Nikita Williams gives the impression of a woman with boundless energy. Her Main Street store, Phenominal Xpressions, sells jewelry, clothing, shoes, and accessories—many of them created by Williams herself—but it also functions as an event space, a community gathering place, and even a production stage for the public access television show that Williams has produced for the last decade, “The Advocator.”
Previously, Williams made jewelry and sold it at bazaars. “Church events, Kwanzaa. I’d vend at the Martin Luther King celebration, things like that. That was about it,” she said. She has a tendency to downplay her endeavors; she was also an organizer, and in 2016 she helped to put together the Jefferson Arts Festival. One of the vendors she solicited for that festival later recognized her while visiting the Apollo Media Center, where Williams was volunteering. The woman asked if Williams would be interested in participating in the Queen City Pop Up. Four vendors without brick and mortar stores would come together at 517 Main St. for three months. Williams decided to give it a shot.
Being part of the Queen City Pop Up was wonderful, she said. “It was like being on a college campus, a dorm room, where you come together with people you've never met before and you're trying to reside all in the same place. …It was challenging, but a good experience.”
Williams felt that Brandye Merriwether, vice president of downtown development for the Buffalo Urban Developmen Corp. and head of the Queen City Pop Up, did a good job of marketing and managing the event. “She's very easy to talk to and very open to suggestions,” Williams said. “I think that after our session, the next session after that, they stepped up the marketing, as far as once the people were in there. She came together with them to help them…work together collectively versus individually to help market it, and I think that was very helpful to the success of their businesses.”
At the end of the three-month span, the pop up shut down. The other vendors broke down their stations. Williams didn’t. “I was getting ready to pack up and I looked around at my inventory and I thought, I’m not quite ready to go yet.” The next day, she opened up her boutique.
“I literally just jumped in…I went to college, but my degree's in court reporting. So I never went to school for retail, I never went to school for fashion merchandising or any of that,” she said. She intuitively drew on her own shopping experiences, “but the business end of it—I had to learn that as I went along.” As she transformed the store, she rented out space to local designers to sell products on consignment, and reinvested her income into the shop. She still makes a good portion of the store’s inventory herself, staying up late to sew items like matched capes and hat sets.
One of the biggest hurdles she faces is that downtown Buffalo isn’t thought of as a retail destination. “I sit here and I literally watch trainfuls of people in the summer drive by me going down to Canalside,” she said. But she turns her location to her advantage, keeping her display windows brightly lit at night so people riding the train home can window-shop.
Her displays also draw visitors staying at downtown hotels. Les Trent of “Inside Edition” shopped at the store while in town. On one occasion, a man staying at the Hyatt passed by while the store was closed. He took pictures through the windows of items he wanted and texted them to Williams, and she mailed them to Illinois. She sells online as well, and says that her customers are global. Locally, however, she sees mostly pedestrian traffic from the lunch crowd or people who have come downtown for appointments. “Right now, people don't really have a reason to come downtown and shop—yet. …I have to give them a reason to come down.”
She does that by hosting events like Sip ’n’ Shops, poetry readings, and live music performances. She also capitalizes on events like Curtain Up!, the theater district celebration that takes place on the 600 and 700 blocks of Main Street. Williams approached the developers who owned the buildings around her and persuaded them to sponsor a block party that would take place at the same time. Raclettes and D’Avolio Kitchen contributed, and seven bands signed on. Williams wanted to highlight Buffalo talent “who have not had the opportunity to be able to break through into the theater district,” she said, noting that Curtain Up! is not particularly diverse. “We put it outside, and what happens is, the people from two blocks down, they hear the music and they come down to see what's going on… And at the end of the night you get a cross-pollination of people, and it's beautiful,” she said.
Her gift for community relations is evident in the way she interacts with customers. During a recent visit, a man shopping for a Christmas present praised her prices and the quality of the merchandise; she thanked him before retrieving her phone from the front of the store so that she could film him giving his endorsement on Facebook Live. On the administrative side, Williams works with business school interns from Erie County Community College and the Buffalo Urban League. She also takes on volunteers, people who are drawn to the community feeling of the store and want to be part of it.
Rather than dwelling on her successes, Williams tends to remain focused on the future. Not long ago, she and her husband were driving around on a Sunday and passed the closed storefront. Her husband parked in front of the store. Confused, she asked him what he was doing. “And he said, ‘I need you to get out of the car, and I need you to look at what you've accomplished. You need to absorb it.’ Because I'm constantly just making it happen.”
She plans to keep expanding and improving her offerings. “I want it to be a place where you can walk in and you can walk out with head-to-toe fashions. And something for the household, maybe.” She pointed out the natural deodorants she has started carrying, as well as the artwork lining the walls. “I was downtown back in the day when there was L. L. Berger across the street, which was an upscale store. I would love to be able to have that level of product in my store. So that's what I'm heading towards: more upscale, more handmade, more local. Phenomenal expressions!”