Bowdoin Street Business Helps Bridge Digital Divide

In an economy increasingly dependent on computer know-how, those without access to even basic equipment and instruction find themselves at a distinct disadvantage. Dorchester entrepreneurs understand this problem of expensive necessities and they're using their technical know-how to make computer equipment and knowledge available to all members of the community.

"I'm here to educate people about computers, especially in the Dorchester area," Jose Aroujo, manager of Computers-for-All, located at the corner of Bowdoin St. and Geneva Ave., told the Reporter. "Most people don't even know anything about computers or they don't have one, so I sell one to them for real cheap, just to get them started."

Aroujo saves his customers money by building the computers from new parts.

"It's the same thing that Compaq does, except they put a name on it," he said. Aroujo says his custom-built machines offer more than an affordable price. "At the computer store, they give you a choice: A, B, or C. Here, you make the computer the way you want it to fit your needs."

The concept is not a new one in the neighborhood. Savin Hill Computer Center has been in business for several years on Savin Hill Avenue. And Computer Solution, located on Gallivan Blvd., has been repairing and building computers from scratch for almost two years.

"My goal is to not only serve the community, but to make [computers] affordable for the community," Huges Lafond, manager of Computer Solution, told the Reporter. "I bring it to a level where people can afford it."

But both Lafond and Aroujo report that business can be slow.

"I'm still waiting for a lot of business," said Lafond, who also offers computer consulting and network services for other businesses. "I still need to do a lot of advertising."

Aroujo said most of his business tends to be repair work. He renovated the backroom of his shop into classroom space for basic training and computer certification courses, but said the response so far has been minimal.

Aroujo, who is A+ certified and a Microsoft Certified Software Engineer (MCSE), said that five people signed up for his certification course, but he needs at least 12 before it can begin. He began advertising last month with commercials on the local Cape Verdean channel and fliers at local businesses, and said he expects the classes to attract more interest soon.

"If you're thinking about studying computer science or becoming a computer engineer, it's the perfect class," said Aroujo. "There's plenty of jobs out there. You could be a help desk consultant, or network administrator."

Aroujo said he wants to use his store to help people do what he does. "I wish I knew about [A+ certification] before I went into college. You just need technical skills." Aroujo, 25, majored in finance at U-Mass-Amherst, but he spent most of his time assembling computers in his dorm and working at an Amherst computer store similar to Computers-for-All.

"Ever since I was in college, I had the idea to open up a store," he said. "I hope to be able to help people out. That's the reason I started."

Civic leaders have high hopes for Computers-for-All--not only as a community resource, but also to attract more businesses to the Bowdoin-Geneva area.

"Computers-for-All has been very uplifting for that area," said Fernando Bossa, a business recruitment specialist at Uphams Corner Main Streets. "[Aroujo] has become an asset to the area."

Bossa heard about Aroujo when the UMass alum was building and selling computers from a makeshift shop in his basement, and took the initiative to find a location for a retail store. He eyed the Bowdoin-Geneva area as a target location. "It was something that would benefit the community and businesses."

With support from the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation and the Neighborhood Commercial Districts Revitalization Initiative (NCDRI), a local organization backed by Local Initiative Support Corporation, a national organization aimed at nurturing small businesses by identifying and broadening the retail selection in urban areas, Bossa and Aroujo worked together at developing the business.

The model, according to the city's Office of Business Development Deputy Director Andre Porter, centers on "trying to work with the community and find out: What is the need here for the residents? What is it that people want to see in that space?"

Computers-for-All and a nearby Walgreen's celebrated a joint grand-opening event on April 14 that attracted local civic leaders and politicians, including Mayor Thomas Menino. Aroujo snapped a picture of Menino with a digital camera in his store and surprised the mayor by handing him the photo of his M&M's purchase at Walgreen's within 15 minutes.

The area is a new center of attention for a reason. Computers-for-All is only one of many new businesses that Bossa wants to see open. "We need more foot traffic in the neighborhood," he said. "I want [Computers-for-All] to attract more businesses to the area - a diversity of different businesses and cultures in one area."