Buffalonian of the Week: Michelle Holler

Michelle Holler, 26, is manager of the West Side Bazaar, a position she’s held for two and a half years. She was born and raised in Buffalo. Attending college in Florence, Italy, at that city’s University of the Arts gave her a passion for other cultures, and she’s pursued that passion since. She’s visited a total of 18 countries so far. Before she joined the West Side Bazaar, she had recently returned from a four-month Southeast Asia backpacking trip. Feeling a sense of “reverse culture shock,” she ventured to the Bazaar. One thing led to another, and she soon started working there.

Karibu News: Why do you think it’s important to have a place like the West Side Bazaar in Buffalo?

Michelle Holler: It’s become an anchor organization on Buffalo’s west side…a meeting place, where people can learn about other cultures; interact with people from around the world. And, people who are from other places, like Burma or Ethiopia, can come and have the food that they may miss, use their language.

Also, we help start up small businesses…Many people in the bazaar owned business in their country—it’s very different doing that in the U.S. It’s empowering for them; we’re helping to bring about community leaders from different groups.

How have things changed since you started this job?

We have a lot more customers. We have a high demand from people wanting to start businesses here; we have a waiting list for the restaurant side. We’ve gotten a lot of national and international press, talking about Buffalo’s comeback and the Bazaar’s role in that. We’ve gained more and more community support.

What are any challenges?

In the bazaar we’ve got space limitations—with the small commercial kitchen, the four vendors from different walks of life successfully share it. But, we don’t have enough space for everyone who wants to be here. We occasionally have language barriers. We are usually able to tackle that easily—we work with Jericho Road Language Services.

What do you think could be done better?

Reaching out to more community groups, making sure that the bazaar is all-inclusive and representative of the west side and Buffalo as a whole. I’d like there to be more awareness of WEDI (Ed. note: Westminster Economic Development Initiative, Inc., the organization that started the bazaar) and the programs offered.

I’d also like to see more people come to the West Side Bazaar from the west side. And more movement toward making Grant St. a safer space for everyone. We must keep building on the community aspect, like the Elmwood Village Association has done—businesses and residents working together to make that happen.

What else would you like to see?

I would like the bazaar to expand. We’re in the planning stages of perhaps a second bazaar so that everyone who wants to can open a business. It’s considered the American dream. More places throughout Buffalo and the United States should offer spaces like this, with better subsidies for lower income individuals to have that opportunity. I’ve learned so much about how to do this; I’d like to work with others to help them be successful. (I probably learn more from our vendors then they do from me.)

What makes you happy and/or hopeful?

My passion is learning about other cultures—it makes me happy just being in the bazaar every day. Seeing the ways that so many different people can interact makes me hopeful for the world in general. You come here and see that so many religious backgrounds and walks of life can work together and become best friends and…they’re my “Bazaar family”—that’s what we call each other.

I’m also passionate about Buffalo, seeing people moving back here, and the work that’s being done through non-profits, the arts and small businesses. It’s a beautiful thing.  K

Jana Eisenberg, a Buffalo-based writer and editor, is a frequent contributor to Karibu News.

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