That three week gap…too busy to write

02-25-2015It dawned on me today that I had not written about anything the last three weeks. And it made me a smile because this is how the life of a entrepreneur sometimes plays out. I am not sad or unhappy about it – I just know this was at the bottom of the “must do” pile.

What happened the last three weeks? Well, a funny thing called Calabar Imports busy season business happened – between events, criss-crossing across the four stores, updating Facebook and Instagram and events.

Today has been the almost first day that I can honestly say I have caught up with 85% of things I have to get done by Thursday – my beginning of the week day. How? It comes down to Priorities. The 15 % are important but they do not make or break the weeks. What I learnt this week is that doing events are vital and there are most about relationship building.

This week went by so fast, it’s almost Thursday – a few highlights – besides getting stuff done – taking time away from Facebook, making time to talk and call friends – these simple things are why I have two days off.

The week’s trials. It’s almost Christmas – not sure I am ready for any of it. Just got over Thanksgiving and still on the mission of building the Harlem location into it’s full scope, a community space and a store. Two projects this week almost complete – expanding our mailing list and working on 2016 events up until April 30. It’s always nice to plan early but sometimes surprised that when I ask this early, a good number of people are not quite prepared. What to do? Move on to the next person. Time is vital and being prepared is essential.


Beginning to think about time off for a week in January – closing all stores so we all can rest. Because my one question today: Where did the day go?


Ownership as a Concept – Chronicles of My Retail Life: A Weekly Series on Calabar Imports

Week Three – The Holiday Season is fast approaching:

This week was a mixed one.

The first lesson was having a staff take ownership of a store that needed ownership. Sometimes it takes a person a while to get there – I typically see it in less than three months, and it happened this week in just that time frame. I am delighted by this and what it does for me as an owner of Calabar Imports – is simple, it lightens my load so I can work on other things and pay attention to the holiday season that seems to be speeding up, quicker than I hoped.


The second lesson was to actually re-listen to myself as I took time to build a new project concept that is related to the growth and capacity needed for Calabar Imports. This is in part to continue to reinvent the brand and build our capacity as market forces are changing; and we have to be more dynamic as a company. This was the week to do that reading in full detail about 2016, forecasts, changes and also what opportunities they would be. I looked at fashion forecast again, imports and labor issues, currency fluctuations and war across the globe. In my business, all these things affect the price of manufacturing – thus, the cost of clothes and goods. This is the time when I decide if I should change the countries where I order from, who I buy from as prices go up and down, whether it makes sense to make in one country versus another. All high risk decisions, but all carefully analyzed.


The third lesson is so simple: everything happens in its time. I conceptually know this and have been saying so to myself often. This week, several realities lined up as they should. I cannot reveal all the details but time will make it apparent at Calabar Imports. In preparation for January and February, I access what will happen with the weather again, another look at the Farmer’s Almanac to see if it makes sense to bring in spring clothing earlier or latter. Oh, that winter blues reminds me that we might have that snow again and it is time to get salt to all the stores again; and yes, I need two shovels this year.


The fourth lesson this week is about mentoring. I talk about it and actually do it regularly and this week – it was about reinforcing and building two young people. A young designer who had become wary and disappointed with the fashion industry. All it took was showing him a path to beginning a process of transition from school to the real world. So, often when I was at Parsons, this was the role I played – listener and strategist. The second was a young person who made a decision that now has delayed a lot of possibilities. Sometimes, we take these stances and stick with them and hurt ourselves more. It makes sense then but it puts us on a real rot. Both young people were in the world of fear and were not risk takers. If I could bottle a risk-taking juice that keeps me raging to do more or to jump, I would be a millionaire today.

October and early November in retail follows patterns, it slows down for a bit and for me at Calabar Imports, this is the time to catch up with building an event calendar for 2016, looking at staffing and setting up a system to train new staff as I will be adding more staff for more flexibility yet again. It’s an ongoing process, I remind myself. All in a week.


Sunday and Monday came too fast but finalized a collaboration with International Coalition of African Fashion. It’s been on my mind to collaborate with them but also to help them grow. Each year, I do about 3-4 collaborations – they are specifically targeted in fashion and retail. This is where Calabar Imports is situated. I often have to state that to people who ask me to go outside that realm. After almost 11 years, I know what I am focused on. And as I say it, this reminds me that I have yet to plan our anniversary for December. Another to do item for next week. Check back to read more here next week. And please share this blog.

