Shanna Clayton is addicted to Christmas. She sets out Santa statues on her front porch as early as her husband will let her, and spends the entire year collecting Christmas-related ornaments. But there's a catch: everything she buys has to reflect her African American heritage.
Lawrence Jackson Jr./The Star
In her home office, Shanna Clayton of Bowie places plastic cover over a Thomas Blackshear original and limited edition sculpture called "Sisters Forever: A Time to Share," one of the many Afrocentric items in her line of fundraising products available through her business, MSB Gifts.com.
There are no white Santas here, nor Santas given a quick once-over with a coat of brown paint. Clayton, 29, is so passionate about this conviction that she developed a successful business venture, MSB Elegant Christmas Treasures, to fuel her obsession.
"I like going shopping. But when I can find African American Christmas items? Oh boy, I go crazy," said Clayton, who now has a small warehouse in the basement of her home in Bowie's Longleaf subdivision. She stocks the latest creations from artists like Thomas Blackshear, Annie Lee and Cidne Wallace.
The items are sold on her website, MSBGifts.com.
"I do one day want to own a gift shop, but now I'm seeing how I can run a business on the Internet," said Clayton. "Even if I'm blessed to get that money to get a brick and mortar store, I'll still keep my website."
Giving home-based businesses a leg up to that brick and mortar store is one of the goals in Bowie's draft economic development policy. There will be a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. tonight at the Bowie Senior Center for Clayton and other city entrepreneurs to offer their input. Right now, the draft policy focuses more on incubating white-collar, high-tech jobs, but Clayton said her growing business gives her the flexibility to make money while staying at home with her daughter Brionna, 6 and son Marc, 2.
In the morning, she wakes up her children and gets them dressed and fed. Then she and her husband Mark run down their white-carpeted stairs to see if any e-mail orders came in overnight.
The orders come from as far away even as Norway, where one woman stocks up on Christmas ornaments featuring young black athletes that she gives to her adopted son. But some of Clayton's biggest fans are located right here.
Maryellen Spears coordinated the fall fundraiser for Girl Scout Troop 2635 in Upper Marlboro using products from MSBGifts.
"It's different, and I've never seen it before--nobody's ever done African American greeting cards before," said Spears. "When I brought it to the troop, the moms and the kids were excited. It was something positive for the kids to sell."
The South Bowie Boys and Girls Club's fall fundraiser was so successful that the club is planning to work with Clayton again this year. Organizer Raina McLean of Bowie sent Clayton a glowing thank-you letter that reads, in part, "Since distributing the products, I have received many calls of satisfaction with the calendars, journals, magnets, Christmas cards etc. I wish that we ordered a few more things so that people could buy extra!"
MSBGifts actually started two years ago as a way to help organizations run fundraisers. Youth clubs, particularly those with mostly African American members, get tired of selling Christmas items featuring the ubiquitous White Santas, said Clayton. She is adamant about showing kids a positive image of their own culture.
Take, for example, Blackshear's "Sisters Forever" sculpture. The first time she saw it, Clayton immediately thought of her older sister Maryalice.
"When we were growing up, [Maryalice] always took me under her wing like I was her daughter. I talk to her every day," said Clayton. "The figurine reminds me of her."
That is the whole point of African American-themed gifts. It's not necessarily about being Afrocentric, according to Clayton, but about seeing your culture, your family and your life expressed in art.
Although MSBGifts.com has gone from offering her extra pocket money to a full-fledged income, Clayton is still surprised it has been so successful.
"It all came from a vision," she said. "And now, wow, it's a reality. It's a business."
E-mail Christina Findlay at firstname.lastname@example.org.