Kay Nettey, a state employee on her lunch break, headed for Mondawmin Mall because she heard there was something new there.
She found it. Scattered throughout the mall's center court are 18 colorful pushcarts, many filled with African and African-American hTC artifacts, jewelry and clothing. Other carts sell such things as snow balls, makeup and pastries aimed at the mall's patrons, 98 percent of whom are black.
Mondawmin, which is owned by the Rouse Corp., may be the first mall to feature carts specifically targeting African-American shoppers. The concept of carts in malls, however, originated with more generalized merchandise at another Rouse mall -- Faneuil Hall in Boston -- nearly 15 years ago.
Mondawmin's version is called Kalimba Market, named for a West African thumb piano that consists of metal or rattan tongues mounted on a wooden sounding board. The carts themselves, which debuted last week, are angular in design and brightly painted in a fashion reminiscent of the West African art of house painting.
While decorative, their purpose is to sell and a recent lunchtime crowd found the market alluring.
"I think it's great," said Nettey, whose only reservation was that shoppers would partake of the merchandise but miss the educational opportunity the carts represent.
"Most of us don't know enough about African culture," said Nettey, who admits that she was among the unschooled until she married someone African and traveled to that continent.
"I think more African-Americans need to be exposed to their culture," she added. "But they also need to read more about it and become more knowledgeable about what's being sold to them."
What's being sold at Kalimba Market is a mix of the authentic and the merely inspired.
Marion Parker Nelson leased two mall carts that she has dubbed International Fashions and International Treasures. She sells authentic African clothes, shoes, artwork and jewelry.
A traditional evening dress can cost as much as $300, while a man's tie-dyed shirt runs for $40. A beaded bracelet goes for $4 but a much more elaborate necklace sells for $150.
The Liberian-born Nelson, whose principal business is International Fashions on West Baltimore Street, said she gets her merchandise from a number of African countries, including Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Senegal.
Among the pushcart merchants are several new entrepreneurs. They include Melvin Thomas, whose cart, Auto Tech, caters to the autophile with custom license-plate holders, windshield wipers and decals.
Thomas, 24, is a graduate of Morgan State University who once worked as an intern in Mondawmin's management office. In deciding what kind of pushcart he wanted, he took a look at what was lacking in the West Baltimore mall.
"Mondawmin has no auto store or accessory parts in the mall, and accessories and parts are very popular in Baltimore," he said. "I thought in the future I could open a store, but the cart is a beginning."
Business was slow initially, with the cart pulling in less than a $100 in its first five days, Thomas said. But shoppers are beginning to catch on, and yesterday, Thomas said, he sold $100 worth of merchandise in one hour.
It all sounds good to Sonja Sanders. The manager of Mondawmin said she hopes many experienced or fledgling entrepreneurs who can'tafford to rent a regular mall store will avail themselves of the carts.
The Kalimba pushcarts can be leased for one to six months, at fees ranging from $200 to $250 a month. While there are currently 18 pushcarts operating, the mall can accommodate 22.
Sanders said it is too early for sales figures showing how the carts are doing. They have generated one thing, however.
"It's been very exciting," she said. "It's very rare that you get an opportunity to bring forth and display the African-American heritage in a positive sense."