The week ended mixed, sales up; one less staff on one day, and one more staff to add to the brand. It is the daily grind as a retailer at Calabar Imports, I spent time figuring out the next move and what bit I have to change or secure after I thought I was ahead.

Chronicles of My Retail Life: A Weekly Series on Calabar Imports

This week, I launch, Chronicles of My Retail Life, a weekly series of blogs about what’s happening with me at Calabar Imports. It’s a short synopsis of the life of a retailer in Brooklyn and Harlem from day to day events, insights on what happens in the store and what ideas are implemented and dropped. This series will be written every Tuesday and will contain some discussion on the changes and growth we are experiencing. Some customers and people will not be named but initials will be used to protect some of their identities and privacy.

Week One: October 14-19

I begin my week on Thursday after taking two days off – I call this day the first of my travel days as I spend it going to at least two stores to update windows, bring in merchandise, talk with staff and new initiatives. I begin it on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights where all our merchandise arrives each week. This is Calabar Imports’ headquarters.

At the head quarters, I sort out what merchandise has arrived and place them into four piles. Each store gets one pack of items or what I feel best fits that location. We are in four different yet similar locations in Brooklyn and Harlem. The one thing I have not added to this process that staff needs to do is log in all merchandise in the Square system that is now available in all stores.

Franklin Avenue:

Crown Heights is interesting – This is Heloise’s store – she is the point person there and runs it in her own special way. I have been her child too long to know not to interfere – but there are days I try to. This is the store that we relocated our Washington Avenue store  to after the fire and it is the store where I began to plan to expansion and growth of Calabar Imports into 4 stores.


I leave Franklin Avenue and head for Boerum Hill to the Third Avenue Store, this was the third store we opened after the fire – in a new neighborhood that I watched for a year. It was a pleasure to open this store here as it was something that was missing on this strip. Third Avenue is the smallest of our stores, it’s cute and quaint and comes with the contrasts of New York extremes – the Gowanus Houses and Extreme Luxury Apartments on one side. So, imagine the customers we get. All good, but it is REAL New York.

Boerum Hill: Third Avenue

At Third Avenue, I do the window on Thursday – use the new clothing and new products that come in to showcase what we have and what’s new. The challenge is to keep this inviting for the two exteeme demographics, it’s a balancing act.


This store is in proximity to the heart of Brooklyn – and in the midst of the development of hotels in proximity to Barclays and Atlantic Center, and two blocks from Atlantic Avenue. This is the store I have to bring my innovative ideas and I will be looking to partner with others to do some creative things here. After I finish with Third Avenue, I decide if the day is not gone to go home to do some more marketing or to head to Harlem or Bed Stuy. This week, I went on to Bed Stuy – it was important to re-examine that store. Ariel is now fully settled into Third Avenue – I think this pace has given her time to ponder her goals and what next. Sometimes you make your business a place for your employees to take their time and grow themselves, build their careers, finish school and make their next move. That was what my first job in the US did for me. I hold that memory dear and a learning lesson.

Tompkins Avenue:

I love the journey from Third Avenue to Tompkins, I intentionally take the B52 bus as it weaves me from Fulton Street through Fort Greene into Bed Stuy. It is in this bus where I write my to do list for the next week after reviewing what’s on the list for this week. These days – my to do list always has 7 items – one item for each day of the week. I have found that has been the solution to all my best laid plans. If I achieve one item a day – I have done a lot. And if I do more – I have over achieved. I use to have 10 things a day – and accomplish 2-4 – so it became clear that the list did not work and so a new approach was discovered. I celebrate getting one item done each day – I am much happier and my list does not pile up. It’s the simple things that make life so easy. It is on this bus I remember the B52s band and hum their songs often.


When I arrive at Tompkins – Cassandra is at helm of this space. If you have not me Cassandra – I would say a trip to Bed Stuy is a must on Thursday and Friday. Like my mother, Cassandra is a retired teacher, she loves her freedom and working at Calabar gives her time to be out of her apartment – meet new people and help grow a business, she made that commitment to me a year ago, and I value that. At Tompkins Avenue, we sit and talk about what happened last week, what needs to be accomplished this week and month and also when she plans to travel again. Yes, scheduling is a conversation I have frequently with the four women I work with and my business partner. Each of us have lives outside the store and making sure everyone gets to do the other parts of their lives or businesses is vital to a working ship like Calabar Imports. Some days it is a challenge – other days – it works out so smoothly. I typically head home after a few hours to actually cook dinner – yes, I do cook – usually on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But this week, I head up to Harlem to get ready for Women’s Writers of the Diaspora hosted by Celesti Colds Fechter.

