Kerry McCoy, who grew up in North Little Rock, founded Arkansas Flag & Banner in 1975 with an investment of $400. The company now has 22 full-time employees.
In 1991, she bought Taborian Hall at 800 W. Ninth St., built for the Knights and Daughters of the Tabor, a black fraternal insurance organization. In the 1930s, it housed the Dreamland Ballroom and featured performers such as Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Redd Foxx and Sammy Davis Jr.
Earlier this year, the Arkansas Educational Television Network premiered the documentary “Dream Land: Little Rock’s West 9th Street,” telling the story of the once vibrant African-American business and entertainment district.
How did you get into the business of selling flags and banners?
It was kind of a series of bad luck. I went to college in Conway, because that was what was expected, even though I didn’t really like school. I now know it was because I suffered from dyslexia. No matter how much I tried I just wasn’t any good at it, and so I left after only one semester.
I then got a job as a telephone operator in downtown Little Rock. I was only 18 and thought if I had to do this the rest of my life I would die. After only six months of being tethered to a switchboard, I left.
My parents could tell I was despondent. One day my mom walked in with a copy of my Seventeen magazine and pointed to an advertisement in the back. Mom said, “There is a fashion merchandising school in Dallas, Texas, and you know how much you like clothes. Would you like to try it?” I spent the next year at Miss Wade’s Fashion Merchandising College.
When I graduated, in 1974, it was the height of the recession and gas crisis. I could not find a job in my field, so I took the first job I found, selling flags for Betsy Ross Flag Girl. Disillusioned with that job, I decided, again on my mother’s recommendation, to move home and open my own flag business. For nine years I worked part-time jobs while I grew my business.
Tell us a little about your purchase and preservation of the old Taborian Hall, home of the Dreamland Ballroom. What motivated you?
I love old buildings, always have. In the late 1980s I would drive down Interstate 630 and see this building off to the left and think, “If Arkansas Flag & Banner ever got big enough, I would like to put it in a building like that.” Then in 1990 Desert Storm broke out and flag sales skyrocketed. When it was over, I decided to make an offer on the Taborian Hall. It all seems like a dream. I had tunnel vision for the task at hand. In hindsight, I’m not sure whether I picked the building or it picked me.
You’ve become something of a multimedia force, with a radio program on KABF, Brave Magazine and an active blog. What was the impetus for branching out?
People often believe me to be creative but I don’t feel creative. I have no burning desire to paint, sculpt or draw. But I have come to realize I am creative in business. In the words of Andy Warhol, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
You continued to sell Confederate flags in 2015 when Wal-Mart and Amazon stopped carrying them, generating some controversy, but you also sell flags ranging from anarchist and atheist to gay pride and the pan-African flag. Has the recent uproar over Confederate symbols affected you and what’s your reasoning for your eclectic offerings?
I am glad you did your research and realize our offering is eclectic. I understand that flags can be an emotional product and try to stay away from the business of censorship. We received hate mail after 9/11 because we ran out of U.S. flags. We live in a polarizing time, which is not good for anyone. Last week, Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner was my guest on “Up in Your Business.” I asked him many controversial questions, and I think he said it best, and I am paraphrasing: “Wisdom is being able to see all sides of an issue. The wiser you are the broader your view of life becomes.” I have always been open-minded, even if I don’t agree with you.