Black Kids Dont Read Last Words Before Retail Graveyard

Certain principles of life and business never change. Like with the law of gravity, for example, its just plain better to know how it works even if you’re not sure why. I was reminded of this last week when the men’s fashion clothing trade magazine Daily News Record (DNR) ran a story (”Retail Graveyard,” October 29) about a guy named Peter Divietro in Sloatsburg, N.Y., who annually for Halloween decorates his front yard with tombstones to commemorate dead retail stores. That in turn reminded me of a failed chain of hip-hop clothing stores in Chicago called The Lark.

Do you remember The Lark? The owner was Lenny Rothschild. I met him on a sales visit at his suburban Chicago office one summer day in 2003 while my company was still making Black Fives throwback jerseys for wholesale distribution to stores. The Lark was an important account because it commanded the urban fashion retail market in Chicago. “FLYING HIGH; WITH AN UPSCALE APPROACH TO MERCHANDISING AND CUSTOMER SERVICE, THE LARK SOARS IN CHICAGO’S URBAN MARKET,” read a headline in DNR earlier that year. “As Lenny Rothschild pilots his silver Mercedes-Benz coupe around Chicago, his love for the city is obvious,” is how that article began (DNR, February 10, 2003).

If you wanted your goods in Chicago, you had to sell Lenny. All the biggest streetwear brands loved him, and Lenny was the gatekeeper who could make or break small, upcoming apparel brands like Black Fives. And he knew it. Lenny was smart, and he wanted people to know it. His Harvard diploma hung prominently on the wall. Lenny delighted in explaining how to introduce new merchandise to coincide with welfare check and tax refund arrival dates, to maximize sales to his most faithful customer base, low-income inner-city residents.

His stores were concentrated in those areas. I showed and pitched my unique, attractive, high-quality, economically priced jerseys and matching fitted hats. Lenny looked them over and shrugged, and asked me how I expected anyone to know about the history of these Black Fives teams and players.

I showed him some big press clippings and also explained that each jersey comes with its own informative hang tag, reminiscent of a collectible vintage basketball card, with images on one side and history text on the other. I handed him one of the cards. “This won’t matter because black kids don’t read,” said Lenny. Today, when I think of the immutable principles that work in life and in business, I think of two of them that applied to Lenny that day.

One is that how you do anything is how you do everything. The other is that what you focus on expands. The trick is that these principles work the same whether in the negative or in the positive realm.

Lenny gave me an $8,000 order that afternoon. I shipped it, but what he didn’t realize is that his “loyal” customers had already begun a quiet revolt. Instead of buying $300 retro jerseys like the kind The Lark was selling, his clientele had flipped the script, now buying plain white tee shirts to make the same fashion statement at three for $10. It was the revenge of the lowly urban consumer. It happened across the country.

It was swift and it was bloody. Many urban retailers didn’t make it. Within two weeks, Lenny returned his Black Fives order unopened. Whenever I shopped at The Lark, customer service didn’t exist.

Young African American employees were distant and resentful, usually the sign of low wages, cheap thinking, and lack of appreciation by management. Not to pick on Lenny, because he wasn’t alone in this approach to the so-called “loyal inner-city consumer,” but didn’t you have that experience too, nearly everywhere you shopped? By 2005, The Lark lay buried in the retail graveyard. “AFTER THE LARK: ‘MORE HIP, NO HOP’; CLOSING HIS HIP-HOP APPAREL CHAIN, RETAILER OPENS ESSEX5, DEVOTED TO PREMIUM DENIM, SPORTSWEAR,” read the DNR headline this time. “The Lark is grounded,” the article began. “Lenny Rothschild has closed all 10 of The Lark stores he owned and operated, making the once-high-flying hip-hop apparel specialty chain a thing of the past” (DNR, December 19, 2005).

What I’ll always remember about The Lark are Lenny Rothschild’s famous (last) words: “black kids don’t read.” The principles of life and business always work the same. Beliefs do become reality.

Thoughts lead to feelings lead to actions lead to results. This works both ways, in this case to the advantage of the consumer and to the dismay of the retailer. Lenny could’ve avoided it all if there had been any books like T. Harv Eker’s brilliant Secrets of the Millionaire Mind available for him to read at the time. But there weren’t. And he didn’t.

Thus, the Lark’s tombstone might have the epitaph, “Gee, I guess black kids read after all.” Was Lenny right? Or do all kids read less? Or is it only online reading they do? Or something else? What’s your opinion?.

Claude Johnson runs Greenwich, Ct.-based Black Fives, Inc., which combines insights about the pre-NBA history of African American basketball teams with popular elements of contemporary black culture to motivate, enlighten, and inspire people today. Book, film, exhibit, and blog activities are underway, and licensing pacts with Nike and Converse help propel the brand globally.

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