Floyd Williams is best known to his neighbors in Dorchester and Roxbury as the man who buries the dead and consoles the grieving. His sensitivity as an undertaker has long been legendary.
But it is Williams’ other business that is causing him some pain of his own right now.
It is called the Botanica Ache, in Dudley Square, and it’s an unusual kind of retail establishment. For 40 years it has specialized in selling products like incense and exotic herbal remedies. Williams says he counts followers of Santeria and other African-derived religions among his most devoted customers. It’s a place for people who don’t care for modern pharmacies, or don’t trust doctors, or who might want to place a spell, for good or otherwise, on someone who’s crossed their path.
It is a small piece of Roxbury’s soul that Dudley may no longer have room for. The botanica has always operated above its landlord, Tropical Foods — the closest thing to a supermarket in the area. But the food store is selling the building and relocating. The current Tropical Foods site is slated to become condominiums and retail space — which leaves the botanica facing eviction.
That doesn’t sit well with Williams, who believes he is wrongly, perhaps illegally, becoming a victim of gentrification.
Tropical Foods’ new building is under construction on a long-vacant lot around the corner. At 27,000 square feet it will be nearly three times the size of the current one, the full-service grocery Dudley residents have longed for.
But it won’t have any space for an offbeat incense store. Owner Ron Garry Jr. broke the news to Williams last November.
When Williams went looking for new space, he was afflicted with a severe case of sticker shock. No longer are there any rental deals for $200 a month, or deals sealed with a handshake. Re-creating the kind of space Williams occupies now will cost approximately $8,000 a month, a price he says he cannot afford. He has threatened to sue, while also calling on city and state officials to intervene, a tactic clearly meant to pressure the new owners into finding space for his business.
In a typical neighborhood twist, Garry, the store owner, has his own ties to Botanica Ache; his grandfather established it. Garry has known Williams for years, making their feud excruciating. He offered to let Williams stay rent-free for a year, while the new supermarket is being built. But Williams believes he is entitled to much more than that.
“This isn’t easy,” Garry said Tuesday. “It was a hard decision, but it’s a business decision.”
Williams argues that state law dictates that if federal funds are used for a site — as in the case of the Tropical Foods relocation — displaced tenants are entitled to the value of their businesses. He wants to be paid for his business if he is forced out of it. Garry argues that Williams is due reasonable moving expenses, which he is willing to pay, but nothing more.
“I don’t want to disparage his business,” Garry said. “But he isn’t doing a lot of business.”
This scene is likely to be replayed repeatedly as the development of Roxbury leaves some of its bedrock residents and businesses behind.
“For 20 years people have seen what is coming down the road,” Garry said. “For those merchants and those people who paid really cheap rent and didn’t secure a long-term lease or buy a building, they didn’t plan for the future.”
Even for those who can afford to stay, the future is a little scary. “I’m shaking in my boots, too,” Garry said. “Can my customers afford to live here? We’ve known our marketplace for 40 years, but will it be the same marketplace?”
Williams, meanwhile, feels he has been treated shabbily, and others will be too. “Over the years, I’ve given back to the community,” Williams said. “I deserve better than this.”