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I really didn’t appreciate how absurd it must feel to be a small business owner right now until I spoke to Eric Williams. He owns a boutique on the South Side of Chicago, a city that has been slowly, week by week, shutting itself down—going into a kind of coronavirus hibernation. Williams’ store, the Silver Room, sells books, sunglasses, bags, and jewelry, and it recently got a very special visit from Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who was encouraging city residents to shop at Black-owned businesses the day after Thanksgiving—in spite of COVID. She’s calling the effort “Black Shop Friday.”
All over the country, mayors like Lightfoot are doing this funny two-step: telling citizens to stay home and advising them to restrict travel but also urging them to go outside just enough to keep stores like Williams’ going, especially around the holidays. Williams says that good people can disagree about the right thing to do about the coronavirus right now. Sometimes he disagrees with himself. But what no one can disagree with is the calendar. He has five weeks left to keep his business in the black. And this year won’t look like any that have come before. “We usually do anywhere between 20 to 30 percent of our business in the 30 days before Christmas,” he said. “So, it’s crucial. It’s a very critical time. Because you had a horrible year and you have these 30 days to redeem yourself between now and Christmas.”
On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Williams about how the coronavirus turned small businesses like his upside down and how he’s found opportunity amid the crisis. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Tell us about your store, the Silver Room.
Eric Williams: When I opened up the space, I didn’t want to just be a space that was just retail. It could be a place for activism, a place to do good for society. This idea of being a capitalist doesn’t have to be a bad thing, you know? Inherently, it’s a retail store, but it’s also a cultural place. Sometimes it’s a place for fashion shows. We have had book discussions there. We’ve had art openings. We have turntables in the store. Folks come in and vent like it’s a bar sometimes. I remember the other day I was in a store and a customer I’ve known for 23 years comes in and I say, “How are you doing?” And I knew the weight of the world was weighing on her between everything that’s going on.
I put on the theme song from Annie and let it play. And so she started singing the song, and she just started dancing. And all the customers started singing, “Tomorrow is only a day away,” and everybody was clapping. So that was just a moment that I see this is what the space can do. And she’s like, thank you so much. I needed that. And she walked out, didn’t buy anything, but I know that’s the moment that she’ll never forget. So for me, that’s what I want to do with this space is to bring joy to people.
You sound like the kind of guy who has business plans.
I do, but I always keep things pretty organic and fluid, so I don’t really get too upset when things don’t really go the way I plan. Of course, no one planned on COVID.
When the first wave of COVID struck in Chicago, what did that mean for your business?
Like most people, I had no idea how long it would last. I didn’t know it was going to be this long, obviously. So I thought maybe this will last two weeks, four weeks. But very quickly, I realize this is going to be a lot longer. So rather than just kind of sitting around, I actually did a remodel on my store.
Something you might not have had time for otherwise.
I would never have had time for, for sure, because to close your store in the middle of the summer, that just can’t happen.
I’m wondering when you began to feel financial pressure around COIVD creep into your business.
It was several points. I had just spent a bunch of money trying to order stuff for the store. And obviously, if I had known that, I wouldn’t have ordered all the stuff. I’m like, OK, this is tens of thousands of dollars that I probably could have just held onto. And then once I realized I had to furlough everybody—a lot of these folks, they’re young, they’re artists, and they’re not making tons of money anyway. To know that they were going to not make any money, was the toughest part for me.
It must have been so hard to go to that store and just have, like, boxes of stuff, but then have to say to folks, I’m sorry, I can’t pay you for a little while.
And then not knowing how long that would be. Luckily the employees, they all understood. But it was a tough time. Personally, trying to navigate the applications—I did get PPP, which was actually very helpful. And I was actually lucky to have a university be my landlord. So they actually forgave my rent for three months, which was great. So I actually was able to kind of just make it through.
You also transitioned her business online.
I would say equally important, it was about being a resource for the community.
So what did that mean? Like what did you put on there that wouldn’t be on like a typical store site like Amazon.
Keeping people’s spirits up, posting comedians and funny jokes and memes. Being a resource. A lot of our folks in our community are self-employed and they’re artists. So just links of where you can apply for grants, food banks. Just any kind of resource that people who are out of work were looking for. Mental health facilities. And we started this weekly check-in with everybody—a Zoom call check in. We just go online and anybody who wants to come on can.
Anyone in the community.
Yeah, you can come on and see how you’re feeling, say what’s bothering you and how are you holding up and just all those things. And people just really, really appreciated that.
What are those meetups like?
