vintage objects sold at the store; a magazine; a pin; a t-shirt; books; cans
Images courtesy BLK MKT Vintage
VICE Magazine

The Most Interesting New Museum Is a Vintage Shop in Brooklyn

BLK MKT Vintage wants to be the “Blackest antique store there ever was.” But in trying to make Black cultural ephemera accessible to their community, its founders have revealed how often white curators control the narrative.
28 May 2020, 12:00pm

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Means of Production issue. Conceived of pre-COVID-19 and constructed during it, it explores the organization and ownership of our world.

BLK MKT Vintage is a time capsule that’s not buried in a backyard, but in a storefront on the corner of Marcus Garvey Boulevard and Decatur Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. It’s the result of years of purposeful excavation by its owners, Jannah Handy and Kiyanna Stewart, a couple whose love for vintage almost eclipses their love for each other. Inside, the exposed brick is peppered with memorabilia from the NAACP, and a Howard University 1981 yearbook is at home in its library. Minnie Riperton’s falsetto comes through the speakers, followed by Lil Baby’s mumble. It is a fitting evocation of the soft and harsh fullness of the Black experience.

Or at least, that’s what I can piece together from footage of BLK MKT (pronounced Black Market) Vintage’s grand opening last November. Reporting this piece meant spending a few hours getting lost in their space, but that became impossible when COVID-19 shut down every nonessential business, including Handy and Stewart’s vintage shop. But with their online store up and running, the couple is still committed to closing the gap between ancestry and ownership.

With more than 140,000 followers on Instagram and a handful of features—including one in Vogue—it would be hard to dispute the appetite and market for what Handy, 33, and Stewart, 30, are selling. The success of their “collection of curiosities” centered on Black cultural ephemera is rooted in their lived experience, and BLK MKT’s existence confronts the overwhelmingly white curatorial spaces that shape how Black history is told.

“We’re thinking of what’s filling the walls, who is behind the counter, and what the community looks like,” Stewart said. “We’re striving to be the Blackest antique store while paying homage to our grandparents’ attics.”

Handy and Stewart’s vintage shop was born from their need to see themselves reflected in the spaces they loved. They met in 2012 working at Rutgers University’s cultural centers, where they championed marginalized students on campus—a prelude to their business now. “It was an intentional means to support [them],” said Stewart. “It’s about holding up that mirror to communities we’re a part of or share similarities with; to hold up the mirror and say ‘I see you. I am you. We share a similar history or set of experiences.’ Meanwhile, the couple visited countless thrift stores and flea markets together but rarely came across Black vendors or artifacts.

“It became this blaring dissonance where you have spaces dedicated to history and there’s a whole population of folks who are not included,” said Handy. “No one buying looked like us. None of the records, the pictures, or the magazines reflected a Black experience.”

The store in the fall of 2019

BLK MKT brings those memories of feeling othered at flea markets full circle. Now Handy and Stewart make a living bringing the Black experience to their audience with the same magazines they coveted. Moments after we spoke via Google Hangouts, they listed on Instagram four rare vintage copies of a nude calendar spread for JET magazine. For decades, JET and Ebony cataloged the everyday lives of Black America. But last summer, the fate of its extensive photo archive was unclear.

Johnson Publishing Company’s legacy is checkered, colored equally by its successes and failures. John H. Johnson founded the company in 1942, and the years that followed saw JET and Ebony documenting the civil rights era in ways mainstream media would not—such as publishing a photo of Emmett Till’s open casket. Over time, the boom of the internet and unstable publishing industry caused the magazines’ circulation to plummet. In 2016, the company sold JET and Ebony to the private equity firm Clear View Group, an indicator that it had been decades since its heyday. Last April, Johnson Publishing filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Then, news broke in July that Johnson’s entire collection of over 4 million prints and negatives was being auctioned—an archive the general public was unaware even existed.

According to Brenna Wynn Greer, an associate history professor at Wellesley College, the publishing company didn’t present the photos as a scholarly repository, which skewed the perception of them as a treasury of Black imagery. As a result, Greer and other historians were concerned about where the images would land: “If it wasn’t going to be Johnson Publishing, then who has the right to that archive?”

A week later, it sold for $30 million to a handful of prestigious groups: the MacArthur Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. The new owners agreed to give a portion of the images to the Getty Research Institute and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to guarantee that the public had access to them.

“This collection is something that means a lot for African Americans, and yet, African Americans as a group probably have fewer resources and structure to be able to access it,” said Greer. The politics of representation, as Greer puts it, means deciphering where the images of Black life have the most cultural value, and who is allowed to actively participate in those conversations. It also raises the question of who gets to be a consumer of that life.

“White folks have told Black stories for as long as they’ve been telling stories,” said Stewart. “No one can tell my story the way I can.”

For their project, Handy and Stewart’s business needed to be accessible, but their process was full of trial and error. In 2014, they started selling items at Brooklyn flea markets and built their online presence on Etsy, but the heavily Etsy-branded platform limited how they could present themselves to potential buyers. BLK MKT’s earliest years presented a unique problem: cultivating Black buyers. For Handy and Stewart to fulfill their mission of creating a “for us, by us” space, they needed ownership.

In the winter of 2018, they began crowdfunding for a commercial space in Brooklyn with one nonnegotiable: The community around them had to look like them. Heavily gentrified neighborhoods like Park Slope, Williamsburg, and Bushwick were cheaper but weren’t accessible for Black shoppers. After one unsuccessful bid in Bed-Stuy, the couple closed on a spot in the same neighborhood the following year. “We were born and raised in Brooklyn, and there’s something special about being able to take up physical and tangible space in a community that is continuing to rapidly change,” said Stewart.

