What Does Gentrification Have to do With Fragrance? The Oil Shop: A Case Study

If you live in or anywhere near Washington DC, you live, eat, and breathe gentrification. Buildings sprout and the names of neighborhoods change over night. 

A few weeks ago, I gave myself the task of creating a fragranced body oil for a friend that only wears one fragrance. I figured I could make her a perfume oil that blended nicely with her favorite scent and set out to visit my local “oil shop”. Oil shops typically only exist in predominantly black neighborhoods, and typically sell the oil version of popular perfumes as well as fragrances only sold in the Middle East. These stores also sell products for hair and body including Shea and cocoa butters, incense, and black soap. Often times the owners of these stores are Muslim and hire black men who are also often Muslim to sell the oils on the street to provide them with an income. 

Since there are three of these stores located on the same street within a mile of each other l figured I would have no problems getting what I needed. I visited the first shop, and they were sold out!! I walked three blocks to the next one, and they had exactly what I needed. On my way to the second shop I couldn’t help but notice a new high end niche fragrance store located right between the first oil shop and the second one.

Of course because I am a fragrance and beauty junkie, I could not help but go in to snoop around. The store was very modern in its look and almost sterile. It was dimly lit, and had a very minimalistic vibe with the decor and even the products offered. There were two sets of all of the fragrances offered located on two sides of the store, then body lotions, body washes, home fragrances, and candles all located on two different sets of shelves. 

Off to the back on the right hand side was a closed off but visible room that looked like a small science lab. When I asked the sales person (who was really nice) what the room was, he explained that the room was where the fragrances are poured and bottled for each and every customer! He further explained that in order for a customer to have the best quality fragrance, the salespeople are trained to follow a formula designed for whatever niche fragrance the customer chooses from the 12 samples on display. Each scent retails for $175, and are housed in decent sized glass bottles. Now back to the oil shop.

The Oil shops which have been in the black communities for years have a very different vibe and decor. Often times they  have a cluttered appearance, the merchandise is strewn about the store anywhere it can fit, and the oils are often stored in hundreds of large glass or metallic bottles on shelves covering every inch of wall space. The labels are large enough for you to see, and if you don’t see what you are looking for you have to ask because they will probably have it! The salespeople tend to be shop owners or their family members and often have little to no customer service skills.

The price of these perfume oils that often outlast any expensive perfume that you buy from a fancy department store or boutique is what really matters! You get to pick the amount of oil and based on the amount, and origin of the oil (the ones imported from the Middle East are more expensive) determines your price. I often purchase oils that are imported (mainly to explore options not common to the general public) I get a one ounce glass bottle, and the price is $20! Now $20 is a far cry from $175, and the process is pretty much the same. The people at the oil shop pour the oil of your choice into a glass container of your choice, and because it is 100% perfume oil the quality is excellent and it lasts forever!!

I love my neighborhood oil shops! I am able to smell like a million bucks for little to nothing and apply quality oils that last forever. I know that with gentrification my beloved oil shops will disappear. I am absolutely positive that the “newer” inhabitants have no clue what these stores are all about because they are not marketed the same way as the cute little over priced niche fragrance store that just opened down the street. 

I am also gonna go on a limb and say that there could also be an intimidation factor in these shops as well. When you think about the rediculous stereotypes associated with Black and Muslim men, I mean forget about it!! The other unfortunate reality is that the closing of these stores will mean that several young black men will no longer have a distribution center to pick up product to sell, deleting a respectable way for them to make money.

What would happen if retail geniuses went into these stores and changed a few elements to make them attractive to the “new” inhabitants? Would these oil shops take the niche fragrance world by storm? I think the answer could be a very loud yes!!! 

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