loyalty to the cigars they smoke, Mayfield said.
It’s also not very diverse, he said.
“You go into cigar lounges and you don’t feel welcomed,” Mayfield said. “Oftentimes, I wasn’t taken seriously. It’s not filled with us (black people).”
Mayfield, who originally just rolled cigars himself, added other cigar rollers earlier this year to help with production. The move has helped the company keep up with new sales.
Houston White, owner of barbershop and apparel store H. White Men’s Room, said his online store has really taken off in recent weeks, particularly the sale of his “Black Excellence” merchandise.
“I believe it can be sustained,” White said. “It’s up to our black-owned businesses to be ready for this spike in demand. I believe that it can. Will it? I guess we will see.”
A recent survey of minority-owned and other disadvantaged businesses by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that those businesses had been negatively hurt by COVID-19 like others but a bit more severely. More than 55% of minority-owned businesses said that if the current economic conditions continued, they would go out of business in the next six months.
National research has also shown that minority business owners are less likely to have a banking relationship, limiting their access to capital.
Anna Schmiel, community engagement coordinator for Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON), said that many of the small, minority-owned businesses that her organization serves have been concentrating more on getting COVID relief business loans and grants than self-promotion. Many small businesses also are not set up to handle sudden influxes of sales, with many not having robust online platforms.
“A lot of these businesses haven’t been able to structure the proper way for that money to be funneled into their businesses,” she said.
NEON, in coordination with the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition, still plans to host later this year Black Friday on Broadway, a multiday shopping event encouraging people to buy from black-owned businesses.
Last year, the city for the first time hosted the Minneapolis Black Business Week and plans hold the event again this year with dates to be announced soon.
Berry, who said she was recently rejected for a Small Business Administration loan, said she hopes consumer interest in black-owned businesses remains strong for the long-term.
“I just really hope that they keep this same energy,” she said. “We add a lot of culture to Minnesota as a whole.”
(Article written by Nicole Norfleet)