Award-winning author and Smith English professor Ruth Ozeki ’80 shares insights into her fourth novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, which recently received the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction and is this year's Smith Reads selection.
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What Price History?
On the shelves of her popular Brooklyn-based collectibles shop, BLK MKT Vintage, Jannah Handy ’08 has curated a home for Black artifacts and ephemera, ensuring their value in the vintage marketplace and beyond.
Jannah Handy ’08 is one of the founders of BLK MKT Vintage, a Brooklyn, New York–based collectibles shop that specializes in what the store’s website calls “cast-offs and curiosities” that represent the expansiveness of the Black experience. Since its launch seven years ago, the business has soared, gaining national attention as a must-stop shop for anyone interested in the artifacts of Black history and heritage. At the same time, Handy has become a sought-after tastemaker in her own right, working with celebrities, set designers, and producers to ensure that Black art and memorabilia are represented in entertainment and across other media. Already, Handy, together with her fiancée and business partner, Kiyanna Stewart, has been featured on the Today show and in Ebony, Essence, and New York magazines, among many others. The headline on a story in Vice magazine, for example, declared: “The Most Interesting New Museum Is a Vintage Shop in Brooklyn.”
But Handy’s ascent as one of the faces of the effort to preserve Black ephemera and transform the traditional—and traditionally white—vintage marketplace has been completely unexpected, especially considering the path she originally intended to take.
Even before Handy set foot on Smith’s campus in the fall of 2004, she had her life pretty much mapped out: She would go to Smith—where her older sister, Kenya, went—and then pursue a lucrative career, perhaps in the world of finance. For a while, things proceeded as planned. At Smith, Handy majored in economics, played on the basketball team, made good friends, and got a great education. Right before she graduated, she scored what she thought was the perfect internship in investment banking.
Handy and her fiancée, Kiyanna Stewart, envisioned a shop that reflected more diverse lives.
The only problem was that once Handy got a taste of banking life, she realized she hated it. “The money was great, the overtime was amazing, but I was miserable. I was yearning for meaningful human interactions,” she recalls.
Determined to find another career focus, Handy remembered how much she enjoyed working in residence life during her sophomore and junior years at Smith. So, she pivoted, pursuing work in student affairs. After a year at Lincoln University, she returned to the Pioneer Valley and enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to get a master’s degree in higher education administration. Next came a job in student affairs at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Her intent was to continue working in the field, then go back to school for a doctorate, and eventually land a position as a dean. But those plans went out the window once Handy met the woman who would end up changing the course of her life in profound ways.
A New Partnership
Handy and Kiyanna Stewart were both working in student affairs at Rutgers when they first crossed paths. Their work relationship became a friendship that soon blossomed into a romance. One of Stewart’s favorite pastimes was shopping for vintage items, a passion Handy did not share. “I think at first I had an adversarial relationship with vintage [shopping] because I’m a middle child and I don’t want anyone’s hand-me-downs,” Handy says with a laugh.
That changed, though, after Handy visited her girlfriend’s apartment. Like most employees who worked in residence life, Stewart had been issued a drab campus apartment complete with cinder block walls and flame-resistant carpet. But Stewart’s place came alive with her personal creative touch. By painting the walls in bright colors and using thrifted furniture throughout the space, she had essentially turned her apartment into a gallery. “[Kiyanna] taught me the power of curation and that you can use simple things, material culture, to express yourself and express your identity,” Handy says.
Before she knew it, Handy had turned into an enthusiastic treasure hunter, joining Stewart on weekend trips to vintage shops and flea markets along the East Coast. Sometimes the two would fantasize about opening their own shop, one that would represent more diverse lives—Black lives, women’s lives, LGBTQ lives—so that people who shopped there would see themselves reflected in the items on the shelves, which was often not the case for Handy and Stewart.
For a while, their vision remained just a fantasy—until one day when Handy had her own aha moment after encouraging a group of her students at Rutgers to go after their dreams. “I asked myself if [working in student affairs] was my actual dream or if it was just something I could do.”
Turns out, Handy’s dream didn’t exist on a university campus. Rather, she seemed destined to run her own vintage store.
For perhaps the first time, Handy was moving forward without a plan. Neither she nor Stewart had ever owned a business before, so they played it safe. In getting started, they didn’t quit their jobs or go scouting for the perfect storefront. Instead, in 2014, they began collecting vintage items and selling them at stoop sales and flea markets. Handy laughs at the memory of packing up their cars in New Jersey and hauling their stuff to a flea market in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. They soon realized that they were filling a huge void in the market and made the decision to focus their business specifically on African American vintage items. That’s when they hit their groove—and BLK MKT Vintage was born.
