Cheryl Sutton and Deborah Hargin trade comments like old friends who finish one another’s sentences, although Hargin has only been in the area a few years. They emit a feeling of warmth throughout the room that immediately puts you at ease.
They’re a welcoming duo. They’re a part of the heart and soul of a place they call The Grassroots Collective.
Situated in an old house on Hughes Boulevard — the former home of Sweet Rush Bakery — there are rooms full of art, crafts, clothing and even a bakery.
Hargin, 57, is an artist from Southern California. She came to Elizabeth City by way of her sister.
Creating small wire sculptures, she set out to find where the area’s artists hang out and show their work. She first landed over at Serenity Studio Arts with founder Sarah Hair, and eventually became a part of the Artists’ Collective, a cooperative in the lobby of the old Southern Hotel.
That folded and Hargin began looking for something else. Only that something else would have to be more than a group of artists hanging out, creating art and selling it to the public. It had to be something that would entice people to come together and empower people to do something with their lives.
“Deborah always had this vision,” says Cheryl Sutton, 54, of The Grassroots Collective.
The vision is simple. Create a space that will give artists and entrepreneurs from all walks of life, cultures and race a place to sell goods they have created or collected. It’s a way, says Hargin, for people to get a business off the ground without having to spend a whole lot of money on start-up costs.
“This gives them the chance to put their work out there,” says Sutton, a retired Elizabeth City State University administrator.
There are five businesses under one roof. The collective also takes in what they call “vendors.” These are artists and artisans who rent wall space, or perhaps a corner shelf, to show and sell their work.
When you walk into the collective, it’s hard to determine what takes over first: the sweet aroma of fresh baked pastries or the stunning array of arts and crafts.
Directly ahead of you, ‘Bout Time Bakery can be seen; a small window leading to a small kitchen, and cases of baked goods.
On this day freshly baked cookies have just come out of the oven. And although baker Alvan Overton isn’t on site, he’s well represented by Hargin and Overton.
“He’s a natural,” Hargin says of Overton’s baking.
Vendor Nora Crouch’s work can be seen in the main room. She creates elaborate and very unique purses from cigar boxes.
“I think primarily when they walk through the door, it’s a home and we talk about homemade and they feel that,” says Sutton of their customers.
And there are homemade kitchen soaps by Elaine Galloway. She’s one of the five businesses on board there.
Hargin’s own work, small, sassy wire broach figurines of women are fashion standouts.
In a back room there is a display of aromatic soaps and body treatments made by Sutton.
Next to that room is a clothing boutique by Earline Walton. She also sells jewelry and makes “baby wreathes,”
the sort you would give at a baby shower.
This is the stuff that takes up space on the shelves and walls, and they are desirable things that speak of a person’s need to create either goods or services. But these things are really only tangible symbols of something else here.
It’s no secret that Elizabeth City has deep divides both racially and culturally. Hargin, who spent her life in California, could not have predicted what she would find here — a disconnect between the black and white communities.
Both women point out that while downtown Elizabeth City has a lot to offer insofar as the arts are concerned, a lot of African Americans are not comfortable going downtown.
People, the women say of African Americans, feel as though they are being profiled when they walk into a business downtown.
“They don’t feel comfortable, like they are being watched,” says Hargin.
And whether or not they are being profiled, that perception is keeping folks from enjoying what downtown has to offer.
“If we can’t get people downtown, bring them to midtown,” says Hargin.
But she adds that it’s her hope that The Grassroots Collective can be a bridge for the African American community and the white community — whether midtown or downtown. She hopes that it will become a place where all people in the Elizabeth City community will feel comfortable and can grow together.
“An opportunity for races to cross,” says Sutton.
“We’re trying to join the communities,” says Hargin. “There is a divide here.”
And in that spirit, the artists and artisans who sell work at The Grassroots Collective are black and white. But looking at the goods there, you won’t know the skin color of the person who made that thing you take home.
It is, says Sutton of the Collective, a place to start. It is a place to, “move beyond race.”
“There are so many talented people,” says Sutton.
There is also the economic component. The economy being what it is in Elizabeth City, starting a business can be a fearful endeavor.
However, by coming together as a collective, Sutton points out that the economics does not have to be a fear factor. Sharing the burden of cost allows the artists and artisans to focus on being creative.
And this is just the beginning, say Hargin and Sutton. They want to expand this effort and help people “produce what they love.”
“Teach people to put a value on what they do,” says Sutton.
The Grassroots Collective is located at 321 S. Hughes Blvd., across from Chauncey’s. For more information you can call them at 252-335-4000.