Name: Aissatou Minthe Clinton Hill Resident For: 10 years
(Thanks to the Polish Bar of Brooklyn for providing their space for the interview, as well as a paraffin manicure and a chocolate pedicure, and to the Greene Grape for providing a bottle of Burgans Albarino 2005) Aissatou Minthe and I sat down over wine and took pleasure in some pampering on April 10 at the Polish Bar of Brooklyn. While she slipped on some heated mitts for a paraffin manicure, I sat back and enjoyed the indulgent chocolate pedicure.
Aissatou Minthe is the fashionable Frenchwoman who owns Tessan Boutique, the tiny clothing and accessories shop on the ground floor of a brownstone on Clinton at DeKalb. She lives and works in the building.
I’ve often wondered about the French population in the area, since there seems to be a very high concentration. It was, in a way, what brought Minthe to the neighborhood. She first arrived from Paris, where she was born, to go to college and moved in with her boyfriend at the time in Fort Greene. She’s lived here ever since.
Minthe believes that the first French restaurant to open, Chez Ozkar, brought the French expats living in the neighborhood together for socializing and sharing. A Table and Café Lafayette followed, making the area a place in which the French felt comfortable. She laughs, saying that there are perhaps, “too many French people,” here, and how the French community often referred to Fort Greene as “French Greene.” (Moments earlier, she had recognized a friend in one of the pedicure chairs and the two spoke at length in French.)
Though born in Paris, Minthe feels a deep connection to Tessan, the village in Senegal where her mother was born. As a child, she and her siblings traveled to the village each summer with their parents to stay on her grandfather’s farm where he grew peanuts, corn and other vegetables. It was a peaceful experience for her, as Tessan was and still is very much a traditional African village – residents gathered water from a well and no one had electricity.
Minthe named her boutique after the village and as a tribute to her parents and family for being open-minded despite coming from a traditional background. While she hopes to eventually move to a bigger space, she plans on keeping the original location open as well. “My people remember what they come from,” she said, explaining her attachment to the storefront. The small space also creates an intimacy. On the weekends, the shop becomes crowded and shoppers often engage one another with personal stories or ask for advice.
Minthe spent a few years as a social worker, and had originally hoped to go back to school to design shoes, handbags and jewelry. Now, she sells them. “There was no time in my schedule to go to school while I was working, so I did it the other way around,” she says. “The store is small, and it used to be a storage space! My landlord knew I was looking for a space, and offered it to me. I decided to use the space to try this out.”
I asked how she chooses what she sells, given her limited square footage. “I choose clothing and accessories that go with everything, things that are very simple,” she explains. “Clothing to hang out in. Whatever a woman needs to feel beautiful.” Minthe also makes a point of selling items handmade by Clinton Hill residents, including hats and scarves by Nicole Tavares, twilight hats by a neighbor named Michael and jewelry from women named Masani and Karrie who live in Clinton Hill. Often, the local designers are people she’s met before in the area after admiring their personal styles and projects.
Minthe’s favorite aspect of Clinton Hill is its diversity. “It’s a small community,” she says. “Everyone knows one another. There is so much to do, but yet not a lot to do. You can just relax in the park doing nothing if you want, just like a small village!”
Minthe also waxes poetic about the local business community. “I’ve had a good experience opening the store here. I’ve received lots of help and encouragement from other entrepreneurs. It’s also very cool that so many women in the area own their own businesses. It creates a real solidarity. There are so many unique stores in the area, each with a different style!”
I asked her about some of her other favorites, of course. “For lentil soup, my favorite comes from Black Iris. Chez Oscar has the best Nicoise Salad. Cafe Lafayette has an amazing chocolate volcano. For quality cuisine, iCi. Djollof, on Fulton and St. James, has the best Senegali food! It’s like eating at home. And the best-kept secret in the neighborhood? A Bistro.”
Finally, I asked her what flavor of ice cream she would be and why. Minthe had her answer right away. “Chocolate! Because it’s sweet. Sweet and strong.”