In researching Brooklyn-based shop BLK MKT Vintage and its founders, I saw the phrase "curated love story" used to describe the business. And, considering the retailer's collection of collectibles, decor, and memorabilia rooted in Black history, the meaning of these words feels completely accurate. However, in learning the actual love story of the store's founders, Jannah Handy and Kiyanna Stewart, the term takes on multi-layered significance.
Yes, while most new couples spend their first year focused on learning about each other and developing their unique rhythm, Handy and Stewart — who met in 2013 at Rutgers University, where Stewart was attending grad school and Handy was working in administration — used this time to start a new business. "We started dating in 2014, which is also when the business was founded, so there was a lot happening" says Stewart to TZR, who explains her love for antiques and items that tell a story runs deep. "I had started vintage shopping with my mom as a kid We'd stop at vintage shops, antique stores, and on the side of the road for things — so it was this hobby of mine when I met Jannah."
The new couple would even use this hobby as a setting for their initial dates. "We would do these challenges, like, who can find the best thing under $20? or, who can find the best thing for the living room?," recalls Stewart. "We loved the spaces and the exchange, serendipity, and adventure of it all." For Handy, Stewart's passion and talent for vintage finds opened her eyes to a world she hadn't really seen herself in before. "I hadn't seen vintage used in a way to express your identity and personality," says Handy. "I really thought it was like old lace doilies, and hand-me-down clothes, not so much cool artifacts that expressed who I was."
That said, the couple's mutual love and appreciation for the vintage space also led to the realization of a crucial void "that needed to be filled because we weren't necessarily seeing ourselves represented," says Stewart. From this thought process, BLK MKT Vintage, a carefully curated vintage and antique business from a Black perspective, was born.
The store's finds are varied, ranging from 1970s Martin Luther King Memorial pins and vintage Black Panther Party newspapers to intricately carved African masks and antique oil paintings, but the mission is clear: "Our motivation to build a collection that mirrors multifarious Black cultural expression is rooted in our love for Black people," as it currently reads on BLK MKT's website.
In its early days, the business owners worked the local flea market circuit while concurrently establishing an online presence on Etsy. "Then, at a certain point, we realized that the Etsy platform was heavily branded, and we wanted more capability and flexibility to tell stories, be more narrative, and control the imagery," says Stewart. "We started our own website and online shop and then, last year, we opened up our brick-and-mortar store [in Brooklyn] — so those are the different chapters of our business, I guess."
Said chapters have made for quite the success story. In just six years, BLK MKT Vintage has not only made a name for itself in the vintage world, but has also launched the brand into "uncharted territory" like prop and set styling. "We just wrapped a project with HBO, where we worked on a sweatshirt design for a new series that's Black-themed, focused around travel, and set in the 1950s," says Stewart. "So we're thinking about various aspects of our work set around Black people's history, and then also had to design a product around it." (The store's offerings have also been featured on some high-profile shows like HBO's Insecure.)
BLK MKT's growing presence has also helped make sourcing their rare finds a bit easier, particularly in recent months. "We source from literally everywhere — the side of the road to 'mainstream' auction houses to other collectors to folks who sort of stumbled into our shop, pre-COVID," says Handy. "I tell folks you have to be open to receiving things." In fact, this openness has helped the business not only stay afloat post-pandemic, but thrive.
"We have such a dedicated community that folks are flooding our inbox [with messages like], 'I've finally been able to go through my dad's attic' or 'I went into my storage unit and I have these things, would you be interested?'" says Handy. As a result, BLK MKT (whose storefront had to close due to COVID-19) has come upon some truly rare finds over the years, including early-edition literature like a first-edition copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston to a fugitive slave notice from the mid-1800s.
Even through this meteoric rise to success, not to mention recent pandemic, Handy and Stewart have kept their personal bond strong. "One of the major themes of our relationship is finding balance," says Handy. "We work together in so many different facets that if we don't have balance, one mode of our relationship will naturally take over. [...] Just like any partnership, communication or the lack-thereof can get in the way of our processes. We do couple's therapy, we try to be communicative, and we're both committed to the work."
They're also equally committed to their business, whose mission and ethos feels particularly crucial in the midst of the recent global reckoning with racism. "I feel like we have a responsibility to engage in this conversation around, not just the importance of Black history and Black objects and collectibles, but the Black people as well," explains Stewart. "I've had a bit of resentment around how this industry reckoned with this very question. Like, 'We're fascinated by Black art and Black objects and what they might be valued at or what they contribute to, but we don't really care about Black lives.' I've just been working through that resentment these past few months."
That said, Stewart says she feels incredibly supported by her community and clients. "We saw our sales increase in the middle of a pandemic and we're seeing higher sales than we have seen," she explains. "We're doing our best to keep up with the demand, recirculate, put our money where our mouth is, and continue to think about the value of Black people and their experiences and not just what we have created."
We only include products that have been independently selected by The Zoe Report's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.