The Weekend:

Saturday for me is in Bed Stuy while Sunday and Monday are in Harlem and these are the days I work in the stores. I chose these two because there are the event spaces we have and I am looking to grow that part of our business into a community asset. I think space is a premium but it belongs to a community who exercises the use of it. And my spaces belongs to the communities we are based in. It’s getting them to see its value and buy-in to ownership of it; it’s an interesting puzzle for communities that are usually challenged about rights and ownership. As someone who has acquired space, I know how hard it is to get and see that providing access to it is crucial for those working on creative endeavors. I made a decision to do it sometimes for free depending on the individual, project or idea – and other times for a small fee so that the individual owns and sets value to it. The key for me is simple – are you going to give this gift to someone else for free too, it’s just that simple. Free is not free but it’s growing someone else besides yourself.

By Monday in the stores, I have re-calibrated and worked on several new initiatives, this week was to begin the Holiday marketing campaign, send out newsletters and engage all social media parts of the company. I have taken over the social media part of the company after a year of a staff running it. The goal here was to re-brand it – as both an educational forum and a sales platform. It’s a lot of work and hectic but it’s vital as I plan to build it to a complex and defined platform for the business. My day ended late on Monday and as I complete this first blog today, I am please to say that it has been a good week, so please join my adventures: Chronicles of My Retail Life, follow me and share this blog with others today.

The Silence Factory: It is a fun place.

by Atim Annette Oton

First published in Calabar Magazine.

Every other day, I have the same discussion with someone: an African, a Caribbean or an African-American person. It goes like this: When will we get it together? They complain about how little progress has been made and how we as black people are not ready and why? I listen, nod and wait until they are done talking. This last month, I have been listening, and listening, more carefully. And quite frankly, the noise has been just too much to bear. I call it noise because we need to stop and really hear ourselves speak. And my one lesson from it is: say something if you have a solution to the problem.

I can begin by looking at black people in Nigeria where I was born; yes, we missed the boat for 20 years (about 1983-2004), but in the last 8 years, we have begun to move forward. Not as fast as we want, expect or are able to drastically see…but we are moving. Sometimes, we forget as a nation and as a people, we are not just young but we have been isolated for about 20 years. With 150 million people, we are more educated than most of Africa, and yes, we need to use this educated populous, and sadly, we have not done so. But, when a people have been isolated, how do they know what they need to change and grow? How do they change when their leadership is not changing too?

For the last 6 years, I have traveled back and forth to Nigeria. I can say as a witness, Nigeria has changed, gotten better and is finally growing its other industries besides oil. That small shift is significant, for a country that only spoke oil, it is the start of a shift in thinking. And it is not too late. We just have to build on this slowing. Just look at China. Another shift is the return of its diaspora. This is not to say that Nigeria cannot be changed without them,  but it is a return of some of the brain drain. Nigeria is experiencing what India experienced finally – a brain gain. Simply, Nigerians stopped complaining and went home…and more importantly, the west got too hard to live in.

Now, a return to the Americas, with the US and New York, in focus.  We have to stop lamenting the losses of Harlem and Bed Stuy. If you did not buy in either places, it’s time to stop. You were and are also part of the problem and could have been part of the solution, if you bought in these neighborhoods. And more importantly, stop crying over spilled milk put your money where you mouth is.

My first response is to look beyond New York, and look at Maryland, Washington DC, and Atlanta, blacks own property and they bought there. If we all remember our history, a good number of blacks came north for work with every intention to return to the south…and they did. The only issue here is their kids did not leave, and have no property where they live. My accountant and lawyer would say, some of us have no estate planning skills.

The other places I hear the noise is about our businesses. I love how many people talk about black businesses but spend their money at Macy’s. And I don’t know how many black owners will tear my ear on this. I hear both sides. Black businesses would do 10 times better if just 25% of our community shopped with us more. But, some of us in business make it difficult. Hey, I am saying it. How many times do we get bad service? But here is the irony, we get treated badly elsewhere and still go back…but when we get it with black businesses, we stop going back. I am just saying.

Yes, black businesses are in a bad state, but so are those who go it alone in business and our community is one that goes it alone. Other communities build businesses as groups of people. We build it alone with very little money and support. I am tired of the reasons we claim are the issues: we do not trust each other, can’t get along and are selfish. Actually, none of that is really true. I mean, how many of us are doing “Susu’s” together? The simple reasons are not having the capital, not having great credit; most of us do not build relationships with banks, and we do not make the effort to do business with one another. Yet, we work harder for others for a pay check.

