Like a lot of people, I’ve been walking during the pandemic. One of my routines is walking down King Street, the center of commerce in my city. I love it, from the three bookstores to my gym, to Misha’s Coffee and the 10,000 Villages store. But it’s gotten to be – the same, so much the same, in the past six months, that I might crawl out of my skin if I went up King Street again. So on Sunday, I took a detour two blocks north, to Queen Street. I wandered into one of the tiny still-living hearts of Alexandria’s Black history.
I fell into a conversation with men sitting on the sidewalk outside the barbershop of Booker T. Wilkins. “Come inside,” they said. “Meet him.”
You can’t replicate the rich surroundings of a locally owned business, red-and-white checkered floor, a framed letter from the mayor congratulating Wilkins on 50 years in business, and an ancient cash register, white receipt curling from the top.
Wilkins, named after Booker T. Washington, reads the leader’s biography about three times a year. In 1895, Washington gave a famous speech advocating for Black power through entrepreneurship and education. “I feel like I can do anything,” Wilkins said. “Because he did so much.”
Small businesses – any business, for that matter, done right – is a place for people to connect.
Wilkins lost two of his children to cancer, many years ago. In the time after, when he was struggling with depression, a deacon came in for a haircut. “He sat in this chair,” Wilkins said, pointing to the one between us. “He said, “Hold on for today, Brother Wilkins. Every day after this one will be better.’”
Wise words in dark days, of which there have been many this year. I didn’t want to end the talk on a tough or sad note, so I asked about the ancient cash register. “Do you still use it?” I asked. Well, he said, it only rings up transactions up to $5. So yes, it still works fine. To charge for his $20 haircuts, he rings up four $5 transactions.
So, do the math: A business on a secondary street, the scene of thousands of small encounters, ends up with an infinite value.