Mantua: Vacant Stores Provide Space for New Business

Victoria Onwucheka, owner of Chic Afrique, crafted jewelry to sell in her store.
Victoria Onwucheka, owner of Chic Afrique, crafted jewelry to sell in her store.

Victoria Onwucheka has moved around a lot.

A native of Nigeria, West Africa, Onwucheka came to Philadelphia in 1981, after obtaining her bachelor’s degree in physiology and pharmacy while living in New York. Once in Philadelphia, she took what she knew — her studies and African traditions — and opened Chique Afrique. The store shelved Onwucheka’s own herbal cosmetics line, which includes products that incorporate natural materials found in Africa.

Her first store opened in 1990 at the Gallery Mall on Market Street  and served customers in what Onwucheka called the “African fad” that was happening at the time. She continued her studies, receiving a Master of Science degree in industrial pharmacy and cosmetic science.

Onwucheka said that with business booming, her next move in 2000 to a store at 703 Walnut St. was soon followed by another need for expansion. After eight years at that location, she closed the store to shift her efforts to wholesale.

“I wanted to concentrate on the integrity of the product, it being handmade,” Onwucheka said.

After medical issues complicated her business plans, she sought a new location to reopen her retail store and make yet another move. She visited an area of West Philadelphia near her former residence on Baring Street, off of 40th Street and just south of Lancaster Avenue. The neighborhood sits near University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University.

“I knew I had to make money, and I was riding the trolley down Lancaster Avenue and saw a for rent sign,” Onwucheka said. “I thought, ‘I like the ambiance of the university — the whole thing, it’s my speed.'”

In February of 2011, Chic Afrique opened its doors at 3874 Lancaster Ave. Since then, Victoria said business has been good, due in part to the relationships she formed at her previous locations.

“I was very visible in the Gallery and I developed a following,” Onwucheka said. These customers followed her to the current Lancaster Avenue location, which she said has continued to contribute to her business.

Chic Afrique moved to 3874 Lancaster Ave. in February 2011.

But Chic Afrique has found a niche in the neighborhood as well.

“There’s been a lot of new business,” Onwucheka said. “We really try to reach out to students.”

The store offers a 10 percent discount to students on Mondays. But Onwucheka said the store attracts a varied clientele.

“We get a plethora of different people,” Onwucheka said. “Young girls attracted by smells from outside the store. One man we served was older and had arthritis — we provide a service to everybody.”

Yet on this stretch of Lancaster Avenue, where several stores sit vacant, Onwucheka noted that the success of commercial endeavors in the area could improve.

“The surrounding neighborhood is leaving, as a result businesses leave too,” Onwucheka said.

She recognized the First Friday event that began in the area as a great tool, but one that could be better utilized to bring more people to the area.

“There should be enough stores here for people to walk up and down the street and shop,” Onwucheka said. “It all goes back to filling vacancy.”

But as her business continues to grow at its new location, Onwucheka remains optimistic for future business prospects along the avenue.

“In the old days, Lancaster Avenue was a grand avenue, so the rejuvenation will be interesting and good,” Onwucheka said. “When vacant stores are filled it will draw many more people, more students. A lot of people go downtown to malls and I say, ‘no, we’re here!'”

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.