Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Don’t expect the hard sell at Tarot and Tea, a modest storefront in the West Village section of Detroit. In fact, don’t expect any sell at all. “Would you like to sample our tea of the day?” inquires Nefertiti Harris, the owner. “Here are some books to enjoy. Here is some aromatherapy. If you would like a reading, here are the rates. If not, enjoy the space.”
And when Harris asks a visitor “How are you?” she genuinely wants to know.
Tarot and Tea is one of several eclectic new businesses establishing the personality for an increasingly eclectic neighborhood. The West Village is economically and demographically in flux: a vibrant mix of races, ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Michael Forsyth, an economic development specialist at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, calls the area “a melting pot of all things Detroit.” Founded in 2013, Tarot and Tea is a warm, welcoming flame that keeps that pot bubbling.
Certainly the swelling, heterogeneous population has been good for business. “Anytime you have new folk coming in, they want to sit down and talk and get clarity about the transitions they are going through, Harris says.
Harris is not a fortuneteller but rather an intuitive. She and the three spiritualists who work for her read tarot cards to help them read people. Neighborhood denizens--and increasingly customers from other parts of the city--come in with questions about their relationships, their careers, their purpose. As the cards fall, the readers alternately guide and follow their customers down conversational paths. Often, they can sense that which goes unsaid. "We peel back the layers: Why is this important to you? Why are you in this situation?" Harris says. "The intention is healing."
The intention is also, of course, to make money. But Harris says that’s a secondary consideration, and one tends to believe her. For one thing, she doesn’t charge for the tea. (Many customers do buy tins of the stuff, which is made by a mom-and-pop outfit in nearby Trenton, Michigan.) Similarly, while she sells spiritual books, you can opt just to sip and read at one of a handful of tables inside or outside the tearoom. And don’t think about booking regular appointments. “We tell folks to come in for a reading--if they have to--once a season,” says Harris. “It takes a while for someone to get their space in order. Why not give them time to do that?”
Harris also differs from most storefront psychics in pedigree. She is a respected Detroit businesswoman who owns a successful natural-hair salon in midtown. “Her reputation preceded her,” says Forsyth, whose organization sponsored a pop-up competition that helped Harris land the salon space. “We were trying to find businesses that could be a destination, that could bring people in from other neighborhoods. Nefertiti has proven the ability to do that.”
And Tarot and Tea, though distinctive, is less out there than some might think. Harris views the business, which also sells clothes and jewelry by Detroit artists, as the professional expression of a personal gift. A talented cook opens a restaurant, she points out. A talented carpenter opens a furniture business.
“I wanted to take the kooky mysticism out of spiritual work,” says Harris. “Intuitive sight is a gift like any other.”
Supernatural gifts and natural hair
Harris’s gift comes to her through the paternal line. When her father was growing up in Chicago, older folks in the neighborhood would ask him to touch their hands and give them numbers. “He was too young to know about numbers runners, so he didn’t know those people were making money off him,” says Harris. Her grandfather, who owned a corner newspaper stand, spoke of spirits and warned Harris not to wander out under a full moon. “I was like, 'Granddad is really weird,'” she recalls.
Harris inherited not only her father’s intuition, but also his aversion to the well-trod path. Her father possessed the skill and soul of a jazz musician, but he worked in a steel mill. “He was so freaking unhappy,” says Harris. “He would say, ‘I hate my damn job. Don’t you do what I’m doing."
Harris’s mother, a secretary at Ebony magazine, taught her about empowerment. As a child, Harris attended Black Panther rallies and Nina Simone concerts. “These are the things that left their mark on me,” she says.
In the early ’80s, Harris moved to Detroit, then to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she got married and had a daughter. A few years later she divorced, returned to Detroit, and started her first business, hand-painting silk out of a home studio. She sold her art from booths at fairs. It was a joy but not a living. So she took a job as a counselor at a nonprofit group supporting pregnant teens. She met a man. She had a son.
Having modeled in Chicago, Harris was sensitive to the media’s influence on perceptions of beauty. She fumed about African American women treating their hair to conform to some socially imposed ideal. “Women want to be free and beautiful and embrace their natural hair and still look professional,” says Harris, who wore dreadlocks at the time. ("I was basically a Rasta,” she says.). She took some classes, did some tutorials with the owner of a natural-hair salon. Soon she was seeing clients in her home. “Working with hair,” she says, “was just like working with fabric.”