Today, I was on Lewis Avenue: Bread Stuy, Brownstone Books and Lewis Gallery are all gone. It is not my place to judge or to point fingers, but these were striving businesses in an up-and-coming community in a “rennaisance”. And something happened here. There are lessons to learn and share but we do not do that in our community. One business had tax and health department issues; the other two, I am told via neighborhood gossip (which we are good at doing instead of helping grow the businesses) did not do the marketing needed. I remember a time when local people used to do the marketing by circulating flyers for businesses they loved carry. And word-of-mouth was the way businesses survived. This was the New York I loved. This New York, I am worried about.

This month, I begin a small experiment called “The Silence Factory: It is a fun place.” It is a place where I retreat to see and look at things. But it is a place I will come out of often to voice my thoughts and observations. So, I declared on Facebook:

“This is the week of SILENCE…time to be quiet and just LISTEN, time to be REFLECTIVE and GROW new ideas. Time to work on existing projects and FINISH. Join me in the SILENCE FACTORY. IT IS A FUN PLACE.”

I think black people across the world need to go into the SILENCE FACTORY. It’s time to stop talking and do the work that is needed. I spent sometime with my brother who said to me – if you want this thing, you must do the work for it. It is not easy work, it is not quick, it will take time. I hear you loud and clear. I am listening.

Today, I look at China, and remember the days when we all used to laugh at them. Now, who is laughing at us? The lesson here is simple…Work your hardest, do the work well, ask for help, pay for the help, collaborate, partner and stop the noise, you are wasting time. But most importantly, come to the table ready. We need our best and brightest. And bring down the NOISE.

Small Business Tuesday Tidbits: the September Series

Some days, posting what I think is hard but I know it is important. Three Lessons today to read:

Time, Lists and Numbers

Time waits for no man/woman. That sure is the statement of the century. I have been at Calabar imports for 10-1/2 years, December will make it 11, and one thing I have observed is that time flies fast, so I have been working with speed to do all the things that I have on my list – yes, that master list. I keep one. This year, the list included adding more locations – the result is 2 more. I keep that list around so I can see what I plan – and the list is a 6 year plan not a 5 year one, as it is in-tuned with my rhythm and life. 2018 is the next big shift but 2016 – as it will be 12 years at Calabar Imports. I take note that the number 6 is key to my life – my birthday is on the 6th, my home number has a 6, I watch it as a sign to note. ‪#‎powerfulstuff‬

Stop Talking, Plan and take Action

I am a talker so when I tell anyone to stop talking – folks look back at me. But, when it comes to business, I stop talking and listen, then, I plan and take action. In order to stop talking, you have to have a Sustainable PLAN. Most people tell me that they have a plan but most plans I hear about are not innovative or realistic. The typical ones I hear are repeating the same actions – for example – selling at events as a vendor – nothing wrong with that option but after a year – what’s next? Why do I say that? It’s a maximum income of $25,000 a year – or at best $30,000. That’s a part-time job and not all that work it takes to vend. So I ask, what’s your next plan. When I suggest selling wholesale or doing a store, most vendors look at me like I am crazy, which makes me wonder – I am just suggesting options to grow your business. What it actually reveals to me is something most people do not realize – they have no plan beyond the vending process. It’s a choice to stay with the familiar and not take risk. So if there is no plan, there is no action.

Patience, Perseverance and Strategy

I am not a patient person, but running a business teaches you patience. So many folks around me are in a rush to make lots of money and be famous, I am the opposite – I take the slow road of consistency, grit and hard work. Some say it builds character but it really builds a strong foundation. I know this road well – in 2006 when the economy began to shift, I took note and shifted things – so I survived 2008. Then, a fire in 2011 not 2012 reinforced opportunity to grow and expand and I took the growth road. So 2015 will end with 2016 plans intact – a goal to increase the business by 2 times our size, fine tune it and increase revenue in particular areas and dominate in others. It take Perseverance to do this but not without a clear strategy. While others focused on the spotlight, I take the background and steer my business along – it is the way of the risk taker – and my strategies are not to do the expected – but to do what I know best – build a solid business. So many when I started our no longer here even with all the press and the bright lights. I learnt that lesson when I was at Parsons – the C students ran the companies while the A students worked for the companies. The C Strategy was to have fun, party and network. The A student followed the rules. Risk and Strategy beats the rules sometimes.

Each week on my facebook page, I post these tidbits. Join me there.