“Queen of the Bazaar” Eva Portia Bailey Schaffner, OBE (1936–2017)
Remembering a pioneer of Freeport, businesswoman extraordinaire, and great Bahamian who let women know this is not a man’s world.
One week ago today, I evoked the story of Eva Portia Bailey Schaffner, OBE during my address at the inaugural commencement of the University of The Bahamas, Northern Campus.
This is Eva’s story.
There was a reason they called her the “Queen of the Bazaar.” Even at more than threescore years and ten, there was something enchanting about Eva Portia Bailey Schaffner’s confidant stride. Having broken numerous glass ceilings in entrepreneurship as the first black Bahamian or as the first female, and sometimes as both, the sparkle in her eyes was a window to the Freeport of old. It was a glorious glimpse of the magic and the determination so commonplace in our once-heralded Magic City.
Born on September 11, 1936 in “The Creek” community just off the Eastern Road on the island of New Providence, Eva Portia Bailey was the first child of Nathaniel Alexander Bailey, a tailor, and Ena Caroline Morrison Bailey, a school teacher. Her father was the son of now-famed tailor and education leader Robert Melville Bailey, the Barbados native who made the Bahama Islands his home in 1899.
By the time Eva, his first granddaughter was born, R.M. Bailey was a widely-respected businessman and community leader. The home he and his wife Rhoda Adams Simons Bailey shared at 35 Dorchester Street had become a homestead for their sizable family, as well as a gathering place for the growing assemblage of customers and friends who frequented his shop. Having once hid at her grandfather’s feet to eavesdrop on a sensitive conversation between he and a powerful white Bay Street politician, Eva later declared to him that she aspired to be governor.
Educated at St. John’s College, she had traded her political aspirations for an interest in business by the time she graduated at age sixteen. Ever-supportive, her mother built a petty shop named Bailey’s Groceries on the Eastern Road next to St. Anne’s Church over which she gave teenage Eva and her siblings charge. In just one year, Eva reimbursed her mother and was off to a promising start in business and in life. Armed with her business acumen and a certificate in bookkeeping earned under the tutelage of J.T. Mills, her early career included stints at The Telephone Corporation and Nassau Aluminum Products, Ltd. before working with surveyor Leonard Chee-A-Tow.
It was while on honeymoon to Paris, France with her husband Leo Schaffner of Switzerland that Eva got the idea to introduce European lingerie to The Bahamas. With an initial investment of £650 in stock — which purchased little more than a few boxes of merchandise — she opened the PlayGirl Shop, French Lingerie in the Hoffer Arcade in Nassau on Valentine’s Day of 1963.
Wearing an outfit replete with an eel briefcase and matching shoes, Schaffner made her first visit to Freeport in 1968. The promotional flight from Nassau to the burgeoning Magic City was free for potential investors who wished to see what the city would soon have to offer. Among its new and exciting offerings was the International Bazaar in which Schaffner was interested in purchasing retail space. But upon meeting with its management — who she describes as seven truly Canadian businessmen dressed almost identically in navy blue suits — she was told that everything had been rented with the exception of the broom closet.
“I’ll take it,” responded Schaffner.
The room, they chided, only had a tiny door and did not have a single window. Schaffner rose to the challenge. Not only would she make the door bigger and put in windows, she would pay for it herself.
“Well, Mrs. Schaffner, you have yourself a shop,” said one of the businessmen.
A question remained, however, about where she would live. There were no residential spaces available for rent in the new city so Schaffner negotiated a deal to settle in the architect’s quarters. When she opened later the same year, she became the first black woman entrepreneur in the white business district of Freeport.
Two years later, she opened a second business in the Bazaar. Located just opposite PlayGirl was a restaurant she named Café Michel. A mostly outdoor eatery billed as a “Parisian sidewalk café,” the restaurant featured checked tablecloths, sandwichboard menu and simple fair. Added to its pleasant, shaded patio was a cool and gently lamp-lit, interior with dark wooden fixtures and pine green booths.
In subsequent years she would own and operate many more businesses including PlayGirl stores in the Lucayan Beach Hotel in Freeport and another on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Having operated a store in the city’s Lucayan Beach Hotel since 1971, Schaffner absent-mindedly sat at the hotel’s bar one day but was refused service by a black bartender. He advised her that she could purchase a drink but had to leave to consume it because they were disallowed from serving blacks. Schaffner was mad. Determined to do something about the hotel’s discriminatory practices, she went home and made dinner reservations for the property’s famed Goombay Room with her “European” surname. Despite the short notice, the person taking the reservation assured her that she could and would be accommodated the following day.
