By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For the Birmingham Times
For Ace Graham, owner of Alchemy, a creative boutique in the Southside Birmingham Five Points district, business is about more than just selling high-end streetwear.
“We want to put on as many people as we can,” he said. “For me, I’m not about quantity; I’m more about quality. I want to identify with some specific talented people, so we all [can] get together and build something we all can be happy about, [something] we all can live for, [something that will help us] achieve our goals, live our dreams. I want to be around those people and work with them every single day.”
That “work” also includes philanthropic efforts, such as Alchemy’s partnership with the nonprofit Susan G. Komen North Central Alabama, which is “dedicated to combating breast cancer at every front,” according to komenncalabama.org.
“It’s one of the biggest breast cancer foundations in America, [and there is] a campus here in Homewood,” Graham said. “We’ve done projects with [them], whether it was the [Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure] or the Breast Cancer Big Wigs campaign. We’ve just done different fundraising with them.”
When speaking of his business, Graham explains that Alchemy is a code word.
“It stands for transmuting humans into gold. It’s about turning our base qualities of fear, ignorance, hatred, and shame into love and fulfillment,” he said. “This is the motto we live by through the business. We break down barriers, we mix demographics. We create platforms for true engagement, interaction, and education. … [That’s] why the name Alchemy was selected for the shop.”
Graham said his diverse experience gives him an understanding of his responsibilities “not just as an African-American man, but as a man in general.”
“I’m more aware of what I’m responsible for as a human being,” he said, noting community service, giving back, providing a platform for others, and sharing his knowledge.
Graham, 34, stumbled upon the Magic City’s potential in 2009, when he first made plans to open a lifestyle-focused specialty shop. He spent a few months scouting locations in the Southeast for his fashion endeavor. Birmingham proved more viable than larger cities—such as Nashville, Tenn., Atlanta, Ga., and New Orleans, La.—because the market for high-end streetwear was both open and undersaturated, he said.
Alchemy carries exclusive brands from designers who limit their distribution to hand-selected shops across the globe, oftentimes as few as one retailer per city and sometimes only one per U.S. state.
Graham’s shop carries some of hip-hop’s most exclusive designer lines, such as Jay-Z’s Roc Nation clothing line and Pharrell Williams’s skate-centric shoe line Ice Cream, which recently made a comeback as Ice Cream “Made in Italy” after a years-long hiatus.
The venue hosts highly exclusive events, such as its 2016 pop-up shop for the 20th anniversary of Jay-Z’s debut studio album, “Reasonable Doubt.”
“We’re the Roc Nation store for Alabama,” said Graham. “Pretty much, they select the stores they want to activate. … They chose stores in [New York City, N.Y., Los Angeles, Calif., and Miami, Fla.]; we were the last store. We had an album-listening session. It was a lot of fun.”
“Birmingham was kind of an open market for us to work in. It was definitely a place that needed to see what streetwear is.”
Alchemy is about “breaking down barriers, … getting people to interact with people they wouldn’t normally interact with, so they can see that they have a lot in common,” Graham said. “It breaks down barriers that we have as individuals. We make sure a person leaves with a different understanding of what they had before they came here.”
The carefully curated brand exists to “transmute—change or alter in form, appearance, or nature and especially to a higher form, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary—people.”
“It’s a contagious energy that we try to project to everyone who comes into [Alchemy] every day,” Graham said. “It’s about this energy you carry. This is something we exercise every single day.”
Graham, an ex-U.S. Army brat, nomadic in nature, and a native of nowhere said, “We were picking up and relocating every 12 to 18 months. … I don’t remember anyone I met before the age of 15.”
He lived in Germany as a military kid and moved to Europe as an adult in 2012, when he was 28.
“I’m a lifestyle specialist,” Graham said, “I’m of our culture, and I know what goes on in America. … I [also] know what goes on in other parts of our world. I’m knowledgeable about very specific things, … whether it’s automobiles, watches, clothes, dogs, birds, whatever the case may be.”
Living abroad helped him grow as a person and entrepreneur, he said: “I lived in Bologna, Italy, for three years. I went there to live and ended up doing business consulting. I wasn’t even going there for work. I was just there, and I was like, ‘I’m never leaving.’”
In the States
By 2014, Graham was back in the U.S. laying the groundwork for Alchemy’s retail location, which opened on 20th Street, in downtown Birmingham, in October 2015; he moved to the Southside in 2017.
“We wanted to be in Five Points the whole time, but there were no spaces available,” he said. “We were able to work on 20th Street for two years and build the business, which was great. We were able to work as late as we wanted, have events and parties. When [our current location] became open, we chased it for two months just to even start the conversation. It was always a goal to have a place where there was a lot of foot traffic. For people to see this in Five Points, … it’s like they’ve been waiting for this. There has been a good reception.
Graham is all about utilizing his space to help others.
“Right now, we’re working on a mural project for Five Points,” he said. “We’ve hosted rap battles. We utilize our space for the youth of Birmingham. … Musicians, jewelry makers, chefs, have all held events [at Alchemy].”
To find out more about Alchemy 213, visit www.alchemy213.com.
