Minority-owned businesses finding success in city lacking racial and ethnic diversity

A Los Angeles native has created a small island of diversity in Altoona – which, according to a 2012 Penn State study, is one of the least racially and ethnically diverse metropolitan areas in the U.S.

It’s Di Versity Salon & Spa, one of several new businesses in Altoona’s downtown.

Two of the businesses are minority-owned.

All are specialty venues, “right in line with the philosophy of the main street concept for the redevelopment of downtowns,” according to Patrick Miller, president of the Greater Altoona Economic Development Corp.

Specialty retail shops tend to be sufficient unto themselves as shopper destinations, and so can survive in downtowns, which lack the general traffic that stores in suburban shopping centers often rely on, Miller indicated.

“These entrepreneurs are out there finding their own little niche,” Miller said.

In contrast to Altoona, Los Angeles is a “melting pot,” said Christie Jordan, Di Versity’s proprietor.

Growing up in LA among a diversity of people, she learned to connect easily with others, she said.

She’s created a mini-melting pot here, with help from her shop’s name, which attracts people who are different, helping them feel at ease, she said.

“[The name] means ‘I’m accepted here,'” she said.

People come just to hang out, Jordan said.

“We’re really laid back,” she said.

The name also signals that the stylists can deal with different hair textures, she said.

The clientele is 50-50 black and white.

The shop, which will be honored by the Blair County Chamber of Commerce as one of three “young emerging businesses,” has drawn a Nigerian princess and clients from India and Iraq.

A major source is Penn State Altoona.

Like the clients, the staffers come from diverse backgrounds.

One is from New York City, one from Texas and one from Sierra Leone. One grew up in Altoona.

Both Jordan and her husband – who works for the Altoona Curve – are ministers.

She tries to create a “faith-based, Christian” environment, she said.

Stylists can be therapists, and often have the opportunity to encourage people to get off drugs, get back in school or get jobs, she said.

“We’ve created our own little place of comfort,” she said.

Soul food

A little more than a block away, a native from a much closer city – Philadelphia – has started a soul food restaurant, hoping to counter what he believes is the negative impression whites often carry about blacks.

“We’re trying to do something new and positive,” said Troy Adams, owner of Soul Platterz in the Penn Central Building, across from IDA Tower.

Troy Adams said his clientele is also half white and half black.

Adams put almost $13,000 into the project, virtually all the resources he could muster.

By the time the restaurant opened in May, he only had $2,500 left in the bank.

It didn’t help that two days after opening, he had to invest $500 in a new grease trap.

He doesn’t have enough money yet to stock up much.

“We’ve got to buy food day-by-day,” he said.

He and wife Mandy can’t afford advertising, so they’re relying on word of mouth.

Adams learned to cook from his dad, who, with Troy’s mother, moved to the area from Philadelphia eight years ago.

His grandmother visited from Philadelphia to teach him how to make collard greens from scratch.

Everything is made from scratch at Soul Platterz, he said.

His dad warned him that running a restaurant would be lots of work.

He was right.

They arrive around 6:30 a.m. to prepare.

The days are long.

They’re open four days a week – Tuesday through Friday – Mondays are for prep and Sundays for buying food and cleaning.

Saturday is the only day off.

Adams previously had a clothing store, but that ended when he was robbed.

He later worked at a local trucking firm.

Landlord Irv Seltzer was skeptical at first about Adams’ idea for a restaurant in the Penn Central space.

What makes you think you can make it, when others haven’t? Seltzer asked, according to Troy.

Adams replied that his predecessors there offered traditional food – like turkey sandwiches – which customers could easily get at the nearest Sheetz.

He was planning something different, he said.

His typical daily gross is $400 – but $250 goes back into food, he said.

A good day brings $600.

For now, the store barely pays for itself.

But Adams likes the idea of ownership.

“I’m trying to do something the kids can be proud of,” he said.

He also appreciates that it allows him to avoid the difficulties of getting work as someone else’s employee.

He gets depressed, but when someone gives him a thumbs up and says “I’m rooting for you,” it makes his day.

Memory brokers

Back on 11th Avenue, one day recently, the new Bombshell Vintiques attracted a man sharply dressed in white shirt, belted pants – pulled a little high – and two-toned shoes.

“He’s rocking the ’40s and ’50s,” said Bombshell proprietor Amy Ake.

Outside, at the curb, was the visitor’s chariot, a 1959 Cadillac hardtop with the windows open to reveal the generous space inside, a car with gorgeous, swollen curves, like Marilyn Monroe or a World War II pinup – a bombshell – bespeaking American confidence that stemmed from the results of World War II, then rose to an apogee of excess at the end of the decade that followed, an apogee that preceded Vietnam, the oil crises and the intractable problems of the Middle East.

Bombshell focuses on the mid-20th Century, during and after World War II, the era Ake, her husband, Todd, and their son Hunter, 16 – “an old soul from the very beginning” – feel a connection with.

Amy started the store about a year and a half ago, in Duncansville, but moved it recently to 11th Avenue.

The building itself is a kind of exhibit.

Most recently, it was McIntyre’s Candies . Previously, it was Kinney Shoes. She’s preserving relics of those iterations – lettering on the window for McIntyre’s and a big “K” for Kinney on the linoleum of the floor.

People are often conflicted about items from their personal past – whether to keep them and endure the clutter or else trash them – which can be painful.

But when an item comes to her, it’s destined for new life, because a subsequent buyer can cherish it, she said.

“We get it to the right owners,” said Ake, who’s become a memory broker.

Her husband focuses on vinyl records.

Hunter works with military items.

She focuses on clothing and advertising.

She ties her love of collecting to memories of Jaffa circuses, Christmas window shopping with her grandmother and her father’s love of fishing.

Her mother got rid of stuff.

“Maybe I’m trying to bring my past back,” she said. “I guess I’m trying to collect my memories.”

A dream realized

Across 11th Avenue is Karen’s Altoona Alterations, which has gone through its own prior iterations: a shop on 58th Street, a shop in Mill Run, a shop near 31st Street and a shop in Garden Heights.

The most recent alteration put Glass in a special place.

She can remember coming downtown as a kid.

“It’s amazing to me I’m here,” she said.

She got the inspiration for her shop from her mother, who used to own Maebelle’s Draperies.

Glass learned the trade through a speciality fashion class at Altoona Area High School.

Her original focus was hems for weddings and formal wear.

Now her business is broader and includes auto upholstery.

She doesn’t make clothing from scratch – not because she can’t, but because the required time investment would force her to charge more than what it would be worth customers to pay.

She’d need to charge $100 for a vest that would be available much cheaper off the rack, she said.

Moreover, there are no more local fabric stores to send potential customers for raw material, she said.

She doesn’t know that it was ever her dream to be a business owner on 11th Avenue.

“But now that I am, I feel accomplished,” she said.

Getting ink

Down the block, at the corner of 13th Street, there’s more going on around Resilience Tattoo than when the shop moved there in 2013, according to co-owner Randi Aliquo.

The shop is across the street from Penn State Altoona’s Sheetz Entrepreneurial Center and not far from Penn State’s other downtown locations, she said.

The location has turned out to be better than the shop’s prior venue, in Ivyside Plaza, Aliquo said.

The plaza was near the college’s Ivyside Campus, but the shop was “off in a corner” of the plaza, and people tended not to notice.

“We’re more seen here,” she said.

Their clientele ranges from 16-year-olds that need parental consent for tattoos to grandparents, Aliquo said.

“I hope they continue to build downtown,” she said. “[Build it] back to something really good.”