DOROTHY RUSH peers expectantly from behind the counter of her new business in Baltimore's Northeast Market. A few prospective customers are examining the rows of greeting cards and children's books that line the front of the stall where Rush, her daughter and a niece are hoping to make a go of it as entrepreneurs.
"We're breaking even so far," says Rush proudly of the three-week-old enterprise. "I can pay my rent and overhead. I'm still getting my stock -- books, cards and stationery. I've got a carpenter coming in to build a showcases, book racks and a slat wall for shelving and display. If I can break even with just books and cards, I know when I get my full stock I'll be OK."
At a time when much of the news about the black community tends toward the negative, Rush and her fledgling, family-operated business reflect a little noticed but positive trend. This year the Census Bureau reported that black entrepreneurs in the 1980s started companies at twice the national rate and maintained sales growth at virtually the same pace as their white counterparts.
In Maryland, a report released last week by the state Department of Economic and Employment Development showed that the state has the highest proportion of black-owned businesses in the nation. But the report, compiled from data collected by the Census Bureau, also showed that Maryland's black business are on average smaller and have significantly lower sales than black-owned firms nationally.
At the Northeast Market, where Rush is one of only four black entrepreneurs among the 42 businesses that make up the city-owned complex, a woman with a wrinkled brow pauses in front of the display looking for a sympathy card.
"That's our most popular item," says Rush. "Well, actually the ones we sell most of are 'Thinking Of You' cards; then come sympathy cards; then inspirational messages -- a lot people buy them; and then 'Get Well' cards."
Many of Rush's cards are illustrated with black themes, reflecting the varied ethnic and racial clientele that passes through the market. Rush says well over half her customers are blacks and many are drawn to her racks of children's books that feature stories based on African American history and culture as well as such traditional fare as the Nancy Drew novels and author Walter Farley's "Black Stallion" series.
Even so, Rush says she is learning a lot about her customers' likes and dislikes.
"I've had quite a few white people buy black cards," she says. "For example, a lady came by the other day and bought a sympathy card that had a black hand and a Bible on it. Another time a man bought a birthday card with a black baby on it.
"I don't know if they were buying these cards for black friends they had or if they were for their own families, but it's amazing how popular some of these cards are."
The business is the culmination of a dream Rush has long cherished. Now a grandmother, for most of her life she worked as a practical nurse caring for elderly patients. Three years ago she began saving toward starting her own business, after finally paying off the mortgage on her East Baltimore row house.
After investigating several possibilities -- she won't say exactly which because she still plans to create other businesses from those ideas -- she settled on the card shop, which she was able to buy from its previous owner with a relatively small down payment.
"The city actually gives people a good break with this market," she says. "The overhead is low; if you had to go out and buy or least a building the collateral would be so great you couldn't do it." Yet the joys of entrepreneurship are only part of Rush's motivation in going into business for herself.
"I think this is something that will enhance my whole family," she says. "It's something that will give them self-pride, for them to get involved with. I'm the senior member of the family; we are four generations in Baltimore now, so somebody has got to do something. I think of this business as something that I can give to the children and those coming up."
For the moment Rush cannot afford to pay salaries to her daughter and niece for their work in the business. In this respect hers is similar to black-owned businesses nationally, four out of five of which have no paid employees. But since she financed the business herself, she is not in debt either. Even with a recession looming, she is optimistic.
"We're going to renovate this place," she vows. "We're going to complete our stock and hopefully start making a profit. Because it's going to work. I just know we're going to be fantastic."