Under the guise of being a Hip Hop retailer, True Blue is an unofficial boys' and girls' club for beautiful losers and their art. And Bender is a self-described "beautiful loser" whose role often toggles between businesswoman and the cool friend who lets her friends "crash."
Her friends are Hip Hop supporters of all ages who call True Blue home. T-shirts framed in plastic plexi-covers adorn the walls, waiting to be purchased. A few racks of Hip Hop apparel languish along the sidelines, almost overlooked. Videos and CDs of sojourning Hip Hop artists like Rhyme Sayers, Nostalgic, Jahson and Glue peek from underneath glass counters.
It's 3 in the afternoon on a Wednesday, and there are no shoppers. Bender attributes the lack of business to her concealed location behind Bogart's. She also knows that many young Hip Hop enthusiasts are usually broke.
The quietness makes you forget it's a store. Maybe it's because it's also Bender's "home."
"Everything in here is a reflection of me," she says.
Centered between merchandise is a cushy indigo sofa, facing a knobbed 1980s model television set. The fitting room door is disguised as a wall of fame. Tagged senior yearbook style, the door represents the people who have been there -- Charli 2na of Jurassic 5, and KRS-One, who wrote, "True Blue, You Are Hip Hop."
Silver signatures of local emcees, break-dancers, DJs and graffiti artists glow beside his name.
"It's nice for the kids to be able to put their names beside someone like KRS-One," Bender says. "It makes them feel good."
One of her "kids," emcee Ill Poetic, walks in, smiling. Time-pressed, he dashes into Bender's office and checks e-mail. He bids goodbye before boarding his bus.
"Kids like him come in all the time," she says, "and it's to the point where I let them go in the office and check their e-mail."
Although she remembers going to the first Fresh Fest, her youthful countenance and strawberry blonde locks make her pass for a care-free college kid. But don't let the care-free look fool you -- Bender is a woman of principle.
"I'm not trying to sell sex and drugs," she says, pointing to the CDs and videos. Instead, she offers support.
"I do an open mic two Saturdays every month," she says, adding that she reserves other Saturdays for break-dancers and graffiti artists. "I do all of it here, and I do it from 4 to 7 p.m. I don't get to go out much anymore, so it's an opportunity for me to be able to enjoy myself and be with people. It's also good for the store."
Bender keeps the set close to home for a reason.
"I could've done a club night, but I wanted it to be here so that young kids could come, too," she says. "I make sure that everybody realizes that this is a family-oriented place and you can bring your kids along."
Inside True Blue, three emcees lounge lazily on the cushy sofa and remark how dead it is this Saturday, attributing the absence of usual suspects to sunny weather and barbecues. An impromptu freestyle set breathes energy into the cozy store.
The clothing racks give DJ Identity center stage as he spins Swollen Members and Pharcyde instrumentals. Even though no children are present, no one uses profanity.
"The people on the mic are conscious of how they deliver, and it's a challenge for them to have to keep it clean," Bender says.
Outside, Short Vine becomes a ho stroll of young women concentrating more on drive-by stares than their curious toddlers who stop to inspect litter. Bender expresses her concern for these misguided women and notes that her attraction to the music had nothing to do with wanting to meet a "cute guy."
She says she earned respect from emcees, distributors and DJs by going to shows alone and paying attention to what was going on. Since she's established trust and earned their respect, she doesn't need distributors. She can buy direct and keep the prices reasonable.
Bender also earns respect by not belittling today's Hip Hop scene with comparisons of the past. She welcomes the evolution.
"New kids are gonna come, things are gonna change," she says. "Old kids are gonna get married and have kids and not have time to be out. If you keep wishing that things would be how they used to be, that's kinda silly. You've got to love where things have come from. And you've also got to get excited about where they're going." ©