But opening a shop that would welcome the consumers they wanted to support, and eventually also attract a larger audience, was more layered than they thought. For one thing, it has meant that items in their store are priced lower in order to be affordable. A first-edition book might be $200 in their shop, but could cost $2,000 in another. BLK MKT also carries an abundance of vintage tees, including paraphernalia for Black Greek organizations—which is traditionally only worn by members of those fraternities or sororities. When Handy and Stewart put a handful of those shirts up for sale online, customers questioned if they were monitoring who bought them. Once an item leaves their shop, what is done with it is out of their hands. For them, it’s about educating the buyer with as much context around the item as possible.

“We have NAACP shirts too—does that mean you need to be a member to get one? Do we have these expectations of other shops in different communities?” Stewart asked rhetorically.

The plight of Black-owned businesses is heavily documented, if often ignored. Black women, despite being the fastest-growing demographic of business owners, receive the least funding. Even when Black entrepreneurs are granted loans, they’re awarded less money. Disregarding these businesses means neglecting a lucrative market. According to a Nielsen study from 2017, Black consumers are likely to spend $1.5 trillion by next year. In an era of constant blackface blunders by luxury brands, buying Black is political. The study suggested that a priority for many of these businesses is their values, which, for Handy and Stewart, often means honoring the Black experience.

In many ways, BLK MKT functions as a museum, with each item telling a larger story about our societal ideals. But the work Handy and Stewart are performing is a rarity. A 2015 Mellon Foundation study revealed that 84 percent of curators are white, with Black curators making up only 4 percent of the field. Education is another roadblock: According to ArtNet, 77 percent of curators have a master’s or doctorate degree.

“White folks have told Black stories for as long as they’ve been telling stories,” said Stewart. “No one can tell my story the way I can.”

Although JET and Ebony’s archives were hidden for so long, there were two photos the public knew well: the aforementioned photo of Emmett Till’s open casket, and one of Coretta Scott King at her husband’s funeral. Despite the scope of the millions of other photos, the legacy of those publications is inextricably tied to death and trauma. The focus and recirculation of those images erases the nuance that comes with the others, such as the photo of Ray Charles feeling his way around a game of dominos, or Redd Foxx standing outside his hair salon in Los Angeles.

“It is indicative of what America thinks is important to remember about Black people,” said Greer. Not viewing the archives in its entirety also strips away the fullness of the Black experience: “When you only think about them in relationship to their race, and in relationship to white America, you miss the other shades of what’s motivating them as people.”

Founders Jannah Handy (left) and Kiyanna Stewart (right) posing in front of an exhibit they curated at NYC ad agency, Wieden + Kennedy in February 2020.

Handy and Stewart’s lived experience has prepared them to see the beauty in what high-end auction houses overlook. Handy said sometimes the treasures are found in the trash behind auction venues, where she’s fished out Black art, photos, and portraits. Stewart remembers presenting a map of Africa that was printed in the 1600s to a high-end auction house and being told it wasn’t “spectacularly memorable.”

“It’s as if we socially devalue Black people and Black bodies,” Stewart said. “When it comes to the things Black people have produced, that’s where the money is. The output of Black people, the output of Black culture. Those things are valued—but Black people are not.”

Even the work produced by Black people is often depreciated. According to Greer, Johnson Publishing was looking for a buyer for five years. When it sold, the archive went for $15 million less than it was worth, a fact that, to Greer, signals that no one really understood the true value of Johnson’s photos.

“At no other time in U.S. history before Johnson Publishing has there been such a concerted effort in saying, ‘We’re here,’ said Greer. “I think $30 million was a steal.”

Coincidentally or not, the same year Johnson Publishing sold JET and Ebony, the Smithsonian opened the doors to the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture, where some of the collection of photos is housed. There, it is the job of people like Dwandalyn Reece, a curator of music and performing arts for the museum, to make Black history available to the general public. Reece said after 30 years as a curator, one of the most important lessons she’s learned is thoughtfulness toward her audience.

“When you think about curators, the public and the audience matters just as much as the work that you’re doing,” she said. “I don’t think any one of us is perfect, but we have to be willing to ask, what am I not seeing?”

Thanks to Instagram, everyone is keeping a record of culture—just look at “vibe curators”—but it’ll take more than social media to create equity in curatorial spaces. Handy and Stewart’s expansion from a digital space to brick-and-mortar is what distinguishes them as archivists, even if its fate is on pause due to COVID-19.

“Equity is more than just filling a spot,” said Reece. “Equity means operating in spaces that embrace diverse points of view. It’s one thing to open up divisions to other people, but it’s another thing to make sure they can operate and function to their best in an environment that supports who they are and what they bring to the table.”

With BLK MKT, Handy and Stewart are fostering an atmosphere where their customers can be themselves. COVID-19 has temporarily closed their shop, but disruption is embedded in their business model.

“History remembers a lot of things, but we remember the folks who disrupt a particular narrative and inject their own with a sense of confidence and audacity,” said Stewart.

“We have disrupted a market and an industry that looks very differently from us: two Black LGBT women from New York taking over this vintage space in physical and digital ways, making things accessible to Black folks. We’re dismantling the narrative that millennials are not invested in community—that we’re individualistic and that we don’t care about history. The whole premise of our work is sankofa”—she said, citing the Ghanaian symbol used by Africans to communicate during slavery—“looking back in order to look forward.”

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