Natural-born salesman bottles skill on 125th St.



Mustaqeem Abdul-Azeem at his 125th Street stand.
Simmons/News


It took Mustaqeem Abdul-Azeem 30 seconds to show why he won Project Enterprise's 2008 Entrepreneur of the Year award.

"Watch me get a bunch of people in front of the stand," he said.

Grabbing a bag secreted under his street vendor stand on the northeastern corner of 125th St. and Lenox Ave. in Harlem, Abdul-Azeem - known in the neighborhood as Mustaqeem - pulled out a handful of bright yellow flyers, each slightly larger than a standard index card. Then he went to work.

"Free oil! Step up and get your free oil," he said, wading into the busy noontime crowd. Half a minute later, the line in front of his stand was six people deep.

Nearby, a smiling sales associate was busy dabbing on one of Abdul-Azeem's 200 body oil samples. He has several associates, all of whom work on commission, plus a formerly homeless man who assembles his table of products before 8 a.m. and takes it down after 8 p.m. each day.

Mustaqeem Abdul-Azeem has been selling a range of products, from incense and oils to black soap and shea butter, at the same location since 2002.

"I'm here seven days a week, even when it rains," he said.

The 46-year-old natural-born salesman was a four-time finalist in Project Enterprise's annual entrepreneur competition.

Project Enterprise is a Harlem-based nonprofit that provides small, low-interest loans to small businesses. Abdul-Azeem has used two Project Enterprise loans to buy supplies and a used van to transport his wares. The budding entrepreneurs in Project Enterprise also form support groups that meet regularly to advise each other about business strategies.

"Mr. Mustaqeem's story is a shining example of how small amounts of capital can have a big impact," said Project Enterprise Executive Director Arva Rice. "Through Project Enterprise, Mustaqeem has created employment for himself and opportunities for others. If that isn't success, I don't know what is."

"PE is wonderful," Abdul-Azeem said. "There is nothing like being around like-minded people to help you with your business."

I should note that Rice asked me to sit on the 20-member panel that selected Abdul-Azeem for this award. But I did not meet him until I visited his stall recently to interview him for this article.

Abdul-Azeem has been selling his wares outside the Starbucks coffeehouse on 125th St. since 2002, about the same time he joined Project Enterprise.

Before that, he worked for the Board of Education and at other jobs, but was arrested and imprisoned for burglary and check fraud in the early 1980s. He didn't start getting his life together until he went to prison the second time, and converted to Islam.

Out of prison and living in a homeless shelter, he fell in with a man who convinced him that they could make a quick buck selling shea butter, a skin lotion made in Africa, on the street. Abdul-Azeem took his last $75 and bought shea butter. The partner backed out, but Abdul-Azeem kept at it.

Over the years, he has honed his sales skills. Tourists drive a harder bargain than locals, he said, and he has found that catchy phrases - "I got the lotion for people in motion" - help move product.

He works street festivals outside the city, and these days has customers around the country who order from his Web site, Welcome to Mustaqueemsessentials.

He's hoping to go to Ghana early next year to buy shea butter wholesale to sell to vendors.

crichardson@nydailynews.com

Natural-born salesman bottles skill on 125th St.