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A Unique Experience for Holiday Shoppers

Denise Rolark-Barnes | 11/30/2010, 2:09 p.m.


While crowds waited in long lines to burst through the doors of major retailers in search of Black Friday sales last weekend, many Washington area residents opted for a more unique and less frantic kick off of the traditional holiday shopping season. Hundreds of shoppers filed through the massive glass doors of the Shiloh Baptist Church Family Life Center in Northwest on Fri., Nov. 26 to purchase one-of-a-kind items during the BZB Holiday Gift and Art Show.

"You don't see these types of things in Macy's," said an excited Belinda Jones, a District resident who wouldn't have missed the holiday gift and art show - it's become one of her time honored traditions.

Like a missile, Jones honed-in on a teal-colored suede camisole designed by Barbara Wynder, of Heavenly Honies, a clothier based in Detroit, Mich. Jones watched in amazement as Wynder demonstrated techniques on how to drape and tie colorful scraps of suede into shawls, scarves and belts.

"It's a unique place to shop," Jones said.

"Everything is hand-made, artistic and unique. I come every year; plus I just like to support my own [people]," she said. Jones isn't alone. For the past 20 years, Juanita Britton, also known as Busy Bee, has produced the annual gift show.

Her bazaar attracts African-American shoppers and artisans from far and wide. Britton provides a shopping experience that celebrates the ingenuity and creativity of African and African American artistry.

What makes the BZB Holiday Gift and Art Show even better- it's all under one roof - clothing, art, jewelry, accents for the home and natural body care products that aren't available at other venues - BZB is designed for the one-stop shopper.

Sandy Johnson said that she has supported the holiday gift show for a decade. Last Saturday, Johnson, with mirror in-hand, tried on dozens of original hats by Suzette Hallman, the owner of Suzette Art Couture in Philadelphia. The milliner's designs have a funky edge which appeals to Johnson's taste.

Each year, Johnson buys one of Hallman's originals to add to her collection. Hallman's hats have graced the runways of New York Fashion Week and appeared in glossies that include Essence and Source magazines.

Johnson said that doesn't like to shop in department stores. Rather, she prefers the holiday gift show because "the people are nice, the gifts are unique and everything is Afro centric," the Capitol Heights resident, said.

Britton credits Vernard Gray, a former local artist and art collector with the holiday gift and art show concept along with Lee Hairston, the former owner of Wonderful Things, a quaint gift shop that was once located in downtown Washington. Gray has since left the District for Baltimore but Hairston still lives in the District and remains a loyal customer and staunch supporter of the annual show, she said.

Britton brings together artists and vendors who enjoy one another's company but who also add a distinctive flair to the show.

"I can't have a furrier next to someone selling stuff they purchased from the Chinese wholesalers," the Southeast resident said.

"No, that won't work. I like quality."

She seeks out interesting and innovative artists. Sometimes Britton underwrites the expenses which make it possible for artists to participate in the show during one of the four weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas. She wants her vendors to be successful and enjoys providing her customers with a one-of-a-kind shopping experience.

This year marked the first year in many that the gift show opened on Black Friday.

"I opened on the Friday after Thanksgiving in the 90s," Britton said. "But I couldn't compete with the big box stores like Target and Walmart. Small businesses can't compete, so I stopped."

This year's turnout on Black Friday wasn't as brisk as Britton would have liked -- but as a businesswoman -- she understands the current economic climate. When she's not planning upcoming BZB Holiday Gift and Art Shows, Britton runs the Anacostia Art Gallery in Southeast. She sells rare African art and handicrafts, many of the pieces acquired by Britton during her travels to Africa and Europe over the years.

For the holiday show, Britton featured Ndebele dolls from South Africa, hand-crafted sandals from Tanzania, recycled plastic shopping bags with leather handles from Madagascar and home decor accents from Mali.

Gail Smith was disappointed when a sculptor she looked forward to seeing didn't return on Saturday.

"Everybody loves his work and his prices are reasonable," she said. "My girlfriend said he was here yesterday with 40 pieces of his work and I heard [that] he left with four. I'll come back," Smith said with a smile.

The Annual Holiday Gift and Art Show will be held on Dec. 4th, 11th, 18th and 23rd at Shiloh Baptist Church, 9th and P Streets, N.W., from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.