Despite declining sales, Germantown street vendor says he has “the American dream”

Along the main streets of Germantown’s commercial district, eager merchants set up shop for a long day of bartering, surveillance and plenty of waiting.

“If I had a lot of business, I should be retired by now,” said vendor Haj Nianghane, 45. “Some days are good. Some days are bad.”

Nianghane sells an array of merchandise, but purses are his best-selling item. He sets up his shop six days a week at the southwest corner of Chelten and Germantown avenues. Despite declining business, Nianghane has been at it for 11 years and doesn’t plan to end his street-side vending career any time soon.

Drawn by an American woman, Nianghane made his way from West Africa to Philadelphia 13 years ago. His first job was at a car wash, putting in 11 hours a day for $4 an hour. Nianghane quit the car-wash job to start his own business selling knock-off Coach purses, Polo shirts, UGG flip flops, rhinestone-rimmed watches and other popular accessories.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“I could get paid $10 an hour at another job, but here I can sell a $10 watch in minutes,” Nianghane said.

Along with the numerous other vendors on the streets, Nianghane pays the city an annual $300 license fee and a percentage of his income in taxes. Standing in front of an abandoned storefront and pointing toward an empty sidewalk, he said the economic downturn has certainly affected business. However, four other vendors still remain on his block.

“Everybody establishes their own clientele,” said Sabryia Idhadi, the neighboring vendor. In business for 30 years, vending is Idhadi’s first and only job.

Idhadi and Nianghane said competition is not one of their main concerns. The primary problem is keeping an eye on all of the customers, especially the non-paying types. Just last week, Nianghane had to chase after a man who ran away with a bag of Ralph Lauren T-shirts.

“There’s always thieves. I stop a lot of people, but sometimes they get away,” said Nianghane who, even through tough times, is able to support a family of four with the help of his wife. “I don’t live largely, but I live okay.”

Knowing what it’s like to work more than 65 hours a week for less than minimum wage at his first job, Nianghane is quite happy with his current career.

“I’m my own boss now. I even have a stomach because I’m doing so much of nothing,” he said as he patted his navy blue Lacoste shirt. “I have the American dream.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal