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Entrepreneurs in the City

Maggie Lena Walker – daughter of a freed slave and an Irish American newspaperman and the first woman to open and operate a successful bank in the United States – would be proud to behold her old neighborhood, Jackson Ward, and the area surrounding it. Maggie, who died in 1939, opened the St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank at 320 North First Street, establishing the business epicenter of Jackson Ward in Richmond. A statue of Maggie, honoring her one hundred fifty-third birthday, was unveiled July 15, in Memorial Plaza at Broad and Adams Streets.

Maggie’s 19-year-old great, great grandchild, Liza Mickens, spoke at the event and was one of the many family members who indicated they wanted the statue placed there, in the heart of Maggie’s business district and close to her home (a national historical site) on Leigh Street. Memorial Plaza, where Maggie’s statue watches over Broad Street and stands as a welcoming presence in Jackson Ward, has space for families to linger and learn, and features a timeline of the civic leader and rights activist’s life and accomplishments.

Jackson Ward, like much of downtown Richmond, fell on hard times as people and businesses moved away from the city and into the suburbs during the early 1970s. For thirty-plus years, it’s fair to say the area languished with empty buildings and barred windows and doors. But in the last ten years, things began to slowly change. Now that change is picking up speed. Virginia Rep’s November Theatre on Broad Street (formerly Empire Theatre and the Booker T) was there already. A plethora of art galleries came next, and later, the arts-inspired Quirk Hotel.

Today, the Arts District that the new Maggie Walker statue overlooks bustles with art lovers, families, and tourists taking in all the area has to offer, especially during First Fridays – a community open-house block party on the first Friday of every month.

Small, locally owned businesses – attracted by the numerous new residential developments, the availability of space, competitive rental prices, visibility, and traffic – are opening in abundance. People are excited about the spring 2018 opening of VCU’s Institute of Contemporary Art a few blocks east on Broad Street which should bring tremendous traffic to the area.

In other news, GRTC Pulse – the new high-quality, high-capacity, rapid transit service running 7.6 miles from Willow Lawn on Broad Street to Rocketts Landing on Main Street  – is set to begin service soon. The Maggie Walker statue near the Arts District station is one of many family-oriented destinations accessible by the Pulse.

Keep reading and you’ll learn about some of the businesses that have put down roots in the Jackson Ward area!

Little Nomad –
A New Way to Shop for Kids

With management experience at the local men’s clothier Ledbury, as well as the national chain Urban Outfitters, and a marketing mindset as assistant director of the Robinson Theatre in Church Hill, Anthony Bryant has the perfect background to launch a retail clothing store. He started blogging in 2015 about life with his wife and two children, ages four and two. As his blogging audience grew, he began thinking about a business that would relate to them. As a parent, he was tired of the big box stores like Target and Walmart, and saw a need for a different kind of kids’ clothing store in Richmond. He and his wife, Nora, a teacher, spent a year discussing and planning.

For location, the couple was attracted to the Jackson Ward area of West Broad Street. He sees the area as having plenty of opportunity. With all the new condos, lofts, and apartments in the downtown area, not to mention the growing number of restaurants and strong presence of art galleries, Anthony is confident the location will give his business access to a large customer base. “There are many young couples with small children in the Church Hill, Fan, and Jackson Ward areas, plus we can draw from many ethnic groups.” He feels they are getting in on the ground floor of a special opportunity. “And right now,” he adds, “the price is right.” Nora worked with him this summer until school started earlier this month.

In choosing product for the store, Anthony was inspired by the 1988 rap song, “Hey Young World,” by Slick Rick. The song tells kids to stay in school, do good things, be strong, and “go for your dreams.” Many of the clothing items at Little Nomad proclaim that message. Product for the store also reflects Anthony and Nora’s fashion-forward thinking with unique clothing brands as well as their own line. Trends reflected are easy-to-wear, comfortable clothing with designs appealing to both parents and children, specializing in gender-neutral casual clothes that can be worn by everyone, such as the Yipkids brand. This theme is carried out with the store’s other products like books, toys, and gifts.

Their store opened on July 15, at 104 West Broad Street, coinciding with the unveiling of Maggie Walker’s statue. To Anthony’s surprise, one of the store’s earliest customers was singer/songwriter Solange Knowles, sister of Beyonce. “She bought lots of sweaters, dresses, t-shirts, Punky Pins, and tons of books!” says Anthony. “She said she liked the aesthetics of the store, and loved the Yipkids line of clothing.” (Perhaps for Blue Ivy and the twins?) And the store’s name? NOMAD is an acronym for the couple and their children: Nora, Myka, Anthony, Devan.

Mama J’s –
Renowned Southern Soul Food in Jackson Ward 

One of the first businesses to initiate the Jackson Ward resurgence was Mama J’s back in 2009. Velma Johnson grew up in the Maymont/Byrd Park area of Richmond, but Jackson Ward was always a special place to her. It’s where her mother took her and her fourteen siblings to shop and attend church on Sundays. There was a small five-and-dime store Velma loved going to called Troy’s. “I could buy barrettes for my hair, candies, and other little things. And there were two movie theatres – the Hippodrome and the Booker T. It was the place to go,” she says.