Emotional. When you see people say, “Thank you. I haven’t had any contact. Just to be able to share my story about how I’m out of work and I can’t face my family knowing that I don’t have money to pay for food next week.” A woman went on and said that she didn’t have any money and she couldn’t pay for food for her daughter, and from that, folks on the Zoom call donated money to her, and she wasn’t even asking for money.
You’re so glass half full. But I wonder if you ever get frustrated with the fact that you, a community business owner, are arranging the place where that woman who can’t feed her kids is getting some relief.
I don’t honestly. I feel grateful that we have a platform to help out the people honestly, so it’s not really frustration. I’m happy that comes from this retail space that could just be a regular retail space. I don’t have to do any other stuff. Yes, I mean, the dynamics of a system that doesn’t work for a lot of people, that’s a whole ’nother conversation. But I think for me, it’s important to talk to people, especially in our community, and say, You know what, we can’t always change the system, overnight especially. Here’s what I can do. This retail store can be this one thing. What can you do? How can we work together? So that’s kind of like the way I look at things.
Some people say there are two pandemics happening in America right now. One’s a virus, and the other expresses itself in periodic viral videos of Black people being killed by police. This summer, the heartbreak over George Floyd’s death hit your community hard, but the outrage also quickly transformed into widespread recognition that patronizing businesses like yours might be one form of resistance to racism, right?
I think that intersection is what actually in some ways helped us. It was a very emotional summer as you know. So the reaction to the George Floyd murder, there was looting around the city, around the country, actually. We opened up two weeks later, so when we opened it, things had kind of died down a little bit and everyone came in the store was like, We’re so glad that you didn’t get looted. We’re so glad you’re here. We need you. And people will come in the store and say, “Is this a Black-owned store?” They started buying stuff, and our online store did really well because we were linked to by so many different buy-Black initiatives. And not just Black folk, all folks were supporting Black businesses. And I was so happily shocked that people understood this connection between economics and our culture and everything else that goes along with violence and the educational system, and folks were actually making that connection, I think in a way they hadn’t before. So when we reopened, we were busy, like, nonstop. We still are busy, honestly.
You have such an interesting perspective. You’re a small-business owner who clearly saw the looting and was like, Oh, please, please, not my store, but at the same time, it sounds like to me you’re very much invested in Black Lives Matter and everything that sort of went around with the protests. So I wonder if you can talk about that a little bit.
We’ve definitely become more of an activist space for a lot of people. A lot of my employees are younger. And so, yeah, I do understand the response to the George Floyd murder. With a lot of the violence to property, especially on the South Side, a lot of my friends were like, Burn it down. We don’t own it. I say, OK, yeah, we don’t own this Walgreen’s. But your grandmother has some medical issues. She used to go to this Walgreens to get her medication. Now, she can’t do that the next day after the looting. So I think about the stories, not just what happens, but what happens to people’s lives after this happens. And that’s what’s more important to me. And it’s complicated.
And I wonder if you worry, too, that the Black-owned businesses in your community might be disproportionately affected by whatever happens by any property damage that goes down.
Of course. Black and brown folks and folks that don’t have money are always going to be disproportionately affected by anything that happens. So I read somewhere they said up to half of Black-owned businesses won’t survive the next six months. Between COVID, between the looting. I know a woman she got COVID, so she had shut down. Then she got looted, and then she opened up. She got looted again. She opened up, and then she shut down because of COVID again. That’s almost impossible to survive. And when you live in a community that we don’t have extensive resources anyway, we can’t necessarily get bank loans or don’t have an aunt or uncle who can loan us $200,000 just make it through the summer. If you don’t have that, there’s just no way. And as you know, one thing leaves, two things leave, it’s like an avalanche of businesses just being decimated. There’s commercial corridors in Chicago— 73rd Street, parts of Englewood—that never recovered from the uprisings of the ’60s and ’70s to this day still.
I feel like the people in your city, the mayor and then also the governor, they’re concerned about what’s about to happen in Chicago. The mayor specifically said, Please just stay in your house basically for 30 days. Do not travel for Thanksgiving. If you could somehow keep paying your employees and keep your store open online—basically, shut your business down—do you feel like you would do it?
Part of me says, yes, that’s an easy answer to say. Financially, if I could have shut down and pay everybody, yeah. But I know there’s more to this space than just selling stuff. It’s the spirit of this place. And so I think the hopefulness people need in this space, I wouldn’t want that to go away, to be honest with you. The store next door to us went out of business a month or so ago. And I heard this lady walk up and she saw the sign “Going out of business.” So she thought it was us. And she was like, Oh, my gosh. I was there in the store. And I said, No, no, no, it’s not us. So she was like, Oh, I don’t know what I would do if you closed down. Could she buy stuff of other places? Of course, but there was something about our store that meant so much to her that I know I have to be there for the people.