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Kingston's best kept retail secret

The eight ladies of 8 Hillcrest

BY SHAMILLE SCOTT Business reporter

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"EACH piece of land has its own energy," says Hyacinth McDonald, owner of the Décor VIII art gallery. "The one here is different, and it makes the businesses flourish."

Her spiritual property, El Centro, tucked away at 8 Hillcrest Avenue, Kingston, has eight high-end businesses, and, quite by accident, women control them all.

"This is not a regular business centre. Everyone has her own delicacy," said Lisa-Gaye Chin, owner of Foot Candy Couture, which sells shoes, handbags and women's clothing, including the works of designer Shenna Carby, 2011 winner of Mission Catwalk.

The businesswomen seem comfortable gathered on Friday morning in the Tea Tree Crêperie to meet the Jamaica Observer. When one says they're not rivals but sisters, the others nod in agreement.

In addition to Chin's boutique and McDonald's gallery, the mini-mall features a café, a tearoom, a wine-and-cheese shop, a school, a television producer's office, and a china shop.

Unlike busier commercial plazas, it has a peaceful ambience, with comfortable seating, shaded by parasols, on the second-storey veranda. Visitors are greeted by surrealist sculptures and expressionist art on the boundary wall. Children can be heard singing in Spanish: "Buenos dias. Buenos dias. Como estas?"

The gate is subdued, unsigned, and easy to miss. And that's the way some of the business owners like it. They want 8 Hillcrest to be the capital's best-kept secret -- an exclusive haunt for its neighbours in Liguanea. Others would rather have their presence a little more obvious.

"Customers love the exclusivity," said Candice Newman, co-owner of Café El Centro, the other shop that serves food. There's not much space, so it makes sense to keep the property from becoming overcrowded.

But that doesn't mean it's lacking growth. Chin said her sales have doubled since her move from Manor Park. "My clients want a personal shopping experience. They love the seclusion, and don't like a crowded area."

The front of the property is the former home of Dr Olive Lewin, noted author, musicologist and social anthropologist.

But since 2009 it has housed Fundaciones Limited's El Centro school, with six "learning centres" (classrooms), with programmes for children aged 18 months to 18 years.

Rachael McDonald, the school's director, started out teaching her students Spanish, but now offers courses leading to CXCs and International Baccalaureates. Between pre-school and after-school, she has 120 students and 20 teachers.

The traffic from parents coming to pick up or drop off their children, and the word-of-mouth advertising that follows, is among the factors that have led to El Centro's success.

Another is the way the female proprietors have embraced new technology, using Twitter, for example, to promote what's going on in each other's stores.

The other businesses are housed in the commercial building at the back of the lot, put up by her mother, Décor VIII's Hyacinth.

"Rachael and I decided to add to what already existed," said Hyacinth. She started Décor VIII, which has pieces by 60 Jamaican artists as well as locally made furniture, "to pay tribute to Olive Lewin, who represented Jamaican folklore music and the creative arts".

"Jamaica has the talent," she said. "Why keep importing when we have fine items here?"

If the common, though unintended, theme of 8 Hillcrest is female ownership, then Uncorked, the wine and cheese shop, is its epitome, with three women partners in charge: Anna Kay Von Dueszeln, Cynthia Hanworth and Debra Valentine.

Uncorked sells 130 imported wines and 30 cheeses, including goat cheeses from Manchester and Portland. Its platter has up to four types of cheese, crackers, olives, peppadew -- a South African sweet pepper -- and marinated mushrooms. It also sells locally made escallion sauce and pepper jellies.

Tea Tree Crêperie, which sells sweet and savoury pancakes and a variety of brews, is the other eatery on site. It was born out of Carrie Sigurdson's love for tea, and her mother, Maree's, love for cooking. The menu hails from Greece.

The crêperie attracts ministers, both religious and political, "gentle old people" and 10-year-old children in equal measure, said Maree. But their tastes can be unpredictable. "One day the shop may be full, the next day, it may be empty." And she's never sure which menu items will sell the best.

Plated -- A Culinary Lifestyle, owned by Nadja Davis, is the new kid on the block and is still in the moving-in phase when Sunday Finance visited last week. Davis thought the site was ideal for selling china, cutlery and linen napkins.

The eighth business is the odd one out, admits its owner, Laura McDonald, Rachael's sister. Production Box makes television commercials and does wedding cinematography and has been involved in the Jamaica Observer's Business Leader Awards.

But the high level of eostrogen in the air may help her more than it does the others, as most of the time she's fighting to carve a place for herself in a male-dominated industry.

"It works well," said Carrie, Laura's best friend. "We are all women. We advise each other on occasions."

That may not last forever, however. The businesswomen have no objection to having a male join them in the future, though that might change the atmosphere.

It hadn't even occurred to Uncorked's Valentine that all the enterprises were run by women. "I now wonder if a man could step up to the plate."