Manassas Journal Messenger | Little stores, big business, big dreams

Sombreros and bulls’ horns adorn the walls in Hector Bardales Sr.’s store, Cowboy Distributors, in Discount Plaza on Grant Avenue in Manassas.

White, lacy communion and christening dresses hang from the ceiling above rows and rows of exotic cowboy boots made of ostrich, stingray and lizard skin.

A glass display case holds nothing but cowboy belt buckles. It sits next to another case with nothing but belts inside.

Like other foreign-born entrepreneurs in the area, Bardales, who is originally from Mexico, started in business because he couldn’t buy things from his homeland.

“I was used to this kind of clothing,” said the 46-year-old, who came to America 24 years ago.

Before he opened his store in 1991, Bardales did some research and decided that there was a market in Manassas for imported Mexican western wear. At the time, Bardales estimated that Mexicans made up 60 percent of the Hispanic population in and around Manassas.

“I saw all the Spanish night clubs and I saw a lot of Spanish people who would love this stuff,” said Bardales, who moved from California to Virginia at the urging of family members who recommended the Old Dominion.

“I thought it would be a good idea to open a store,” he said.

Bardales raised his family in Woodbridge and one of his sons, Hector Bardales Jr., followed in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps and opened a store next door.

Bardales Jr. went into the music business for many of the same reasons his father chose clothing.

“The people come from other countries and they can’t find the music they like,” the 29-year-old said. “The stores in the United States don’t have that kind of music.”

Bardales Jr. was born in Mexico as were his two sisters and a brother. The children did not join their father until he had been in America and saved up to bring them to Woodbridge in 1989.

Central American and Mexican music from Bardales Jr.’s Mexico Discoteca Tropicalida wafts easily into his the cowboy store next door for added ambiance. Black T-shirts with pictures of Mexican rock-and-roll bands hang above racks of music CDs, movies and DVDs. Bardales Jr. said business is good.

“We get everything directly from Mexico,” he said of his extensive inventory. “The people can find what they’re looking for.”

Bardales Sr. said his first couple of years in business were touch and go. The money he had couldn’t buy enough inventory to fill his store.

“The customers like to look at a lot of stuff,” he said.

Bardales added to his stock bit-by-bit until he finally had to expand.

“Right now I have a little bit of everything,” he said.

Another entrepreneur, Jose Blacutt came to America from Bolivia seven years for a “better living.” He found it in his bodega El Mercado Hispano in Manassas Park Shopping Center.

Pi”atas hang from the ceiling in Blacutt’s store on Centreville Road.

Peg boards hold corn husks and assorted peppers in plastic wrapping.

A small kitchen in the back sells menudo, sopa de res and other Hispanic dishes.

Blacutt said he didn’t come to America seven years ago to be an entrepreneur. That happened later.

“I worked in construction,” the 47-year-old said.

The construction work lasted about a year.

“Then I went to a mechanic job. That is really my profession,” Blacutt said.

He wound up as a store owner because he had saved his money, he said.

“The store belonged to my brother before and he wanted to sell me a share of it,” he said.

Blacutt said he thinks he might be spreading a little of his native culture day-by-day. Anglo-Americans who walk by occasionally stop in to browse and sometimes buy things from his store, he said.

And the Bardaleses and Blacutt are not just the only entrepreneurs in sharing their richly diverse cultures through commerce.

Tired of the difficulties she faced as an African-born consumer living in Prince William County, Judith Manford decided to resolve the problem by starting her own business.

“It was very frustrating — going to D.C. or Maryland to get food or clothing that took me back home,” Manford said last week, as she worked at her two-year-old store, Doves Imports African Market in Featherstone Shopping Center at 14547 Jefferson Davis Highway.

“I found there are a lot of Africans and Caribbeans around here. It’s nice for them to feel at home once in a while. My kids are grown, so I thought it was time to do something for the community.”

Manford moved from Ghana to Woodbridge 20 years ago, but it took her to make the leap to small-business ownership.

The food, clothes and other goods at Doves Imports give Manford’s customers the trappings of home, and the same can be said of a variety of small stores throughout the county as well as in Manassas and Manassas Park.

As more immigrants make a home in the area, a market exists for Manford’s goods and many similar stores targeted toward people of all nationalities. Restaurants are not the only businesses that give local immigrants a taste of home.

At the New Ali Groceries and Gifts store at 13863 Smoketown Road, store owner Tayyab Paracha says he is most proud of “serving my community, serving my people.” The store provides Halal meat and chicken, along with other vital goods for people from countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Haiti and Saudi Arabia. Halal meats are those that are free from any component that Muslims are prohibited from consuming, according to Islamic law. Plant eating animals that are slaughtered in the Islamic way are called Halal.

Paracha and his family began the running the business in 2001, when Paracha’s cousin talked him into leaving New York City and moving to Prince William. “He was a wholesaler, and he said there was a lot of business here. He was right.”

In the Latino community, meanwhile, some stores have become institutions.

Surtidora Mexicana, is part of three contiguous stores that opened 17 years ago on U.S. 1. The stores, located from 13732 to 13738 Jefferson Davis Highway, sell everything from hats to groceries to movies. Still, owners like Raymond and Maria Angelica Romero of the Vanessa Latino Market at 14557 Jefferson Davis Highway, also in the Featherstone Shopping Center, believe the county can support new Latino stores.

“The Hispanic community is increasing in this area, so that gave me the idea to open a Hispanic grocery,” Raymond Romero said.

Romero, who moved from San Salvador, El Salvador to Alexandria 24 years ago, said he had “done a little bit of everything, mostly construction” before opening his first business eight months ago. The Romeros, who have three school-aged children, sold their house in Alexandria and moved to a larger single-family home in Prince William.

Juan Salmeron, also from El Salvador, has been living in Centreville for 18 years and been operating Sociedad Groceries in Manassas for almost six years.

Salmeron, 35, worked for more than a decade in the restaurant business in Washington, D.C., but decided to branch out and buy his own convenience store, which features a plethora of Mexican and Salvadorian food and Spanish wine as well as DVDs in both English and Spanish.

Having relatives that live in the U.S., Salmeron initially wanted to just visit for awhile and go back home to El Salvador. But he met his future wife Maria Landrade, also Salvadorian, and settled in Virginia. They has three children — Hugo, 15, Karen, 16, and Alex, 18.

Salmeron has done his best to fit in with American culture while providing a service to his fellow Latinos in the area.

His English is fairly good, which he tries to use exclusively with his children at home. In fact, Sociedad Groceries sits comfortably in a shopping center off Mathis Avenue in between the very American sounding Heather’s Dance Boutique and Roger’s Barber Shop.

However, it has been difficult at times for Salmeron.

He had to fire an employee when he first opened the store because the person was stealing. And because of the store’s small size, he runs it from morning to night by himself while his wife works for another market in town.

Salmeron likes what he does but said he’ll eventually sell the place because it’s been too difficult to put in the long hours while taking care of his family.

“Sometimes it’s bad. I’ve been here all seven days a week and I am really tired,” said Salmeron. “It’s too small a place, I can’t [employ] any more people here.”

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