The return of a festive market that has long united black businesses

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Every year, when she worked for the National Education Association, Sheila Simmons spoke with board members who traveled from across the country to Washington for a November meeting.

And every year he offered them the same tip: if they wanted a cultural experience, they had to go shopping.

He told them that if they wanted to experience black culture, they should attend a Christmas market unlike any other in the city.

“Even if you don’t buy anything, you learn,” Simmons, who is Black, said of the market one recent morning. “Learn about the artwork. Learn about music. You learn about clothing. And you learn from people who have used their own hands to make these things.

To hear Simmons and others talk about the “Shop Til Ya Drop” market is to quickly understand that for many people in DC’s black community, the holiday bazaar is more than a place to pick up unique wares. It’s an opportunity to come together and support Black-owned businesses. Most of the sellers are black artists and entrepreneurs. Many are from the Washington area, but others travel from Atlanta and even Africa.

Simmons, who retired as director of human and civil rights for the National Education Association, uses the words “fairness,” “equality,” and “representation” when discussing the vacation market.

“This local marketplace not only builds our community in terms of what it supplies to us, but it’s also been an opportunity to create local jobs,” Simmons said. It helps narrow the wealth gap, she said. “The other thing that I think is so important about this is that you have the opportunity to build fellowship. You get a chance to re-engage with people you’ve known over the years, and it’s around food, it’s around fashion, it’s around culture.

Simmons is not a vendor or event organizer. She is a longtime customer and volunteer. Her house is decorated with artwork and her closet is full of clothes that she bought there in the past years.

“I don’t dress up for Black History Month; I dress to represent my culture every day,” she said. “This is something I’ve adopted as a lifestyle starting with the stuff I bought at the very first ‘Shop Til Ya Drop’ event.”

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Friday will mark the 30th anniversary of the event. The first was actually held 32 years ago, but the pandemic has prevented the market from opening up for the past two years.

This year, Juanita Carol Britton, who is widely known by the nickname “Busy Bee,” was determined to bring it back.

“I could not bear the stress of Not have the show,” he said. He knew too many people were depending on it. “I had more than 800 phone calls and emails from people asking about it.”

They all, he said, asked the same question: “Are we back?”

The significance of the event returning this year has not escaped many people who are aware of it. In the Washington region, the pandemic has taken from everyone, but it has taken disproportionately from DC’s black community. Britton said there are past sellers who won’t be returning this year because they or their businesses didn’t survive.

For those who have, he said, the event offers them a way to make much-needed year-end sales.

Britton, whose company BZB International operates more than a dozen businesses at Washington-area airports, said the idea for the market came to her after visiting London’s Brixton Market. There, she saw a “beautiful, eclectic Caribbean community” selling their handcrafted items and began thinking about ways to replicate that model in Washington.

In 1990, the first year the Shop Til Ya Drop event was held, people stood outside in the snow waiting for it to open. Britton recalled buying them coffee. The event took place in just one day and about 800 people showed up, he said she.

Now, the event will be held on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving and every Saturday before Christmas at the Shiloh Family Life Center in Northwest Washington. Britton expects it to attract thousands of buyers those days and raise more than $500,000. While the vendors are mostly Black-owned businesses, she said he hopes people of all races and ethnicities will come and shop.

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“I’d like it to bring people together,” she said. “I always want to get a wider mix of buyers.”

Aaron Johnson said he’d like to see a line up the street of people waiting to get in.

“This is what it should be,” he said. Her family runs Unitees, a handmade fashion collection, and has long been a presence in the market. “It’s a very unique space, as you have fashion and handmade creations by African-American artists and designers from all over the country. There is no such space anywhere else.

Lorraine Green, a retired Amtrak executive, was among those who shopped at the first event. At that time, her daughter, Leslie, was about 10 years old. Now, that little girl is a grown woman, she has her own business and will be a vendor at the event on one of those Saturdays. Many items from her clothing and apparel line bear the word “Grateful”.

“I’ve seen Juanita inspire this new generation, and that’s one of the things I’m most proud to have done,” Green said. “I don’t know many visionaries, but I’d say Juanita is one of them. I think you would have to be a visionary and a futurist to do what she did.

Green said when she told friends the event was back, they responded enthusiastically. Part of that, she said, is that the pandemic has left so many people wanting to get back to a sense of normalcy, and the event “returns us to a feeling that everything is going to be okay.”

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Simmons described her as a needed “bright light in our community.”

“Our light has been very dimmed by the pandemic, by the losses, by George Floyd,” he said. “And now it’s like, ‘Wow, we can meet again.’ “

He now has a home in Florida, and he was there the day we spoke. But she plans to travel to Washington in the next few days in time to participate in the transfer market.

“I will definitely make it,” he said. “I can’t even imagine not being there to see it.”

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