In her large family, Velma learned how to cook for a crowd. So popular were her recipes, that she soon began cooking for others outside the family. She established a highly successful catering business and, as her business grew, she needed more space.

Her catering clients include most of the sports teams in the area: the Richmond Kickers, VCU’s hungry Rams, the Richmond Rough Riders, and the Washington Redskins when they were in town for training camp. She remembers her son Lester saying, “Mom, I have found you a kitchen, but it is attached to a restaurant, so we will have to open a restaurant, too!”

To launch the restaurant, located at 415 North First Street, Velma offered free samples and hors d’oeuvres on two consecutive weekends to anyone who walked in. She adds, “From the day we opened, we have been packed!” They have also expanded with a private dining space in the rear of their building. That space just happens to be the old Troy’s Five and Dime.

Running this enterprise has become a family affair. Along with her son Lester, Velma’s sister Donna and her youngest son Darrell have joined the Mama J’s team. The restaurant is known for its southern and soul foods: baked chicken, ribs, yams, collards, mac and cheese, and wonderful desserts – like her well-loved Dreamsicle cakes. Velma enjoys welcoming new business owners to the area by bringing them cakes or other treats. She says the entrepreneurial activity in the area is gratifying, especially if you know the history of Jackson Ward, an area once regarded as the Harlem of the South.

Charm School Social Club
Break for Ice Cream on Broad Street

“I would never fit in at a charm school, but now I get to be principal of my own.” So says Alex Zavaleta of the ice cream shop at 311 West Broad Street, Charm School Social Club. The store is located in the heart of Jackson Ward in what used to be the
Quirk Gallery.

While living in San Francisco, Alex, a native Virginian, began making specialty ice creams and selling them at music shows. That’s when he met Meryl Hillerman, who had a background in pastry production and was educated at Tante Marie’s Cooking School.

Together, the friends began developing plans to create an ice cream business. During that time, he and Meryl took several trips back to Richmond and became intrigued with all the new activity in the River City, with an eye on the downtown area. They noted that there were no ice cream or pastry shops in the area. “People were saying they thought this part of town was ‘up and coming,’ but we saw it as happening now!” says Alex.

Charm School is notable for its unique menu of flavors – they are always changing. “We are inspired by what we eat,” Alex says. His favorite things, like Thai iced tea, toast and jam, and oatmeal raisin cookies, have helped create new ice cream flavors. The partners take pride in using high quality ingredients – baking their own homemade cookies for the cookies ’n’ cream ice cream and making their own cones.

In fact, everything they sell is made on-site in their 3,000-square foot workspace. “If the ice cream is the best quality we can make it, why shouldn’t the cones be the best too?” says Alex.

According to Alex, the demographics of their store are all across the board, including customers ages one to eighty – with lots of young couples, older locals, and VCU students. They stay open until nine most nights and until eleven on Friday and Saturday nights to give evening diners and Virginia Rep theatre-goers a dessert option.

In addition to sixteen rotating flavors of ice cream, Charm School offers floats, cookies, tarts, and specialty baked goods.

The Hippodrome –
Community Hub Restored

Ron Stallings, owner of the Hippodrome Theater, may have had more to do with the Jackson Ward revitalization than anyone else in Richmond. His dad, James R. Stallings, was born in the now historic district (the largest in the nation designated for African American historical significance) and began buying properties in the 1940s. The elder Stallings believed it was important to save the old buildings. As Ron says, “The buildings are minor monuments to the people and lives that came before. It makes it so much easier to tell the story if you have the buildings.” Right after the Civil War, African Americans, Jews, Italians, and other disenfranchised groups settled in Jackson Ward and began transforming it into a hub for self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship. James Stallings was able to save 110 buildings in that area, including the Hippodrome and other historically significant properties. His son, Ron, is part of a development group that has carried on that tradition, renovating and leasing buildings. Their company, Walker Row Partnership, has more than sixty-three projects in progress, including numerous condo developments, retail buildings, and historical buildings such as the Tucker Cottage and the W.W. Browne House.

The old Hippodrome Theatre, at 528 North Second Street, was the movie theatre and music hall Velma Johnson and her fourteen siblings attended when movies were five cents a show. Built in 1914 as a vaudeville and movie theatre, it later became a famous club hosting music giants like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway, among others. Empty for the better part of forty years, Ron Stallings has transformed The Hipp into a classic 1920s-era music hall with a restaurant next door, the Speakeasy Grille. Period décor and vintage posters of those famous performers set the mood of the bygone era of blues, jazz, and speakeasy liquor. Today, The Hipp is a popular venue for concerts, weddings, fundraisers, and proms.

Check in with Maggie Walker in Memorial Plaza soon, and have fun exploring Jackson Ward and the Arts District with your family!

Diane York is a Richmond-based freelancer, mother, and grandmother and regular contributor to RFM. She writes about lifestyle and wellness issues.
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