Essential Business Owners Show Resilience in the Central District

by Gavin Amos

D’vonne Pickett Jr., the owner of The Postman, is standing outside his shop on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Union, talking to me about his vision for his business. D’vonne co-owns the micro mail service with his wife, Keana Pickett. They have dreams of expansion, but those are being put on standby because of the COVID-19 outbreak. They’re still able to stay open now as their shop is considered an essential business. On the front lines keeping together America’s fragile economic and service system, D’vonne stands strong, amidst the danger he and his team are bearing together. He begins to talk to me about what life and business has been like since the state has shut down, and he talks with unrelenting positivity.

Keana Pickett, signing a form from the Central Area Collaborative. (Photo: Gavin Amos)

“We’ve been fortunate to be considered an essential business and have remained open. That has been going well for us, but with numbers, [we’re] concerned … we have seen a dip in business since all this has happened. Being considered an essential business, we still have a nice customer base that we have built up and maintain to be a service to the community.”

Maintaining his upbeat nature, D’vonne still acknowledges the danger that he and his team are facing, and notes the precautions that he and his staff are taking. “Limited contact with as many people as we can, as far as being realistic for what we do in our profession,” he says. “As far as wearing gloves, [and] having my janitorial guy come in and wipe everything down. Implementing the six-foot rule. Being myself and remaining a positive force overall. Being positive and seeing how that is going.”

He goes on to share what he has been experiencing while serving customers during the outbreak: “As a universal energy we deal with a lot of different people throughout the day, and we have noticed the fear in people’s energy and the weird space that everyone is in right now. With that uncertainty we are hearing from community members about being more grounded and being closer to family and kind of focusing on things that mean more. At this moment and time, I’m appreciating the things that are ordinarily always there. So just taking all of that in: family, nature and just being mindful of the birds singing.”

Small business owners like D’vonne and Keana Pickett are focusing on keeping the continuity of our daily lives while we’re all under quarantine with the rest of the world. 

Samuel Abera serves Deonte Randolph at the counter. Childhood friends, they’re both now entrepreneurs working to preserve their rapidly changing community. (Photo: Gavin Amos)

Samuel Abera, 27, has been operating his family’s 20-year-old business for three years now. What was once called the General Jackson store is now Rimma’s Market, a focal point for many longtime Central District residents. It was famous for both having rare East African spices and some of the best fried chicken in town. Samuel, who also goes by Sami, wants to continue the legacy, but in a way that addresses problems the community is currently facing. “I want to have clean and fresh produce available for the community,” he says. “Ever since the Red Apple got torn down, it has been a food desert up this entire block.” Healthy food items are just one piece of the puzzle — Sami imagines weaving together an entire neighborhood bazaar where residents who are artisans have a place to network and shelf space to sell their craft items, clothing and art. He has a kitchen space that he wants to eventually open where he can host pop-up chefs and really stimulate the community with more culturally-relevant food options. 

Rare Ethiopian spices and grains on the shelf. (Photo: Gavin Amos)

All of these ambitions have been put on pause due to resisting the COVID-19 outbreak. Already at-risk for displacement, Sami laments the lack of traffic he is now experiencing. “Nobody is coming in anymore,” he says. “I lost 70% of traffic and now all of my inventory is going bad. I’m going to have to re-up soon, but I have no clue to figure out what my order is and manage my bills. All the while, I’m putting myself at risk every day when I open the store.” 

This is the reality that the many local entrepreneurs of essential business are facing: they’re in a situation that is at the fault of a fragile system overly dependent on the assumption of day-to-day productivity and consumption of workers. With the state shutdown being in effect for two weeks, that productivity and consumption is no longer happening at the same pace. As corporations are being bailed out, folks like Sami are forced to do what they always did — pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

I ask Sami what keeps him returning to the store. “Man, I spent my entire life on this corner,” he replies. ”All my customers are my friends and community members that I grew up with. I love this place and want to be able to preserve my family’s legacy of serving the community. Most of my customers have been coming to the store for years, some even drive from out of town to visit me and my pops.”

“The most that anybody can do to help me is to come see me. I’m going to keep being at the shop, I want to see you.”

Author’s note: This piece is written in collaboration with Central Area Collaborative. We are a non-profit that serves to preserve the rich cultural and economic legacies of the Central Area to mitigate the impacts of gentrification. We are currently collecting data on the business impacts in the area because of COVID-19. We are attempting to learn about what small business owners now need. The data will strengthen our position as we advocate for resources. Thank you for your participation, and feel free to contact us if there are any questions.

Gavin Amos was an apprentice journalist with the Seattle Globalist, where many of my stories were written about displacement of vulnerable communities, impacts of immigration policies, and the resilience shared by BIPOC communities. I currently co-operate Avole Coffee, an Ethiopian Coffee based social enterprise start-up, whose mission is to reclaim Ethiopia’s heritage as the birthplace of coffee and world’s greatest expert in the industry. I am also the Community Navigator with the Central Area Collaborative. The mission of the CAC is to preserve the cultural legacies of the Central Area in Seattle, WA and also support stakeholder groups in business, arts & culture, and mitigating displacement. 

Featured image: D’vonne Pickett Jr. (right), Keanna Rose Pickett (middle), and Rayjaun Stelly (left).  (Photo: Gavin Amos)