With her passport and G.B. Port Authority business license — which she had taken off the wall of her shop in the International Bazaar — Schaffner approached the maî·tre d. Dumfounded, he checked for the reservation and found it there but with the knowledge of the hotel’s unspoken segregationist policy, asked her to stand aside so that he could accommodate persons on the now-growing line. Schnaffer refused.
Drawing a small crowd of interested onlookers, the line behind Schaffner continued to grow; and so too did anxiety of the maî·tre d. He made a call and offered the details. Moments later, out came the white supervisor who showed her the way to her table amid the clapping of those on the line and the crowd of onlookers.
Once inside, Schaffner took in the restaurant’s all-white waitstaff and all-white ledger of entertainers while the black kitchen staff ventured to the edge of the dining room floor to catch a glimpse at Schaffner, the first black Bahamian to be served in the restaurant.
This first was just one of many firsts Schaffner would lay claim to during the course of her long and storied career as a businesswoman. She solidified the importance of her leadership among Bazaar owners when she opened a second restaurant, the posh Japanese Steak House, there in 1972, and followed up with a second location in the Port Lucaya Marketplace named Big Buddah Japanese Steak House.
And she set her sights on even more expansion. Following the establishment of Ena’s Shirt Shop — named in honor of her mother — in Port Lucaya in 1990, she opened the Churchill Restaurant in Downtown Freeport before doing the unthinkable. In the face of doubters, Schaffner returned to Nassau and opened a third Japanese Steak House on Nassau’s premier Cable Beach Strip in 1996, and added to it Dicky Mo’s Seafood, yet another restaurant on the strip.
A leader in Freeport’s business and civic communities, she was a co-founder and the first vice president of the Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce. She served as its first female president in 1982 and was re-elected in 1990, during which time she championed Sunday shopping — a novel idea at the time — and diversifying the offerings of its tourism sector, something which the island still desperately needs. She was a charter member of the Business and Professional Women’s Association, a member of the Bahamian Women’s Club, the Bazaar Owner’s Association, the Grand Bahama Tourism Advisory Committee, the Grand Bahama Housing Commission, and was a thirty-year veteran of the National Women’s Movement.
Awarded Businesswoman of the Year in 1979, Businesswoman of the Decade in 1990 and honored in 1992 as a part of the nation’s Quincentennial Celebrations at Government House, Schaffner was made Officer of the British Empire as a part of the Queen’s 2002 New Year Honours list.
A member of The Pro-Cathedral of Christ, The King, her extensive record of charitable work, particularly with children, is a special mark of pride. She was the loving mother to one child Yasmine Neely, and was grandmother to Portia, Sasha, and Selina Neely.
Asked “how would you advise any person seeking success,” Eva responded “I will tell them, no matter what it is they are thinking about succeeding at, not to expect instant gratification; that is never happens that way. Succeeding at anything takes all the time, hard work, passion and care as one can expect to put into a loving relationship for that to succeed. The road won’t be rosy all the time, but it will smooth out once they work smart and diligently at it day in and day out and to keep trying different methods to improve on it.”
Schaffner, who died on May 17 at age 80, was funeralized at The Pro-Cathedral of Christ The King in Freeport on Saturday June 3. Her proud family was there as was a handful of other people — many of whom were not of means but donned their best to pay tribute to her life.
Still, there was plenty room in those pews — far too much if you ask me. And for that, even almost a week later, I am plenty sad. Sad, not just at the loss of Eva; sad mostly for us as a people. Sad, at how quickly communities seemingly forget those whose sacrifices and acumen made it possible for us to be who and what we are.
In a city, on an island with a lagging economy, Grand Bahamians would have done well to honor a true engine of homegrown economic change. But alas, Eva’s ability to attract social climbers and politicians cramming front pews while jockeying for the opportunity to address a large crowd of funeral goers had come and gone.
This failure is ours. Because failure was never a part of Eva's motto. Even up until the last time I saw her, Eva believed that the tides could be changed by “a lick.” Eva had always believed that with her fortunes, others should have good fortune too.
Eva, it was my great fortune to listen to — and now to tell — your story; but even greater was my privilege to know you, even if only for a little while.