I Create Birmingham: LeNell Camacho Santa Ana

"Motherhood isn’t easy and a lot of assumptions are made about gender roles and stereotypes of women in my business. It’s important to me to build something inclusive."

Interview by Tonia Trotter
Photos by Ambre Amari

LeNell’s Beverage Boutique sits on the corner of 12th Avenue and 32nd Street North in the historic Norwood neighborhood. The eclectic liquor store stands in striking juxtaposition to the once-stately turn-of-the-century estate that shares the same lot and owner, LeNell Camacho Santa Ana. The outspoken and warm entrepreneur, single mother, and Norwood resident talked with us about privilege, civic responsibility, and the role she hopes to play in the working mom’s village.

LeNell, you’ve been applauded for your decision to open your store in Norwood, a historic and architecturally beautiful neighborhood that has recently attracted the attention of developers, investors, and local media. You’ve been outspoken that your store isn’t an effort to gentrify Norwood but an investment in your own neighborhood. How do you view your role as the neighborhood continues to evolve?

The word gentrification is so loaded. I remember the first time I used that word in my early twenties. I didn’t have a true understanding of what that word meant, especially to my neighbors. I lived in a predominantly black neighborhood in the 90’s and was tasked by neighborhood leadership with writing a grant to have our neighborhood historically recognized. I naively used that word throughout my grant proposal and experienced the bristle of some of my black neighbors when they read it. It gave me a chance to listen and learn, and that shot straight to my heart.

Gentrification is affluence that often ignores what is already set in place. That doesn’t benefit a community because a community is about people. Investing in where I live is important to me. I’m not the face of gentrification; I am a single mother who has worked my butt off for seven years to open my business in the neighborhood where I also live. Norwood isn’t a newly discovered neighborhood. There are families who have been living here for generations, fighting to be heard and working to cultivate our community. I’m beyond grateful for the recognition I’ve received for the store and the local support that is helping bring attention to Norwood. I absolutely realize that I have white privilege, but I hope to be a mouthpiece for my neighborhood and use that privilege the best way I can.

Have you encountered any push-back or criticism and, if so, how do you respond?

I’ve been asked why I would open an upscale liquor store in a lower-income neighborhood. Race and socio-economic status doesn’t determine taste. The people who live in this community want nice things just as much as anyone else, and they deserve respect. I always say that everyone deserves a good shopping experience. I carry quality, inexpensive wines as well as rare bourbons as well as non-alcoholic options. I host events and tastings where everyone is welcome, and that philosophy is at the core of any project I am working on.

And you do have an exciting project in the works! Can you share what you have in development?

I am working on opening a cafe that is an extension of my shop. The concept includes restoring the 1905 home connected to the shop and creating a venue that allows for indoor/outdoor casual dining and community space for yoga classes, live music, art shows, and family activities. Birmingham has a lot of great breweries that have cultivated this easy atmosphere for families to hang out. The parents can order a drink and catch up with friends while the kids run around and play. I love that, and I hope to build on that with this new venture.

What inspires, challenges, and fuels your vision for your business?

I am a single, working mother and finding connection and a place where you can nurse freely, live, work, or just be is a challenge. So I want to create that and be part of the solution. I hire other moms. I often have my daughter with me at work, and I understand when an employee needs to do that too. Affordable childcare is hard to come by, and while there are day care options available, night care for parents who work evening hours is basically non-existent. Motherhood isn’t easy and a lot of assumptions are made about gender roles and stereotypes of women in my business. It’s important to me to build something inclusive that centers around hope and healing, community, and creating a better place for our babies.