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Ace Graham, of Alchemy 213: Small Business Owner Adjusts

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Ace Graham of Alchemy 213 is turning a lackluster situation into a golden opportunity for his high-end streetwear clothing store in Birmingham’s Five Points South.

The coronavirus pandemic has many retailers and restauranteurs innovating to keep their businesses going. Ever a yaysayer, Graham sees the changing circumstances as motivation to make his business the best that it can be, now and beyond the pandemic.

Graham admits that he hadn’t made online purchasing options a priority before non-essential businesses closed. His priority has always been giving customers experience as soon as they walked in the doors.

Now, his focus has shifted far beyond his doors, to new strategies to overcome the latest challenges for retail. He’s using curbside pick-up for customers to get their fashion fix. He’s even using tools like FaceTime to help customers get a look at what’s in stock and gets a model with a similar build to give them a better idea of how pieces would fit their body.

He’s also spending a lot of time on social media to strengthen his relationship with his followers with sensitivity and clear messaging that honors the changing landscape for both retailers and consumers.

“Content is key,” he said. “Now more than ever, what you post on social needs to catch the attention of the consumer and it needs to be the right messaging. We’re not trying to sell you anything. We want to express our true feeling about the situation. We also want to speak to who we are.”

Graham is using his social channels to help out, too.

Currently, Alchemy is giving away KN95 masks to Birmingham residents. He said he’s already gotten over 50 requests for them.

He also nods to help available through the city through #BhamStrong—a coalition of public and private partners providing relief to small businesses and citizens.

“I really don’t know of another place where they’ve had a call for small businesses to ask questions like they have with #BhamStrong,” he said.

Finally, Graham is using this time to work on his private label products and has been working on some designs for a #BhamStrong capsule collection that he says will be launching very soon. His goal for the pieces will be to bring people together—even if it’s only in spirit in the six-feet-apart social distancing world in which we live right now.

“Cohesion and unwavering are on our mood board right now,” he said. “We want to make sure that comes across in the merchandise. We’re unwavering people and we’re working together here.”

Graham encourages more business owners to find the silver lining of the challenges that social distancing and self-quarantining have brought to the retail world.

“It’s like a reset button,” he said. “It’s about understanding that slowing down makes for a better-finished product. You don’t have to be caught up on everyone else’s timeline. Slow down and wash your hands.”

Code Word

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 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 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.”

“Lifestyle Specialist”

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.”

To find out more about Alchemy 213, visit www.alchemy213.com.