Organizer Tawanda Jones didn’t sleep at all during the 48 hours preceding the debut of her Masked Melanin Market on Aug. 30 in Camden’s Waterfront South neighborhood.
For over 30 years, she’s run the famed Camden Sophisticated Sisters drill team, currently on hiatus because of COVID-19. But bringing together more than 100 vendors and a small food court for a safe, open-air market during a pandemic was something else entirely.
“I’m thinking, this is like a wedding,” she said. “It’s going to be chaotic and on the day of, it’s all going to fall into place.”
During a moment of national reckoning over systemic racism against Black Americans, the Melanin Market gave entrepreneurs of color in the area some fresh air.
“The whole experience felt like a dream, a family reunion,” said Jones.
The mood on the three blocks of Broadway blocked off for the event was so buoyant that vendors and customers took occasional breaks to line dance to the music played by her son, DJ Robb Jones.
Vendors were asked to pay $40 to cover the costs of permits, tables and chairs, with one notable exception — the nonprofit Shoes for the Soul, who “brought shoes by the truckload” to distribute for free, Jones said. She refused to take their money; she did the same for other nonprofits.
“There was a neighbor who complained about having to move his car,” said Jones. “I’m thinking, this event is bigger than him or me, there were barefoot kids getting shoes!” Still, she began looking for a location that wouldn’t inconvenience any residents.
It was old friend Camden County Police Lt. Gabriel Rodriguez who suggested the city’s waterfront and introduced Jones to county park officials. On Sunday, the market was held at Wiggins Park from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. It will return for two more Sundays, Sept. 13 and 20.
Vendors sold everything from apparel for small dogs to handmade jewelry to homemade puddings, juices and gourmet butter.
For Teresa Hill, whose newly-founded KiNaté Kreations features decorated drinking goblets and mugs, the market was perfectly timed.
Hill had been bartending at Camden’s Krystal’s Lounge when the coronavirus pandemic hit, and even with the partial reopening of restaurants, tips would have been minimal due to capacity limits.
She was thrilled to have made $460 at the first market, and now, said Hill, “My husband is either making me a she-shed or fixing the basement up for me.” His only caveat, she said, was to tell her, “‘Please, no glitter in the food when you’re making dinner!’”
Seniors like Jaya Council and Claudia Cream, both retired Camden Board of Education employees, used the market not only for their business ventures, but to reconnect with old friends. Council drove from Delaware to sell her handmade jewelry for the first time; Cream, a travel and benefits advisor who had been a Camden principal, got to see former students and parents.
“The market brought a good spirit to the city,” said Cream. “Someone’s opinion of the city doesn’t have to be your reality.”
Family operations abounded.
Whitney Doughty started Tinkz Glitter to create hair and skin products that would be good for her 7-year old daughter, ZaNyda Hunter-Doughty, who has sensitive skin.
The child, clad in pink and purple sequins on Sunday, “has had a part in everything we do; she picks the colors,” said Doughty. At the first market, Doughty’s goal had been to make $300, but mother and daughter earned twice that amount.
Shamyr Johnson, who used her experience in culinary school in Philadelphia to create Dimple Gang juices, explained the presence of her boyfriend, nephew and three children this way: “I’m Dimples,” she said, “and they’re the gang.”
Shawnta Taylor was selling healing items named after her great-grandmother Laura Mae through Laura Mae Bludoo products while she shared a table with her husband, Arthur Leo Taylor, who offered King Art-T-Facts home goods. Their daughter Rhapsody Taylor sold jewelry under Omorose Beautix.
When Camden County police officers Tawand Smith and Deborah Baker — both born and raised in Camden — came by to sample Taylor’s scents, Smith said that patrolling the market was so enjoyable it “didn’t feel like work.”
Tawanda Jones isn’t sure where the market will land in three weeks’ time. She’s looking for privately-owned land, but is also considering having it “pop up” in a different Camden neighborhood each Sunday to reach more residents, as she’d done in recent years with drill team performances.
Jones’ daughter LaQuicia Jones, who represented her three-year-old company Eikon Cosmetics at the market, wasn’t surprised.
“My daughter said, ‘You always want to pop up! Why can’t you stay still?’” said Jones. “I’m always trying to figure out what else can I do out of the norm.”
After the inaugural market, Rodriguez didn’t see a downside.
“The first one was super peaceful,” he said, “and residents got to earn a couple of dollars. During these times when a lot of people are struggling, something like this where people can enjoy themselves is nothing but positive.”