When Bianca Brown’s daughter was small she had eczema, so Brown experimented with homemade salves and creams until she came up with her own concoction of African shea butter, cocoa butter and different essential oils. No chemicals allowed. Friends and family liked it, so she started selling it as Bee’s Body Butter, along with Bee’s Buzziing Balm for lips, at the Night Market, a former once a month market sponsored by the NoLi CDC.
Since last fall she has a stall at the Julietta Market, NoLi’s business incubator inside of Greyline Station, Lexington’s former bus garage at the corner of Limestone and Loudon that’s been transformed into a huge commercial space by developer Chad Needham.
Brown has a full-time job, but the Market allows her to work Saturday and Sunday in a small stall devoted completely to her wares.
“It’s going really good,” she said. “It works perfectly for me.”
Sly Noel has a larger stall at one end of the market covered in jars and vials. He moved here from New Jersey, and couldn’t find some the essential oils, like Egyptian musk, that he likes. So he got some wholesale information and started selling the oils to friends. and ‘let’s see what happens.’
“People kept requesting natural oils,” he said. “I saw a need,” and so Sly’s Nubian Essentials was born.
Julietta Market, Lexington’s newest shopping hub, was named for Julia Etta Lewis, a civil rights activist in Lexington, and its birth occurs in an uneasy moment of pandemic, a new age of civil rights activism and the contentious gentrification of Lexington’s North Side. The Night Market quickly became a millennial haven and was sometimes criticized for a lack diversity among its vendors.
Greyline Station will attract many of the same customers with an outer ring of tenants facing Limestone and Loudon with stores full of curated houseplants, vegan cocktails, vintage clothes, coffee drinks and other attractions for young, urban, upscale, mostly white folks.
But inside the Julietta Market is a rare collection of mostly minority-owned startup businesses, a marketplace of diversity seen in Lexington only once a year, at the Roots and Heritage Festival. In a city where gentrification mostly created spaces for white people in the traditionally Black neighborhoods of north Lexington, the market is attempting to create space for people of color as entrepreneurs and customers, too.
“People who’ve never been here might think it’s only for hipsters, but there’s more diversity in the patrons here than I’ve seen other places, including Fayette Mall,” said Andrea James, a former city council member who is working the cash register at her husband Rodney’s barber shop stall. “Over 70 percent of the vendors are people of color, and I’ve never seen this kind of business accelerator where people can start a storefront that might lead to bricks and mortar.”
Sitting in Rodney James’ barber chair on a recent Sunday was Ramel Bradley, former UK and professional basketball player who came back to Lexington and works at AppHarvest.
“Lexington is not a place where you usually see this much diversity,” he added. “I love this whole transformation.”
Minority communities have been shut out of Lexington business worlds, said Ashley Smith, the founder of Black Soil, a nonprofit aimed at reconnecting Black Kentuckians to their heritage in agriculture. Black Soil is operating a mini-farmer’s market at the Julietta Market, featuring the food of Black farmers from around Kentucky.
“It’s so complicated because there are not enough pieces of critical infrastructure for people of color,” Smith said. “So I will say to all the opponents and critics — if we’ve not seen you at Julietta Market directly supporting these businesses, then what is it that you propose that we do in Lexington-Fayette for women and minority-owned businesses?”
Businesses are still opening up, including more food-based businesses, said Leannia Haywood, NoLi CDC’s director of small business development and mentoring.
“We listened to the community, and we heard their complaints, and we wanted to better serve them where they were, to meet a need where they were disadvantaged,” Haywood said. “This is a community led project this is for the people by the people —without them we cannot do this.”
It still requires a lot of fundraising for NoLi CDC and Needham to keep the rents low enough to attract these small businesses, and Haywood said she would love to see the day when Julietta Market is financially self-sustaining, as successful businesses go out into their own bricks and mortar establishments and new ones move in.
Tinia Taylor opened Tinia’s Tasty Treats in December with a selection of candy apples, although that hardly covers the multi-colored, multi-flavored concoctions displayed on the counter. Now she’s contemplating adding on a mini-funnel cake car.
“On this side of town there wasn’t a lot for people to do,” she said. It works for women, but it’s for everyone, because every one likes to shop and everyone likes to eat.”
And as Sly Noel pointed out, it’s good for people to be exposed to a broader array of products. “You can’t really learn about different cultures at the mall,” he said. “This place can help us become a more diverse community.”
That’s one of the hopes of the project, Haywood said, “that no matter where you live, people could see these businesses in any part of the city. I’d love to believe Julietta Market will become the heartbeat of Lexington — we want to be infectious with diversity.”