Ujamaa, a Columbus Black-owned bookstore, centers the Black experience
The fourth principle of Kwanzaa is “ujamaa”, the Swahili word for cooperative economy.
Beyond sharing the name, the Ujamaa bookstore is an appropriate representation of the practice.
For example, Mustafaa Shabazz opened the Driving Park store in 1997 with the money he earned from running youth programs in the community.
Community members supported the bookstore, generating seed money for the Juneteenth Ohio Festival, which Shabazz hosted for over 20 years on the Near East Side and later in the downtown area.
And the festival money was reinvested in the business.
“The owner can choose which course he would like to take his readers on,” said Shabazz, 61, of the Far East Side. “That’s the magic.”
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As an African-American bookstore, Ujamaa makes black readers the subject of their reality, Shabazz said. And her goal is to use literacy to build strong families in the black community.
The store opened in its own space at the end of a strip of businesses on East Livingston Avenue, but has since been downsized. He now shares a space with Willis Beauty Supply in that same strip.
“When Amazon came in, sales plummeted,” Shabazz said. “It was a difficult decision to make; either close or merge. But it was genius. It worked.”
Ujamaa is one of the few black-owned brick and mortar bookstores in the city and state. Nationwide estimates have hovered below 150. The African American Literature Book Club‘s directory includes 114 physical stores, while the official Oprah.com directory lists 125, including online stores. .
Shabazz has maximized its new space with a host of fiction and non-fiction books on everything from financial literacy and healthy eating to the history of ancient Egypt and Moorish rule in Spain. He said he gets most of his books directly from authors, who have become his friends.
And customers are eagerly lining up for some of the authors who would visit the store for book autographs.
Josephine Copeland said she first heard about the bookstore from her mother, who was a regular customer.
“There are so many books to choose from,” said Copeland, 42, of Hanford Village, who started shopping for herself in college. “I always say to the owner, ‘OK, I have a money limit and I’m not going to be here for more than 30 minutes’, but I still spend hours and hours talking or going through some of the books. He has a wealth of knowledge and it’s always a warm atmosphere. I love going there.
Copeland also said it was nice to have a black-owned bookstore “on the street”, especially since there aren’t many in Columbus.
“He’s not getting the praise or recognition he should,” she said. “We just need to be more aware of what we have. “
Shabazz, Copeland, and another longtime client, Terry Elliott, both served on the Livingston Avenue Area Commission. Elliott said it was Shabazz who inspired her to join us.
“I would go over there and talk to him about things like crime and house values,” said Elliott, 68, of Driving Park. “He knew about all these things. And then he said, ‘Well, maybe you need to get involved so that you can make a difference.’ “
Elliott also said she appreciates the way Shabazz interacts with people in the community.
“He does stuff like paying little boys to clean up this land,” she said. “He can teach them what it’s like to be a young black boy who becomes a young black man, teaching them the value of making their own dollar. I am in awe of what he does with the people he comes into contact with. He knows that people are taking control of their lives and creating wealth for themselves.
Shabazz is also a member of the Livingston Avenue Business Association.
He remembers when it was hard to find books on black figures.
When he was a student at Ohio State University in the late 1970s, his English class was tasked with writing an article about their heroes. Shabazz was interested in Marcus Garvey, but could not find any books on the activist in local stores.
“I’m like, ‘When I grow up I’ll put a black bookstore in here,'” he said.
Shabazz’s interest in black history and empowerment developed even earlier in his hometown of Toledo. Every morning before school, he and his sister participated in the Black Panthers breakfast program, which nourished both body and mind.
“They were teaching you black history,” he said.
By the time Shabazz opened Ujamaa, there had been an academic movement in the United States known as Afrocentricity, which centered the experiences and contributions of Africans and African Americans in world history. The movement not only impacted literature, but early hip-hop as well.
But over time, Shabazz noticed a change in customer interest; readers began to search for a genre known as “urban fiction,” which often portrayed certain darker aspects of downtown life.
“As a bookstore, we weren’t going in that direction,” Shabazz said. “So we lost a lot of this business. “
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Today, the bookstore remains a resource of knowledge, especially for children. Just recently, an elementary school teacher came to buy a book on Kwanzaa because her students didn’t know about the holidays, Shabazz said.
He wants local schools to be more willing to partner with the business.
“They just don’t order,” he said. “All I can tell you is that teachers come in and buy out of their own pockets. They might order Kwanzaa books in massive numbers every year from public schools, but they just don’t, at least not with us. “
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Shabazz said doing a better job of reaching children before the age of 10 would help keep them from going down the wrong path.
“Our children need to know who they are,” he said. “It’s simple. If you put the right kind of books in children’s hands at the right time, you’re going to change society.
This story is part of the Dispatch’s Mobile Newsroom initiative, which currently focuses on Driving Park and surrounding neighborhoods. Visit our journalists at the Driving Park branch library.