COLUMBIA — On Sexton Road, amid small houses, lawns and driveways, lies a building that contains an unusual combination of businesses. The Unitee Market and Barber Salon is split down the middle to accommodate both a convenience store and a barbershop, with room for the Beauty Express Floral Boutique in the back.
The owners of Unitee display the individuality of the store through their receipts, which read “black owned” at the top.
Bill Coats, a worker at Unitee, said he sees successful minority businesses as positive inspiration.
“When people see this business, maybe they start thinking about opening a business because they see they can do it,” he said. “We’re not trying to be separate, but our young ones can see this and be encouraged.”
Mike Hill, a barber at Unitee, said the business provides a good example to the community.
“One person with a positive motive can create a better community,” he said.
William “Gene” Robertson, an MU professor emeritus of community development, said minority-owned businesses are important because they provide stability for a community.
“With these businesses, African-Americans are less likely to be displaced from the central city,” he said. “Every time there’s a Caucasian business, African-Americans are displaced.”
Robertson said Unitee helps stabilize a community where African-Americans have their “history and identity.”
The barbershop has been operating for nearly 10 years.
“It was the Unitee Barber and Beauty Salon,” Coats said. “Then they separated, and then we turned it into a store.”
The store opened in December and offers milk, napkins, eggs, batteries and other essentials along with cigarettes and lottery tickets.
But one thing customers won’t find at Unitee is alcohol.
“It’s because it’s family-structured, family-friendly,” Hill said.
Coats and several of his customers like the convenience of a store in the middle of a neighborhood.
“People don’t have to go too far to get something they forgot to get at the store,” he said.
One customer, Brian Landsperger, said he likes having the store in his neighborhood.
“There’s good security at night; they’re not having parties,” Landsperger said. “There’s always been some business from the barber shop, and the traffic isn’t worse.”
Landsperger said he has not changed his shopping habits much since the store opened.
“We go get chips and soda and stuff, but it’s just a convenience thing,” he said.
However, Mary Smith, who also lives nearby, said Unitee has changed her habits.
“I go over there practically every day to get something,” she said. “It’s a good, nice store.”
Unitee’s owner, Vicki Freelon, said the store is located in a neighborhood that needs it.
“It’s within walking distance for a lot of people who don’t have cars,” she said. “There are a lot of older people who come down to pick something up.”
While Coats said the store is not meant to be a hangout, plenty of neighbors and friends stop by. A table and chairs sit at the front of the store, and Coats is not obligated to stand behind the counter all day.
“A few people sit and talk,” he said. “It’s a good place to express how they feel or think, or for a laugh for a second or two.”
Hill used to work at a salon in the mall, but he said he is meant to be working in his neighborhood now.
“Superstores leave a community desolate,” he said. “Someone needs to support the mom and pop stores.”
As Coats put it, “We can make it work if we work together.”