There is blind optimism, and then there is insanity.
Beverly Hilaire cops to the latter, but with a qualification. “I call it calculated insanity,” she says. “I do know I’m going against the odds in every direction. But it’s what I want to do.”
What she wants to do is make a good living operating an old-fashioned candy store in Dorchester. This past April, in the midst of this dismal economy, she opened A Sweet Place in Fields Corner.
Why would anyone do such a thing? The question is worth contemplating today, as we eat ourselves silly to pass the time until Black Friday — that most American of holidays commemorating the triumph of marketing over reason.
In part, Hilaire took the leap because she had to. Her architect husband lost his job a couple of years ago and had to go to Haiti to find work. With three young children, Hilaire, 39, needed income but also flexibility and autonomy. The former real estate broker had always wanted to open her own business and to give her own neighborhood something new and fun.
Fields Corner had almost everything she needed except for this — a place to take her kids for special treats. Dorchester is full of families like hers. Thousands of them pass through Fields Corner every day. She figured a candy store could work.
It does. After school let out on a recent afternoon, a steady stream of kids pushed open the door on Dorchester Avenue and marveled at the place. “They got every candy in the world!” said one wide-eyed teenager, poring over the treats that cram the shelves. If you have a sugar habit, A Sweet Place can hook you up. On the lowbrow side, it boasts Frooties and rainbow shoelaces. For the nostalgic, it offers rock candy, satellite wafers, and giant flaps of McCraw taffy. If your tastes are more refined, there are sea-salted caramels and chocolate-covered potato chips.
Even in tough times, people like to spoil themselves with something sweet. So while Hilaire hasn’t made a killing yet, the place is chugging along. And she has gotten some crucial help — from the Family Independence Initiative, the visionary antipoverty program that matched some of her savings, and from Boston University’s business accelerator program, which is helping her automate her inventory.
Just after she opened, she also got a visit from Cash Mob Dorchester, organized by local social media guy Larry Marino. Customers streamed into Hilaire’s store on the designated day, and some became regulars. Now A Sweet Place is expanding: After a January renovation, it will also offer coffee, ice cream, and cupcakes.
“The blessings are pouring in,” Hilaire says. The community supports her, so she supports the community. When a group of residents on Hutchings Street in Grove Hall held a Halloween party recently, Hilaire donated the candy buffet. Then there are the contributions that go beyond sugar. Hers is a truly local business, a place where neighbors can connect, and where kids can see what is possible.
“I get to be an example,” says Hilaire, who is African-American, “to show people they can stick with their dreams.”
Supporting exactly this kind of small enterprise is just what we Americans are always saying we want. And yet we flock to the national chains and online giants and their easy deals.
After Black Friday comes Small Business Saturday, a national campaign to encourage us to put at least some of our money where our mouths are when it comes to enterprises like Hilaire’s. The Cash Mob has organized a mega-hit, on 12 local operations, including A Sweet Place, and will end the day with a party at the Lower Mills Pub.
Doesn’t that sound like more fun — and more good — than wrestling with some bleary-eyed stranger for a coffee maker?