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Illegal merchants challenge convention vendors


By Mary Kenney




CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Not all the vendors selling buttons, stickers and T-shirts outside the Democratic National Convention brought memorabilia of President Barack Obama. One brought music.

Tiffany Lewis, the Virginian owner of All That Jazz and More, “jumped through hoops” to plunk down a booth across the street from the Time Warner Cable Arena.

Now, though, Lewis and other licensed vendors are concerned they could lose business to competition that did not register with the city or pay for licenses.

“I do support our president, but this,” she gestured to her booth, “is my life.”

It was hard to wander through the cramped space under her awning, but she invited passersby, though there were few, to gaze at and fall in love with her novelty gifts.

There were painted miniature figurines of women singing into microphones and men puffing into saxophones. A 24-carat gold and crystal statuette of a treble clef stood near the back. Below it were tiny replicas of violins and clarinets, magnetic keyboards and violins. T-shirts asked passersby, “Got jazz?”

Lewis did not start her career as an entrepreneur. Her thick, red business cards read “Tiffany Lewis, Ph.D.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, master’s in mechanical engineering and doctorate in systems engineering. That was back when the Fortune 500 company she worked for paid for education. Shortly after she earned her last degree, they decided they didn’t need her, and she was laid off, she said.

Lewis had been stressed as she worked full time and taught part time. When she found herself without a job, the idea occurred to her.

She decorates her house in jazz and music novelty items, and she said they’re hard to find. Why not set up a kiosk in a mall?

“Let’s not just sell music,” Lewis said. “Let’s sell music stuff.”

Lewis has been in business for a little more than a year. She said she had her biggest sales boom last Christmas, but the DNC has been a little slower.

Carolinafest, on Monday, was fantastic, she said. Since then, vendors just outside the convention have stopped foot traffic from venturing across the street to legal booths like hers.

The paperwork she filed and fees she spent to make it here made it all the more bitter, she said, when the unlicensed vendors set up tables along the sidewalks directly outside the convention.

Nobody has tried to stop them, and they’re taking business from legal vendors, she said.

A man running the booth next to hers, who asked to be called Jim, said he and other vendors paid $3,000 to set up booths at the event. They had to obtain licenses and insurance from the City of Charlotte.

The Charlotte business license alone was $200, Lewis said.

Both wondered why city officials aren’t trying harder to keep out illegal street vendors, since the city and the DNC were adamant about licensing and insurance.

“A lot of the people here don’t realize, but the life of a street vendor is hard,” Lewis said.

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