‘A kept gem’: Small Business Saturday lifts up Germantown culture, despite looming economic downturn

Germantown shop owners are encouraging people to buy local on Small Business Saturday — and throughout the holiday season — despite the strain of inflation costs.

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A vendor smiles as she prepares a purchase for a customer at her table.

Bria Ricks, owner of Bretanical Skin, sells a tote bag at the Black Soul Block Party in Germantown, which was one of several small business Saturday events in the area. She says the cost of ingredients for her skin care products has been rising due to inflation and it's hard to determine how to adjust her prices. (Sammy Caiola/WHYY)

Yana Donaldson and Alyssa Weinfurtner spent their Saturday strolling down Germantown Avenue, stopping at BNB Cigars for vintage smoke boxes before hitting the “Small Business Saturday Pop-up” at Pomelo plant store. They went one street over for the Black Soul Block Party, a sidewalk event uplifting Black-owned businesses.

Weinfurtner said they’ve set an intention to buy locally this holiday season, even though some of their traditions are changing because of inflation.

“[My family] just kind of decided we’re not doing gifts this year,” she said. “But I’m an artist, so I always try to support the artists … in some ways I feel even more inclined to buy from local artists just because everything’s so hard right now.”

Two people look at jewelry outdoors on a street.
Yana Donaldson and Alyssa Weinfurtner look at jewelry at the Black Soul Block Party in Germantown on Saturday Nov. 26. There were multiple events in the neighborhood to encourage shoppers to buy local on small business Saturday. (Sammy Caiola/WHYY)

The Germantown United CDC is promoting small businesses from now until January through their Buy Local Germantown initiative.

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Germantown business leaders launched the shopping season with multiple Small Business Saturday events, hoping to entice consumers who might be wary considering signs of a possible economic downturn. The largely-Black neighborhood — which has a rich anti-slavery history — has seen investment and revitalization in recent years, particularly alongthe Germantown Avenue corridor.

“Really it’s a kept gem in Philadelphia,” said Matthew George, business development manager for the Germantown United Community Development Corporation.

He said local businesses have benefited from a combination of neighborhood cleanup efforts and assistance from the City of Philadelphia.

“I’ve seen the energy change,” he said. “I’ve seen the avenue come alive. We always look to these other neighborhoods as, ‘Oh, we should have something like that,’ and what I see is the business owners in this area wanting that as well and creating their own renaissance.”

Mayor Jim Kenney visited Germantown Avenue on Saturday to support local businesses, popping into an art gallery and a dance studio. He said he wants to learn more about the needs of small business owners, paying particular attention to Black entrepreneurs.

“When you come across jewels like this you realize there’s so much more we don’t know about that whole economy,” he said. “[They] give neighborhoods the flavor that they have.”

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The city’s Storefront Improvement Program will reimburse business owners for 50% of the cost of signage and other exterior touches up to $10,000 per property.

Photographer and gallery owner Stephen CW Taylor received a grant when he opened Ubuntu Fine Arts on Germantown Avenue about a year ago.

“It helped immensely with being able to have signage so people could recognize us,” he said.

A man smiles as he stands in front of a storefront with a sign that reads Ubuntu.
Artist Steven CW Taylor had his Germantown Avenue gallery, Ubuntu Fine Arts, open for small business Saturday. He says there’s been a lot of investment in the corridor in recent years — including a Storefront Improvement Program grant that helped him install his signage. (Sammy Caiola/WHYY)

Small business owners are likely bracing for a slow season, as some Philadelphians are reducing their discretionary spending in response to inflation. Economists predict that low- and middle-class Americans will spend less on gifts this year than they did during the 2021 holiday season.

One survey from professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 74% of Americans plan to spend the same or more on holiday gifts as they did last year.

Consumers plan to spend an average of $1,430 on gifts, travel, and entertainment combined. That’s very close to the 2021 total, but it’s up 20% since the 2020 season and 10% since 2019, according to the survey.

Skin care product maker Bria Ricks, who tabled at a Small Business Saturday event in Germantown, said she’s already nervous about sales, particularly because the cost of her raw ingredients has gone up.

“So it’s like, do I increase the prices as well or do I stay where I am?” she said. “It’s just tough to compete with big box stores.”

A woman arranges her products at a table as another person examines the items for sale.
Bria Ricks, owner of Bretanical Skin, sells a tote bag at the Black Soul Block Party in Germantown, which was one of several small business Saturday events in the area. She says the cost of ingredients for her skin care products has been rising due to inflation and it’s hard to determine how to adjust her prices. (Sammy Caiola/WHYY)

But there are plenty of reasons to seek out Germantown-made goods, shoppers said. Melvin Tillman and his wife visited from their Francisville neighborhood, closer to Center City, to patronize Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books. They left with gifts for the child they’re expecting next year.

“Not just any baby books, but baby books that have some social awareness,” Tillman said. “We are in an interracial relationship and we’re trying to be really thoughtful in terms of the education this kid’s gonna receive, cause the world is going to treat them a certain way … books that can be really empowering, that’s specifically why we went to Uncle Bobbie’s.”

More information about Small Business Saturday in Philadelphia is available here. Find a list of Black-owned businesses in Philadelphia here.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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