Brothers: How four young black men found their mission to change our city, starting now

After the Great Recession forced him to close his high-end clothing shop, Quinton Harrell obtained his business degree and reassessed his purpose in life. Photo: John Robinson

The hustler
Quinton Harrell was born a hustler. As a kid growing up in the Cypress Manor housing projects in Suffolk, Virginia, he and a friend would go to a nearby pecan tree and spend the day picking nuts. Once they had five or six paper bags full, they’d go back to their neighborhood and sell the nuts door to door for $5 a bag. Then they’d take the money and buy candy, some of which they’d eat, the rest they’d use to gamble on games of spades.

Later, when Harrell moved with his mom to the Whitfield Towne Apartments outside of D.C., he came up with a new scheme. By the mid-’90s, Whitfield had the highest crime rate in Prince George’s County, and it wasn’t much better when Harrell arrived in 1987. But while the older kids were selling drugs, 16-year-old Quinton and a friend were scouring the Washington Post classifieds for free pets. They’d ride the train to collect a kitten, puppy, or bird, and wait a week before taking out another ad, selling the pet for as much as $100.

Harrell, like nearly every other African-American male of his generation, loved hip-hop, and he dreamed of seeing firsthand the gritty world described in the lyrics his heroes spun. New York City was hip-hop’s mecca then, and so after high school, he enrolled in Brooklyn College, crashing with a friend’s family in the West Indian section of Crown Heights. The fact that he had to share the basement with a bunch of crackheads didn’t faze him at all.

“Nothing ever shocked me,” he said. “Anything shocking, I was always like, ‘Yeah.’ … Getting robbed, getting shot at … I wanted to experience it.”

Theoretically he had classes to attend, but who had the time? He was knee deep in the newness of it all, from the Hasidic Jews in their black coats and black hats over on President Street, to the newly arrived Jamaicans, Trinidadians, and Haitians, accents so thick you could barely understand them. That was it for school, he was gone before the first semester ended. Broke, living on whatever a couple bucks could buy him at the local Chinese restaurant, he dreamt of being rich enough to buy a loft in Manhattan with a view of the New York skyline.

What happened next is probably not hard to guess. The wayward 19-year-old found himself in trouble, what Quinton, without going into details, calls “deep shit.” Ultimately, he managed to avoid any serious penalties, but his New York dream was over. It was 1990. Harrell was back home with his mom and back in school, studying computer engineering at Capitol College.

Looking for something different to do on the weekends, he started driving down to Charlottesville with old friends from D.C. to, “have fun and get girls and just cut up.” Compared to D.C. or New York, C’ville was like a trip to the beach. “You didn’t have to be as on guard, as on edge as in the city,” Harrell said. “It was like sweet, mint julep livin’.”

Down here, the D.C. crew stood out. They had a certain swagger, plus the cats down in Charlottesville just couldn’t dress. The idea came for another hustle. Take $500 and drive up to New York. Hit Canal Street for a bunch of cheap clothes, some Guess Jeans and Polo shirts, some hats and shorts ’cause it’s summer, and then head straight down to Charlottesville. Set up a table on Cherry Avenue, in the parking lot across from Tonsler Park where everybody’s out playing chess or shooting hoops, and you’re in business.

Harrell’s little idea blew up. He was only coming down on the weekends, but people looked for him all week and the clothes sold as fast as he could pile them on the table. He’d found an untapped market as well as a passion for fashion he didn’t know he had. But he also found himself once again facing two diverging roads: During the week he was in school, learning programming; on the weekends he was hanging out in Charlottesville. The work he did in school excited him, but not as much as the work he was doing on the streets. And so the weekend extended through Monday, and his school work started to slide.

Times like that you have to take stock. He had three years invested in school, was on track for a good career. The work wasn’t hard, but his heart and head just weren’t in it, and his grades were getting worse as his focus shifted more and more to each weekend’s business. Why had he gone back to school? Because he’d been told that there weren’t that many black engineers out there, and that he could make a lot of money. But that reason felt shallow to him now. He was driving up to New York and then all the way down to Virginia every week, not for the money, but because he loved it.

If you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, Harrell thought, you shouldn’t be doing it. So he dropped out of school for a second time.

“People thought I had lost my goddamn mind,” he said, “’Cause of all that I had gone through, and what could have happened to me.”

Harrell moved to Charlottesville permanently in 1994, manning the table on Cherry Avenue for three more years before he could save enough money to open Charlottesville Players in a storefront on West Main. With the new store, came a change in merchandise. No more Canal Street knockoffs, now he was selling high dollar brand names and hitting the big trade shows in Las Vegas. At its height, Charlottesville Players had a second store in Fashion Square Mall and was grossing around $500,000 a year.

How much farther could he push it? His brain hurt as he thought about the future. Could he expand Players into other cities? The vision always blurred, partly because of a fear that he’d gone as far as street knowledge could take him, and partly because, as he’d admit to himself in quiet moments, he really didn’t want to be a hustler anymore.

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