Meet the millennials on the move in the Magic City
By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For the Birmingham Times
For Ace Graham, Birmingham is the perfect metropolis for millennials to launch their dreams.
Graham, 34, owns and operates Alchemy, a high-end streetwear “creative boutique” in the Southside’s Five Points district, near the corner of 11th Avenue South.
“If there is something [millennials] want to do, they can do it here: a brewery, a streetwear shop. … There are a lot of opportunities here because it’s not oversaturated,” he said.
Graham’s vibrant, artsy space is ideal for millennials, many of whom are often found socializing there: “We try to provide that here,” he said. “I don’t have many places to hang out. … For the most part, if we want to go somewhere else or hang out, we go to the Magnolia House.”
The Magnolia House is owned by Justin Streeter, who also uses his two-story establishment on Magnolia Avenue, on Birmingham’s Southside, to encourage creativity and host events.
“The guys over there are very good friends of ours, and we try to support each other as much as possible,” Graham said. “Streeter is a very good friend of mine. [He] comes in often, and we share conversation.”
Meet the Millennials
According to the Pew Research Center, the Millennial generation—anyone born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 23 to 38 in 2019)—is “the first generation to come of age in the new millennium.” Compared with adults in previous generations, they “are the most racially and ethnically diverse adult generation in the nation’s history” according to a recent article, “Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Generation Z Begins.”
In fact, the Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan statistical area has about 248,000 millennials, who now make up the largest part of the area’s workforce, according to data from the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA).
Last year, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin—himself a millennial, at 37—told Alabama State University (ASU) students during a lecture series, “There are an estimated 69 million millennials across this nation. When we are woke and engaged, there is nothing we can’t do.”
That’s certainly true of Graham at Alchemy and Streeter at Magnolia House. The two business owners share a great chemistry and sense of comradery.
“We’re definitely about sharing information for the betterment of both of us,” Graham said. “If we have someone in town like [AKOO clothing’s] Jason Geter, [who co-founded the fashion brand with rapper Clifford ‘T.I.’ Harris], once that event is over, we’ll fall over into [Streeter’s] place and spread the love. … That helps out a whole lot.”
Streeter, a 29-year-old Ensley native, has a venue that caters to college students and millennial professionals looking for different experiences: “Professionals like the lounge-type vibe, and college students like the club, high-energy vibe,” he said.
Magnolia can also serve as a vending space for independent retailers.
“We’ve had pop-up shops for I don’t know how many clothing lines here in Birmingham. [We’ve had] cooking events. It’s just open,” Streeter said. “We have our nightlife, but I strategically fit those [other] types of events into our lineup. Whether it’s before the nightlife begins or whatever we’ve got to do, we’re going to make it work.”
The Ramsay High School grad said this is a good time for millennials in Birmingham, which is wide open.
“Being in Birmingham right now, you have an opportunity to create your own way versus jumping on somebody else’s wave,” Streeter said. “You can find you a nice commercial business space and just start dreaming.”
More Than a Teacher
Speaking of dreams, that’s what Rachel Simonne, director of A.H. Parker High School’s Theater and Dance program, helps her students realize. Simonne, who is responsible for designing the department’s curriculum, teaches an array of theater, drama, and dance classes daily and directs three productions per year.
Being in the millennial generation, Simonne, 27, sees her role as more than teacher and director.
“I am a mentor to some. I am a second mom to some. I’m a counselor to some,” she said. “I have to play so many roles because my students need so many things … they lack for whatever reasons.”
The Wylam native’s dance and theater curriculum are centered on black modern dance and the works of African-American playwrights, such as Lorraine Hansberry August Wilson, and Ntozake Shange.
“I’ve found that a lot of the other dance and theater genres are more so entertaining versus actually having a message [to which] we as African-Americans can relate,” said Simonne. “African-American playwrights make a connection between now and then, as it relates to our ancestry. It’s more meaningful.”
Birmingham City Council Creative Director Desmond “Dez”
Wilson, 31, knows the importance of messaging. That’s his specialty both in and away from City Hall.
When working for the city of Birmingham, Wilson and his team manage all visual communications pertaining to City Council branding, broadcast, social media, and press. The group also seeks new ways to bridge modern communications and municipal government to help promote transparency and efficiency.
“We’re always searching for ways to educate the public on government resources, practices, and processes: how to apply for a license, how to get a business license,” Wilson said. “These are the types of things the public needs to be educated on.”
Away from City Hall, Wilson uses his talents to give back to the community “by telling black stories [and] exposing black talent to different avenues.”
“We’ve been so far removed from controlling our own messaging and controlling [how we are perceived],” he said. “It’s becoming increasingly important that I continue to [remain] a part of my community and work to cultivate and grow our understanding.”
Like others, Wilson sees Birmingham as a city where millennials can thrive.
“Birmingham is a growing attraction [because] of the industries and companies that are coming here and the general amenities [the city] is beginning to offer for millennials,” he said, noting new entertainment and event venues in the area, including TopGolf in downtown Birmingham and Dave and Buster’s in Hoover, that are very appealing to the millennial generation.