Harris had long cultivated the company of creative women, finding inspiration and support in an artists' group in the ’90s. In 2003, she joined three other female entrepreneurs to share a 22,000-square-foot space in Detroit’s midtown. The Spiral Collective comprised a bookstore, a gift shop, a gallery, and Harris’s salon, called Textures by Nefertiti. “A spiral is a symbol of life,” she says. “It starts in one place and opens out.”
An opportunity pops up
Like Tarot and Tea, Textures was conceived as a sanctuary. The space, which eventually outgrew the Spiral and moved across the street, looks more like the living room of some chic world traveler than a salon. The lights and music are mellow. Most of the staff--five stylists, a nail technician, and an aesthetician--are single mothers. “I wanted to help young women dictate their own schedules so they can raise their children, have a decent income, and get their lives in order,” says Harris.
As Harris treated damaged hair, she found herself also treating damaged souls. Clients told her things. Intimate things. Worrisome things. “I would ask them questions based on what I was feeling and seeing,” says Harris. “And that would lend itself to a larger conversation that became a healing conversation.”
A busy salon, however, is not the ideal backdrop for such counsel. So when an old friend gave up her own salon in the West Village, Harris sniffed destiny. “I said to myself, ‘Maybe it’s time to jump out there, Nefertiti, and give your spiritual work some structure.’”
The friend’s salon had been among the last businesses on Agnes Street, which shortly after her departure was empty of commerce. In 2013, Harris entered a competition to match retailers with vacant spaces, run by a DECG program called Revolve. She submitted a business plan and did a pop-up event that drew 200 people. “Nefertiti had such a warm reception from the community,” says Forsyth. “People were really excited by her.”
Revolve renovated storefronts for four winning businesses: Tarot and Tea; Red Hook Coffee; and two restaurants, Detroit Vegan Soul and Craft Work. (Women also own the coffee shop and vegan restaurant.) Profits from Textures provided the rest of Harris’s startup capital.
Today, Agnes Street’s new quartet of entrepreneurs meets often and consults one another informally about business concerns. “We’re all on the same page,” says Harris, who is replicating in a small way the collective experience of the Spiral. “It’s about support, being around people who speak your language.”
At Textures, Harris offers customers a menu that includes cornrows, therapeutic shampoos, kinky twist braids, and hot oil treatments. Tarot and Tea's menu includes tarot/intuitive readings ($45 per half hour), couples readings ($60 per half hour), and astrology readings ($75). The business outsources creation of its Zodiac charts to a seasoned local astrologer. Harris spends most of her time at Tarot and Tea, devoting just one day a week and an hour here or there to Textures.
Harris also will do spiritual cleansings of homes and offices, for which she has had a dozen requests in two years. Fees range from $65 to $125, depending on square footage and how much the energy is out of balance. The procedure may include burning sage; praying; performing crystal-bowl sound therapy; and cleaning the walls with herbs, flowers, cigar smoke, and spiritual water. Harris doesn’t like those jobs, which she says drain her energy. “It’s not a lot of fun going into somebody’s house you don’t know anything about,” she says. “There can be some real heavy-duty stuff in there.”
Most of Harris’s customers are women. A lot of them want to talk about relationships, but here she treads lightly. “So many people want to know, ‘What is he doing?’” says Harris. “Then the conversation I have is, ‘You need to honor yourself. You need to be honest about what you already know. You need to talk to your significant other.’ I don’t bother with drama."
Satori Shakoor, who once lived in the West Village, is executive director of the nonprofit Society for the Re-Institutionalization of Storytelling. She is a skeptic, but she knew Harris from Textures and was open-minded enough to travel across town for a reading. Shakoor says she approached it as an act of storytelling in which she would actively participate. “They put the cards on the table and say things, and I take those things and synthesize them into an intention,” she says. Her first reading raised the idea of travel, which Shakoor manifested as a magical trip to Jamaica.
“Nefertiti and her readers all bring a sensitivity--what I call listening,” says Shakoor. “It is about listening to the other person so deeply that you can give them back their own prescription. Then you give them something extra. You give them possibilities.”