NEW BEDFORD — For 18 years, Celia’s Boutique has seen it all from empty downtown storefronts to the Buy Black movement. The one part that has never changed: the love the mother/daughter co-owners have toward their community.
“I feel like our customer service at the boutique is concierge level,” said Tanya Alves, co-owner to the boutique, who works alongside her mother and namesake of the business, Celia Brito.
“It’s definitely a shopping experience. That’s what we try to provide,” Brito added.
When a customer walks into the boutique, at the corner of Pleasant and Williams streets, someone is standing by ready to offer a warm welcome, help assist with choosing a gift, putting pieces together, bringing items to the dressing room or just offering conversation.
“We want to get to know who they are,” said Brito.
“My mom is a social butterfly,” Alves added with a laugh.
Since 2003, Celia’s Boutique has been a staple in the downtown New Bedford area when it first opened on Purchase Street in the former Cherry & Webb building.
“The energy in that building,” Alves said.” It definitely felt good to be in there.”
The idea to open the boutique came when Brito was working at the Polaroid Corporation when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was on the verge of shutting down.
Brito knew she needed a back-up plan.
Bringing fashion to working women
Born on Brava Island, the southernmost island of Cape Verde, Brito grew up in New Bedford, lived in Boston for 14 years, then returned to the city. Working in the corporate world, there was a strict dress code in her office.
However, living in New Bedford, Brito said it was a challenge shopping for appropriate attire that could also work for going out afterward.
Thus, Brito decided to open a business that brought more suited dress wear to the working women of New Bedford.
Alves says she and her family were supportive of Brito’s vision. “She had a flair for fashion,” Alves said, adding that she remembered growing up and observing her mother keeping up with the latest fads, trends and styles.
Alves, who was working a corporate job at the time, assisted her mother when they first opened. “I remember thinking, there’s nothing in downtown New Bedford,” Alves said with a laugh.
At the time, most businesses had closed partly because the Dartmouth Mall was drawing shoppers away. Alves only remembers Elaine’s T-Shirts and Costumes, a few doors down, and No Problemo preparing to open.
“All the storefronts were empty,” Brito recalled. “You could open up any brick-and-mortar, if you wanted to.”
“For a while the businesses around us were revolving doors,” Alves added. “It was definitely a fun, exciting and scary when we started.”
Being the only Black-owned business
“There was a buzz going on, at that time, that New Bedford is up and coming, and about to have a rebirth,” Brito said. “We were hoping that if we invested… then other people, other stores and owners would come in and follow suit.”
Celia’s Boutique was the only Black-owned business open in the downtown area. Brito and Alves says they didn’t experience many issues, except the occasional out-of-town visitor asking to speak to a “Caucasian” supervisor and surprised to learn Brito was the owner.
“As a Black woman, I’m constantly experiencing that,” Alves said. “Whether it be silent or not.”
Brito said she believes many Black-owned businesses were bypassed for grants and loans.
According to the Federal Reserve, in the last decade, BIPOC (Black, indigenous or person of color) receives less business financing, less often and at higher interest rates. In fact, 80.2% of white business owners receive at least a percentage of the funding they request from a bank, compared to only 66.4% of BIPOC business owners.
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“Minority firms paid 7.8% [in interest] on average for loans, compared with 6.4% for non-minority firms,” the report stated. “Research shows that white-owned startups have an average of $18,500 in outside equity at the founding, compared to just $500 for Black-owned startups.”
Moving to a new location
In 2010, a long-term lease ended at the Purchase Street location, forcing the boutique to move. They quickly discovered a corner store across from City Hall.
“It was a great location on the corner. The space was bigger,” Brito said. “It felt good.”
Alves says the store attracts a diverse group of customers as their merchandise is for all women — no matter their shape or size.
“Our pieces, I feel, are very forward and unique,” Alves said. “One of a kind. So you’re not going to walk into a huge department store and see them.”
According to Brito, the items for sale are by the same designers that one may see in New York City. The boutique also has a built loyalty with the designers and reps to sell exclusively to Celia’s and nowhere else in the SouthCoast.
In 2018, Alves left her job and joined the boutique full-time as a co-owner alongside her mother. “We’re a typical mother-daughter team, we agree to disagree at times,” Alves said. “Overall we do enjoy working together. We’re best friends.”
With the support of family, friends, the community and other business owners, Celia’s was able to succeed through the all the good and bad days.
“It definitely takes a village,” Alves says. “We would take it one day at a time, hoping and praying it would work. And it did.”
Then came COVID-19.
Adapting to the pandemic
“We were just in shock,” Alves admitted. “That first month or so we were just trying to kind of figure everything out.”
Celia’s closed its door for six months. But that didn’t stop the mother-daughter duo from keeping the store alive. “We grew, reinvented, and got creative,” Alves said.
The women posted videos about their merchandise, offered Zoom/FaceTime access with customers, shared photos on social media and offered at-the-door pickup.
“We were using every platform that we possibly could,” said Brito.
During the pandemic, most BIPOC businesses received little to no help from the government. According to a report by the Center for Responsible Lending, in 2020, roughly 95% of Black-owned businesses, 91% of Latino-owned businesses and 75% of Asian-owned businesses stood “close to no chance of receiving a PPP loan through a mainstream bank or credit union.
“Many Black-owned businesses that did meet the Trump administration’s arbitrary application requirements were still shut out,” stated a USAToday article. As a result, an estimated 40% of Black-owned small businesses may never reopen.
Then, on May 25, 2020, the video of George Floyd’s murder by a white Minneapolis police officer sparked protests and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as conversations around systemic and economic racism.
“It brought people’s attention,” Brito said.
Around the country, people wanted to show their support locally which launched the trend to support Black-owned businesses.
According to a USAToday article, online sales surged 225% over what was considered average for Black-owned businesses in a 2019 report.
Strengthening the business community
In June 2020, New Bedford’s Justina Perry created an online directory highlighting Black-owned businesses in the SouthCoast. Alves is part of the Planning Committee.
“There is a history of systemic oppression of Black people, because there is a huge wealth gap, and there’s an economic opportunity that is created from organizing in this way with the Black community,” Perry said in a previous interview.
“In our platform, we are Black and proud and unapologetic about it… We create that sense of pride about Blackness.”
In 2021, BuyBlackNB produced nine vendor pop-ups, resulting in more than $30,000 in total revenue.
“It’s not a trend, it’s a movement,” Brito said. “It’s not going to go away.”
Brito says that BuyBlackNB has brought new people into their store — recalling recently a white woman coming into the store and saying she came to support a Black business.
Additionally, Brito said the directory highlights Cape Verdean-owned businesses, too, Brito and Alves speak Creole which can be useful for making their Cape Verdean clients feel more comfortable.
“We got people in here saying they are so happy because they don’t speak English,” Brito said. “And they’ve only been here for a few months and needed clothes and stuff.”
At the end of day, Brito says she’s thrilled to be a part of the growth in the downtown area and tries to support the community whenever she can. Celia’s Boutique is about being there for anyone and making them feel empowered through clothes and accessories.
“You don’t ever have to feel intimidated walking in. We’re here to help you.” Brito added.
“We welcome everyone who walks through our doors, because without doors opening and people walking in, we will not survive.”
Standard-Times staff writer Seth Chitwood can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on twitter: @ChitwoodReports. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Standard-Times today.