From Hell’s Kitchen, the pair took their curated pop-up shops all over the country, making stops at wildly popular venues like Afropunk and the Essence Music Festival. Along the way, they built up a loyal fan base—all while continuing to hold down their full-time jobs at Rutgers.
Hitting the road turned out to be an invaluable experience. The pair learned the ins and outs of the vintage business, including how to source inventory—they’ve gone as far as Thailand to track down T-shirts, for example—and, perhaps more importantly, how to put a price tag on history and nostalgia, particularly when that history has traditionally been undervalued and excluded.
“The folks in the antiques business tend to be white, and they are the gatekeepers,” Handy explains. “They are the ones who get to decide what gets kept and what gets thrown away. They decide what to collect and what has value. So, we need more people who look like us who are part of that process.”
Indeed, with BLK MKT Vintage, Handy and Stewart are making a lot of people reconsider the value of Black life, both past and present.
Curating Black History
What’s unique about Handy and Stewart’s approach is that they put the African American vintage items they sell—books, clothing, records, magazines, furniture, and memorabilia—in context with Black identity. They don’t just lay their items out for customers to pick over; they create scenes that center African American history and culture using their items as props. “When people walk into our pop-up booths,” Handy says, “they get really emotional.” She remembers one woman saying, “I feel like I just walked into my grandma’s living room” when she visited their pop-up shop at an Afropunk festival.
In fact, it was customers like that who urged Handy and Stewart to turn their pop-up shops into something permanent. “It really became a drumbeat that just got louder and louder,” Handy says. “And we realized we really needed to put in the effort to find a permanent space for the collection we were amassing.”
Around 2017, Handy and Stewart started the first iteration of their permanent shop on the online platform Etsy, but they soon discovered that the community that followed them around the festival circuit didn’t use Etsy for their shopping needs. So, they built their own online store (blkmktvintage.com). And from there BLK MKT Vintage’s audience ballooned into a large and loyal following. (At last check, they had 283,000 followers on Instagram.) But the people following Handy and Stewart weren’t just collectors looking for a rare book or some antique salt shakers. Set designers, photographers, movie folk, and TV people were also part of team BLK MKT Vintage. Handy and Stewart soon found themselves in the business of set design and interior design (and, yes, by then they had left Rutgers behind) because people valued not only the items Handy and Stewart found but also their talent for curation and storytelling using material culture.
Actor/writer/producer Lena Waithe commissioned BLK MKT Vintage to curate the set for a concert series promoting Netflix’s third season of Master of None. Costume designer and stylist Shiona Turini has often used BLK MKT Vintage’s services for set design, props, and costumes for the many projects she works on, including the Issa Rae hit Insecure. And Handy and Stewart have also worked with media companies including HBO and BET.
“The beautiful thing about what they’re … saying about our magazines, old books, old T-shirts, our tchotchkes, our buttons [is] that they are worthy of being kept,” Waithe told the Today show about her admiration for Handy and Stewart.
A Dream Come True
Finally, in November 2019, BLK MKT Vintage opened the doors of its brick-and-mortar store in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Opening day was packed, but just four months later, the pandemic hit and forced the pair to close up shop.
Gatekeepers of the antique business tend to be white. We need better representation.
But all wasn’t lost. Customers continued to purchase items from the online store, and, unexpectedly, people started sending items to add to BLK MKT’s inventory. Handy posits that since folks were stuck in their homes during the pandemic, they started cleaning out their attics and basements. “And because they now know we exist,” she says, “they knew that there was a place where they could send their family treasures where they would be valued and taken care of.”
Having diversified BLK MKT’s income streams, Handy and Stewart were able to survive the pandemic; they reopened the doors of their Brooklyn store in January 2022.
Always on the Hunt
It’s been almost seven years since the BLK MKT Vintage journey began, but Handy shows no signs of losing her excitement and enthusiasm for the project. Every day, she wakes up wondering what new treasures she might find. “I have something called FOMOV,” she jokes. “That stands for ‘fear of missing out on vintage.’” In every way, she has embraced the treasure hunter she never knew was inside her. “It’s the thrill of the hunt,” she says. “But it’s also the idea of bringing back the hunt and letting people experience it, and engage with it, and honor the story that it’s telling.”
Lori Tharps ’94 is an author and freelance writer currently living in Spain.
This story appears in the Summer 2022 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.