Times haven’t been easy for Afri-Ware owner Nzingha Amma Nommo. Despite moving into a larger location last year at 266 Lake St., Oak Park, walk-in business had been slow, forcing Nommo to ask her customers for support, which she did via e-mail in October. It was a difficult thing to do, she admitted, but the response she received overwhelmed and surprised her.
“I think it was a success,” she said. “There were some who hadn’t realized that a whole year had passed since we moved. This was kind of a friendly reminder of the importance and need for their continued support.”
Nommo opened Afri-Ware, a black book store and merchandise outlet, 14 years ago. Prior to moving to her new location, her store was located at 948 Lake St., closer to downtown Oak Park. The lack of walk-in traffic has been the main issue, said Nommo, who opened her new store in September 2006.
“It’s natural for people to get distracted,” Nommo said. “Everybody is out for our attention, especially this time of year. Usually, people are attracted to things that are new and may presume that we’ll always be in business.”
But there’s also been some trends affecting Afri-Ware and other black books stores in recent years. Nommo, who worked in corporate America before becoming an entrepreneur, said black authors, except for a few, don’t hold book signings at smaller black stores but will make their way to larger chains.
Since she been opened, she’s had some nationally-known authors, such as actress T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh, and other lesser-known writers.
Nommo said she’s known of other black books stores that have closed in recent years.
Another problem, Nommo said, is the type of books currently been written and published by black authors and sold by larger outlets-what she calls “blaxploitation books.” These books showcase blacks in stories as pimps and bitches, she noted.
“It’s pornography, not literature,” Nommo said. “That is a direct and intentional attack to sabotage the growth of black readership and our interest to find out who we are.”
Some of these books are published regularly, she noted with “Pimp” this or “B” that in their titles.
“It’s shameful to me. It’s trying to masquerade as literature,” she said.
Nommo’s store sells much non-fiction, but also other merchandise-clothes, body oils, incense and CDs.
She said she wants customers to have an experience when they come in. Soon after walking in, the smell of incense hits you, and the sounds of traditional African music or drums are heard.
On the wall behind the register is a large wooden carving in the shape of the continent of Africa. Visitors, she said, are sometimes taken aback, never really visualizing how large their homeland is.
“We’re intentionally trying to put this cultural spell on you,” Nommo said, adding that the store doesn’t judge anyone who walks in.
“We’re trying to comfort the customers who come in here because we know how they’re treated at other stores. We know they’re followed around and viewed as criminals before customers. As a human being, you should be able to come in, relax and look around.”
Nommo said some customers are sometimes overwhelmed, but the store lets people find their own cultural comfort level.
“That whole crazy ‘black enough’ thing that people push on others, we don’t do that. We understand that people are in different places. Some people will enter their cultural journey through selling incense, through music, through reading.”
As for future plans, Nommo said she’s gotten ideas from some of her customers. She’s often asked to speak at other venues, but her customers encouraged her to host more events at the store.
“Instead of me thinking outwardly, my customers reminded me to dig in and build there, and we’ll help you.”