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Monday
Sep032012

Akente Express celebrates 21 years 

Ron Springer, owner of Akente Express, has sold Afro-centric products in the Five Points area for more than two decades.(Denver) This year marks 21 years since Ronald Springer created Akente Express, an Afro-centric store supplying fabric, art, incense, oils, jewelry, hair and skin care products.

“I’ve been blessed to do this,” says Springer, who created the idea for Akente Express when he picked up on the community’s demand for African fabric in April 1991. The New York native broke the market by purchasing fabric from his hometown and selling fabric for $9 a yard. He went home, “spent $800 on fabric, jewelry, incense oils and cute stuff, and returned to Denver and sold everything in two weeks. I thought that was pretty interesting and profitable. I went back and spent $3,200.”

He had mastered his formula. By the time Juneteenth and the Denver Black Arts festival rolled around that year, “I was selling hand over fist. Evidently, I was getting things no one else could get,” says Springer, who executed words of wisdom from Clara Villarosa, then-owner of Hue-Man Experience Bookstore.

Villarosa walked by his booth at the arts festival, looked at him and said, “You need a store.” Along the way he also picked up a partner, Michael Simmons. By Nov. 15, 1991 they had incorporated and set up shop next door to the bookstore. Not only did he get the overflow from book signings, with high-profile people as Colin Powell and Maya Angelou, he maintained business relationships with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, the Denver Center Theatre Company, school systems and events hosted in Colorado, such as the Black Ski Summit.

“The first six years we were successful,” says Springer, who initially had carts in downtown Denver bringing in $200 a day. “Then we slowed down by 40 percent.”

He says African traders were coming to town and staying, mainstream stores were offering similar products and the start-up of basement businesses.  One day he counted about 40 other stores in Denver doing what he was doing.  “They were doing a little bit, but not everything. But one and two percent of your business here and there taking from your business adds up.”  About eight years in Simmons decided to return educational consulting with Denver Public Schools.

“I was wondering if I was doing the right thing myself,” says Springer, who on a snowy day had resigned himself to head to Pierre’s restaurant for some catfish and a drink while he rethought his plan.

“It was 6:20 p.m., and I closed at 6:30 p.m. One of the costume designers from the Denver Center for Performing Arts came in to purchase material for plays. She said 'I want this, this and this.' I thought I was going to have to cut into tomorrow, with a yard here and there. She says 'I want all of it.' By end of week she had spent about $11,000."

Last man standing
The West Indian from New York has experienced waves of change in his two decades running the business and seven years owning the building in which his shop is located.

At 60, Springer sees himself as the “last man standing” when it comes to black ownership in the Historic Five Points community.  If the neighborhood were a book, the following would be major chapters: Summer of Violence, Curtis Park redevelopment, Light Rail Comes to Five Points, fall of the housing markets, banks changing loan criteria, gentrification and the closure of area cornerstones, such as Kapre Fried Chicken, M&Ds and Hue-Man Experience Bookstore.

He still offers African fabric, but his focus is now hair and skin products, such as Nubian Heritage, Carol’s Daughter and Miss Jessie’s, as well as Kumba Collections. “If it’s $400 for a piece of art versus the gas tank and utilities, people aren’t buying artifacts like masks.”

But he says, “Sisters will take care of their hair and skin no matter what.”

Springer, who, has trademarked Ultimate Hair Food and Whip Ash, is working on his exit strategy (plan B) started two years ago when he thought he’d need to return to New York to help his family take care of his mother, suffering from dementia. He says the elements were not right for him to sell at the time. Today, he and his family have worked out care-taking roles for his mother.

Plan B is on his radar, and includes an online component. For now give him a call or drop by. “Email is my snail mail,” he says.


 

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