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African Imports



Clustered together at the corner of State and Oak in a hodgepodge uncharacteristic of the Gold Coast is a corrective-shoe store, a grammar school, and an Italian restaurant. Directly across from the school's playground stands another Gold Coast oddity: a shop displaying cowrie-shell necklaces, neon-colored embroidered T-shirts, and yellow mudcloth vests and hats. Accented with sleek, clean-lined, black-and-white decor and filled with colorful ethnic clothes and jewelry, Maasai, at 947 N. State, is owned by two young African American entrepreneurs.

A display in the front corner of the store features paintings of pharaohs on papyrus, framed hieroglyphics, and Egyptian leather jewelry boxes and address books. A bronze sculpture of Nefertiti sits off to the side. A woman browsing one afternoon pauses at the display and drinks in every item. Then she asks, "Why do you have Egypt in an African store? What are you trying to say?" In a tightly controlled tone, Charrice Miller, the store's 34-year-old co-owner, answers, "Egypt is a country on a continent, and that continent is Africa."

Another day a 50-ish woman in Ferragamo shoes walks into the store. She smiles and nods to Darius Caine, Miller's 31-year-old partner, who is behind the counter. "You have some beautiful things," she tells him. "Where do you get them?" "We import them from different parts of Africa," he tells her. As Miller walks in from the back room, the woman raises a penciled eyebrow and wags her finger at the two. "Why is it necessary for you all to call yourselves African American?" she asks. "You're American; nothing else matters." "Ma'am, it's a matter of choice," says Miller, trying to steady her rising voice.

"People are not used to African Americans selling their culture to them," says Miller. "In the Gold Coast, they're used to seeing us in subservient roles--parking their cars, taking care of their babies, waiting on them. They assume that we must be from another country."

Miller is a Chicago native; Caine grew up in New York. He sees being a business owner of color in Chicago as a lesson in ambiguity. "In New York the only thing that separates you from doing what you want to do is money. Here there are barriers that you really can't see, like when you're trying to get bank loans. It's very subjective; you're turned down for intangible things."

When computer consultant Caine and marketing specialist Miller started New York Importers in 1990--a mostly catalog-based import business that was a spin-off of Caine's New York-based family business--they figured they would have no problem introducing the booming contemporary African clothing market to the midwest. "Access to import materials was limited in Chicago because it's so far from both coasts," says Caine. "The midwest was still getting used to cultural clothing as everyday wear. Kente cloth had already run its course in New York." After netting $10,000 with 2,000 dollars' worth of merchandise at Chicago's 1990 Black Expo, they decided to open a store in Chicago.

In 1991 they opened a shop in South Shore, calling it Maasai after the Kenyan tribe that has maintained its traditional dress and customs in the face of industrialization. Response was positive: they sold out most of their goods in a couple of months. "Before we opened, the only place people could buy Afrocentric items were festivals," says Miller.

Maasai attracts a wide range of customers, from chichi matrons to teens in hip-hop gear to interracial couples. Sometimes this mix is uneasy. One day a black man in a dark blue suit, a red power tie, and an Italian leather briefcase strolls in and starts looking through a display of African print ties. Shortly afterward a svelte white woman in designer glasses and a long peasant dress sweeps in. When the man steps up to the register with his ties, she glances at him, then turns and quickly leaves.

Another day two brunette women clutching Chanel bags pace back and forth in front of Maasai's window before finally coming in. "Can I see that choker in the window?" asks one. "Sure you can," says Caine, hurrying to the window. A brown-skinned, suited man and woman stride in, twirling around to take everything in. As the man looks at T-shirts, he brushes against the side of one of the women. Jumping violently back, she glares at him. "I know you were trying to pickpocket me!" she shouts as he freezes in astonishment. The women rush out of the shop.

"The racism here is mind-boggling because it's not in your face," says Miller. "People are like, 'You're educated Negroes, you have a business. What are you complaining about?' It's so covert and under the table. I think a lot of it comes from stereotypes."

Caine nods his head. "They see black men in the store at face value," he says. "The news doesn't help, because every time you turn it on, they show murder and mayhem on the south side. . . . People come in and the black male is a threat to their safety in their minds."

When their small South Shore space was broken into three times in one week, Miller and Caine decided to move. Caine's customer statistics revealed many downtown zip codes, so they scouted for downtown locations. They put together an elaborate business plan with graphs and projections, merchandise samples, and even a video for Rubloff Property Management to secure the location they found. Meanwhile they negotiated for a $50,000 Small Business Administration loan. Their loan package was approved and a promissory note was signed. "We thought we had all our bases covered," says Caine.

Then in early December 1992, about three weeks before Maasai was scheduled to open, the two were coming down an entry ramp onto the Dan Ryan when they were rear-ended by an 18-wheeler. Caine was hospitalized for a week, and they pushed the opening of their store back a month.

About two weeks after their accident, they got a call telling them that the loan was off. They were given no explanation. "The struggle began," Miller says. "We had zero in the bank, $10,000 in inventory, and a prayer." But amazingly they managed to borrow the money they needed from family members and to open as planned on January 29, 1993.

Two months later, Caine and Miller were in another accident: again they were on the Dan Ryan, and again they were hit from the back by an 18-wheeler. Neither of them was hurt very badly; they didn't even close the store.

One day a silver-haired, cobalt-eyed man in a trench coat whips through the door. His expression is unsettled as he looks around manically. He grabs a beaded necklace and bracelet and throws them on the counter. "I was really intimidated to come in," he tells Miller as he leans against the register. "I live in the neighborhood and we've been watching you. Where did you come from? How did you start this?" She politely explains, and he nods approvingly. Then, taking a money clip out of his pocket, he asks, "How much does this shit cost?" Seeing her angry expression, he lowers his voice. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way." He takes out two bills and throws them on the counter.

"The attitude in this area seems to be 'Look, I'm white,'" says Caine. "'I'm used to seeing myself on dollar bills. I'm used to seeing myself on stamps, as president. I'm not used to seeing you darker-skinned person as anything except a servant to me.' They don't even realize it."

Each day, according to Caine's calculations, an average of 67 people walk into Maasai. Forty percent of them are white. Not all of them are intimidated. "We'll get people who'll say, 'I never bought anything from black people before but I feel comfortable here.' That's the universality of Maasai. Every race, creed, color, nationality has bought from us."

To combat the rigors of retail, Miller and Caine are increasing their catalog operation from about 1,000 mailings to about 50,000; their colorful, slick catalog goes out to addresses around the country and around the world. They've also got a line of clothing, accessories, and gifts that they wholesale out to a few other stores. In the works is a Maasai shopper's network on cable.

"This is about more than me and Darius struggling," says Miller. "It's about the struggle of a people. I know we'll make it, just like our ancestors made it all the way through the Middle Passage. That's what keeps us going."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/David Schulz.

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