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A Durham seamstress has cut her own path to small-business success



The sounds of sewing machines puncture the air in Nighisti's Fashion with staccato bursts and a gentle, mechanical hum. The storefront at The Shoppes at Lakewood in Durham is bustling. Customers begin calling even before the doors open at 10 a.m.

The owner of the alteration and clothing design shop, Nighisti Selby, is a master at multi-tasking. While working on a hemline, she simultaneously carries on a conversation about her path to business ownership. A minute later, she cradles a cordless phone between her shoulder and neck, all the while cutting out a dress pattern.

Selby's business in the shopping center west of downtown has been running for 11 years--no small feat in a climate where few small commercial ventures survive. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, two-thirds of small businesses close their doors before hitting the five-year mark.

While the Triangle is now home to all manner of ethnic groceries, restaurants and taxi companies, Selby was one of the first newcomers from her country to establish a business here, opening her store at a time when local immigrant-owned shops were still few and far between.

She arrived in the United States in 1972 from Eritrea, a Horn of Africa nation that was once part of Ethiopia. A wide-eyed 19-year-old, she had married an African-American serviceman from North Carolina, whom she met while he was stationed in her country. She came "fresh off the boat" to Greensboro, her husband's hometown.

In Eritrea, working women were a rarity, and the energetic, young Selby--called "Nikki" by many of her clients--was excited to be in an environment where she could use her skill with a needle. Selby had gone to a convent school starting at age 14 and earned a diploma from the Istituto Santo Famiglia in Asmara. There, Italian nuns taught her how to sew and tailor clothes with continental flair.

Selby and her husband had two daughters in quick succession. But like many immigrants, she needed income to send home to her family, so being a stay-at-home mom wasn't an option.

Her first job was at the now-closed Greensboro Manufacturing textile mill. She didn't last one day.

"I walked in there, and I saw the people looking so old and the conditions," Selby says. "The woman told me to go over there and 'Fill out this form,' but I told her to do it herself and left."

A little more than two years after their marriage, Selby and her husband divorced. With no child support, she used the headstrong personality that had once vexed the Catholic sisters to find a job--and got well on her way to opening a business of her own.

Selby walked into one of the best shops in downtown Greensboro, Montaldo's, where few blacks worked, much less shopped. She still relishes the memory:

"Those people didn't know what to think of me," she says. "I was aggressive and got them to hire me. I was there working as a seamstress, barely speaking English. And it was a big thing."

A move to Durham in 1980 was Selby's chance to strike out on her own. She called former Montaldo's customers and drummed up business, sewing into the wee hours at home. Selby also sought out people who owned businesses and interviewed retired executives about strategies for success. Their messages were clear: She needed money, skills and education.

Skills she had, and education she got, earning a two-year associate degree in business at Durham Technical Community College.

Money was a different matter. "I didn't have that," Selby says. "Someone told me to go to [the federal] Small Business Administration. They told me that it would take two years before they would give me a penny. Thank God for Visa and MasterCard."

Naysayers had an endless list of reasons why Selby's idea for a tailoring shop wouldn't fly: her race, her sex, her "foreignness," the demands of family and the need for start-up capital. Of these, people usually honed in on the first two.

Rejecting others' notions of her "handicaps," Selby relied on moxie. When she heard in the late 1980s about a planned commercial center at Lakewood, she didn't hesitate to call the developer. He said the buildings would be up within a year.

"So I cut a deal," Selby says. "He was just starting out, too. I said, 'What kind of deal can you give me?' He said he would give me six months' discount from rent, and that I should bring my customers and then I would pay this fixed rate later."

The customers came slowly and Selby is still in debt. The sewing business is up and down, she says. But she usually manages to take in about $50,000 to $55,000 a year before she pays salaries.

Evidence that Nighisti's Fashion is a going concern is clear to any visitor. The shelves are stuffed with long, flowing boubous from West Africa, as well as other garments in various stages of repair and creation.

Little touches keep customers coming back. Selby chats with some elderly regulars in Italian. For others, she will often do simple repairs on the spot. The personal service is why Selby thinks she's still in business when other occupants of the shopping strip have come and gone.

Ethel Simonetti, founder of the Lakewood Park Community Association and co-owner of The Tuba Exchange near the shopping center, says, "Nighisti is one of the draws [at Lakewood]. She brings the center an Afro-European flair and a kind of look that people like. She resonates with people because she's had tragedies and ups and downs like we all do."

But while she's heard the adage that "the customer is always right," Selby won't hesitate to tell a client that a neckline doesn't quite suit their body type or a hemline needs a bit of letting out. She's learned from years in the business that customers appreciate honesty. (Plus, she says, it's poor advertising if they leave in a garment that looks "crazy.")

She's also learned that fancy degrees don't make up for people skills. "You don't have to have a college education to do this," Selby says. "My customers are number one and it's not just because people say that's how you do it in business. That's me. I have to study what you need. You better know people, their colors, their style, their spirituality, to make their clothes."

With a staff of only three, Selby often works 12-hour days, seven days a week. Still, the things many people see as pitfalls of owning a business--being the backup when an employee calls in sick, paying hefty insurance fees and having responsibility for everything--don't stop her from enjoying her vocation or dispensing positive advice about how to be your own boss.

"The first thing you have to know if you want to start a business is that you have to love it," Selby says.

Her second rule is, "You can't do it all." While her dream is to have a full-service clothing and shoe store, "when you have to do everything," Selby says, "you have to do what you can. I don't stretch my neck out, [to do] more than I can do."

Knowing her limitations sometimes means telling customers that they'll have to pick up their clothing hours or even days later. But Selby reasons, in her singular way, "Do they want it a little late, or do they want it perfect?" EndBlock

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