Doing business while black
As thousands of store owners board up their windows, following nights of looting and destruction across the city, for many, the added security – when they’re already crippled with unforeseen debt – isn’t even an option.
“My landlord reached out to me, highly recommending that I allow them to send a boarding company to board up the store frontage,” says Rita Ewing, who owns the Massage Envy franchise on W42nd St - 10th/11th Ave. “They were going to charge me $5,500. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I told them I just couldn't take that kind of costly preventative measure. And if something did happen – hopefully it wouldn’t – then I’d have my insurance company take care of whatever they're liable for.
“So, yes, I am concerned. That's one of the reasons I come here as often as I do – so that the place has somewhat of a lived-in look. But the good news is that I am right across the street from that police task force. And I would hope that it provides us a certain level of security built in right there.”
When Rita closed the spa on March 18, she thought it would be for a couple of weeks, then they’d be back to business as usual. Now she doesn’t expect to be open until July. “That’s turned into what will be essentially four months of business closure. So a lot of very difficult decisions have had to be made. I had to terminate my entire team of 39 people. Then there was a whole matter of, because we're membership based, do I keep billing our members while you're closed. That was a pretty contentious issue among the network, but I decided to not bill people without their permission. And for those who gave permission, I gave a free massage session. That’s how I've tried to maintain my membership base, with communication, and understanding that everyone is going through some kind of suffering with this.”
"I started the business six years ago and I feel like I'm back to day one, having to rebuild, with a whole lot of additional debt.”
She lives in the same building as the spa, and comes down every day – as much to give her life some structure, as to do paperwork, deal with customer service issues, establish safety plans for reopening, etc. But, like most business owners, she’s worried. “How do you crawl out of the whole year, with rent and everything? I feel like I'm back to scratch. I started the business six years ago and I feel like I'm back to day one, having to rebuild, with a whole lot of additional debt.”
The former wife of ex-New York Knick Patrick Ewing, Rita co-wrote a book, Homecourt Advantage, about the realities of being an NBA wife. After their divorce, she was co-owner of a bookstore in Harlem for ten years.
"It was an interesting process for me,” she says. “I had done a few creative things. I had the bookstore. I’d tried to get a couple of quasi-reality shows produced that never happened.
“So when the bookstore’s lease was up, my partners and I decided that the industry had changed and I was looking to transition into something else. And that's when I started looking at franchises. Through the process of elimination, and based on my background [she has degrees in nursing and law], I chose Massage Envy.
“My health care background was what initially brought me to the area of wellness. Then, realizing there was a lot of risk and liability in this industry, my legal background made it a little easier for me to understand what I was getting into.
“I wasn't trying to reinvent any wheels,” she says. “I wanted an infrastructure that was already in place. I wanted to go into another chapter with at least a certain degree of certainty. And I would say this: had I done something on my own, under my own name or different name, I probably wouldn't have survived in this city.”
But three months of closure have taken their toll. “If someone had asked me back in March that we would be closed through July, I’d just have said, ‘OK, well, I'm done. I can’t. There's no way I'll be able to survive.’ So I'm just going day to day, monitoring the proposed legislation against what the actuality is. And if I can bring it back and it makes sense to, I will.”
The irony is that she has people calling – clients who have been with her from the beginning – desperate to know when she’s reopening. “We have people literally saying, ‘Please let me know the day you reopen. I need an appointment.’”
And her staff are ready to come back as soon as they get the green light.
In the meantime, she’s staying sane by bringing doing something useful every day. “I make sure that I do something that's productive personally, whether it's cleaning out a closet or a drawer or something every day. So at the end of this period, I will at least feel like I accomplished things.”
You can support this black-owned business in Hell’s Kitchen by buying memberships, gift cards, or products (email firstname.lastname@example.org). But she adds: “Personally, the support is more of an awareness, that people see this [the police brutality and systemic racism] and understand it is something that's been going on for so long, and to try to see it from the perspective of black people, and to try to understand the history of it, and to help us as we try to fix these broken systems that create the injustices we've seen lately.”
"I think what's so essential is communication, oftentimes with those closest to you – For white people who have that one or two black friend or friends, and for black people who have that one white friend, to really talk about these issues and to listen."
Googling is a good start; reading and studying and researching. “But I think what's so essential is communication, oftentimes with those closest to you,” she says. “For white people who have that one or two black friend or friends, and for black people who have that one white friend, to really talk about these issues and to listen. Even for me, there have been so many times over the years when, in conversation with one of my white friends or Jewish friends or Indian friends, I’ve realized we're not on the same page. Something will pop up in the news, and it’ll be like, ‘Wow, they just don't get it.’ But what's important now is to take that conversation further and listen. Start with those who are closest to us.”
Her daughter – “she’s a little street soldier” – has produced a song called 'No Humanity', written in response to Ahmaud Arbery's death. “It breaks my heart that we keep experiencing a series of violent and senseless murders by people who are supposed to be protecting us,” says Kyla Imani. “This is not just a race issue, it is a human rights issue. Silence is complicity. If you have a gift, please use it to speak up, the world needs you.”
Rita wasn’t sure about posting it on her Instagram account. “I was thinking about it, and I didn't want to make my business into a call to action. But sometimes it's important; sometimes you just want to get the message out any way you can.”
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