(Nzingha Nomo, left, helping a client at Afri-Ware. Photos by Michael Romain for the Village Free Press).
Friday, August 15, 2014 || By Michael Romain
Owner Nzingha Nomo says opening a new business can be a psychological challenge–but “honesty can take you miles and miles”
A gorilla changed Nzingha Nomo’s life. Nomo (her first name is pronounced in-zeenga) had been employed with AT&T (now Lucent Technologies) as an electrical engineer when a cartoon was published in Focus, the employee newspaper. The cartoon was meant to depict the company’s global reach by illustrating a person on a phone on each continent. So by Europe, there was drawn a man. But next to Africa, instead of a man, there was illustrated a primate–a talking gorilla to be exact.
The cartoon so inflamed Nomo and her black colleagues that they were all ready to quit. They even cut up their corporate credit cards. Nomo calls it her Trayvon Martin moment. And it would be the catalyst for what would eventually lead to Afri-Ware Books & Gifts, which is now one among a handful of black bookstores that remain in the Chicago area and not more than about a hundred across the country. The website huria.org, for instance, keeps a national directory of black-owned bookstores. Less than 90 are listed and who knows how many are still open as of today.
In a recent interview, Nomo talked about how she stumbled upon a passion for reading later in life, how that passion turned into a business and how that business has managed to thrive since 1993.
How did the idea for Afriware come about?
At the time of the Gorilla incident, me and some friends of mine at the company started a book club. Prior to the book club, I didn’t like to read, which is why I became an electrical engineer. But my friends said there are some great books out there. Let’s try reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. So we read that and I fell in love from there. It was so reflective of our experience at the time. I became a voracious reader from then on.
I eventually graduated to other works like Black Economics by Jawanza Konjufu. But the book that changed it all for me was the Miseducation of the Negro. I was wondering why I was wasting my time at my job after the gorilla incident, because the so-called liberal non-black people were saying this gorilla thing was not a big deal. They’d say, ‘Why our you all being so sensitive?’ This was the most egregious example of racism and the even the liberals couldn’t see it–and I thought they were educated and fair-minded! After reading those books, I realized we don’t know this information. I had a master’s degree and I never heard of any of this stuff.
So how did that new-found awareness translate into starting a company?
I actually started off as an artist agent. When I first started my business, it was called Visions to Reality. I would help artists sale their handicrafts. Then someone suggested I go to a distributor of books. When they first told me this, I was under the impression that people didn’t read. So I conducted a test. I began taking books with me to various shows and selling them with the handicrafts and they would sell out at every show. So I said, ‘Wait a minute, there are many others as excited about the books as I am.’
I once hated books, because they were so distant from me and what I had to deal with in life. When you’re reading in school, you almost grow to abhor books. The reading is disconnected from your experience. And with me being in a technical field, it’s all lecture, no discussion. So that really makes you want to turn the other way. But it’s totally different once you see your reflection in your own literature.
So, I began to focus more and more on selling books and handicrafts. But once you start a business, you probably know that it will take over your whole body. It got to the point where that was all I wanted to do. I was trying to do both–work and grow my business–but it got to the point where I just couldn’t stand being there. When the gorilla thing happened, that was my catalyst to leave. I left gradually. They allowed us a voluntary leave of absence package, where they would hold our positions. They wouldn’t pay us, but we could keep our benefits. I left that option open as I was about to go full-time into business for myself. Eventually, I got tired of lugging stuff around to different shows and discovered a space in Broadview. That’s when I got the brick and mortar. From there, I moved to Oak Park.
How was it in the beginning? How did you finance the inventory, the rent, etc.? I assume you had money saved?
I definitely had some money saved from corporate america via my 401(k), but that can quickly get away from you. Aside from that, thankfully I had cultivated some really good relationships with my vendors over the years when I was traveling. They extended me credit and merchandise so that I could pay after the product was sold. That was absolutely key. I wouldn’t have been able to open without that kind of arrangement and without their generosity and trust.
When you start out in business, usually the obstacles are all in the head. What delayed me a lot was over-thinking things. As a new business owner, you tend to second guess yourself. You think you haven’t taken enough classes, that you need more experience or something. Thankfully, though, if you’re a good communicator, people will understand when you’re honest. Honesty can take you miles and miles. If people find that you’re not just trying to run game, they’ll reason with you and work with you. So that’s number one.
It’s a real psychological leap. You have to test the waters. You won’t necessarily have all your ducks in a row. You might have one, but you build on that one. I think, because society is such an all you can eat now, get rick quick type of place, people think that if you don’t have everything, you can’t do anything. If you don’t have it within yourself, you need to have a friend or somebody close to you who is willing to give you advice and encourage you to take it step-by-step.
As a people, we have some strong shoulders on which we stand. Sometimes you have to keep that in mind. At one point, we were in the bottom of slave ships. Compared to that, having a business is nothing. So it’s good to keep that in focus. Also, you have to forgive yourself. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Everybody makes mistakes. As long as you’re honest and up-front as a business person, people understand. There’s a reason that there aren’t a lot of black businesses out here. It has a lot to do with how society has projected black businesses to be. The white man’s ice is always colder; or ‘it’s non-black, so it must be better.’ This is another offshoot of the whole racism story that some of us are buying into and not realizing that it’s a double-edged sword.
Now, for a long time you were in Oak Park. What prompted you to move to Maywood?
Oak Park is a charming community, but not all the administrators and politicians seem to value its charm. People flock there, because of the small business atmosphere. It’s a microcosm of the big city. It has everything that a big city has without the traffic. But to continue to attract those quaint small businesses requires consistent support. Instead, however, it seems that whoever is the highest bidder wins. So, it’s going from a charming small city to just another big box experience. That runs out the small business people. I’m not saying that from a black perspective, either. You can talk to many of the longtime small business owners and they’ll say the same thing.
You know my accountant, Victor Nolen, is in this building [Eisenhower Tower] and for 20 years I’ve been visiting him here.Tax people have a way of finding locations! So, when I decided it was time to move from spot in Oak Park, I thought maybe I need to make a big change. That was the third location in Oak Park that I’d been in and it wasn’t going well.
I did have some officials try convincing me to stay, but I started thinking about where the black community is concentrated. Yes, it’s in Chicago, but it’s also in Maywood–or at least the greater West Side of Chicago. This building was attractive because of my accountant, the rent was less and I thought it was nice to have other businesses around you–kind of like a mall. Here, you have neighbors who care about your success and they speak to you in the morning and you don’t have to shovel the snow and there’s free parking! Parking is horrible in Oak Park. I got several tickets parking outside my own business. Oh gosh!
How has the digital revolution affected your business?
It’s affected me in a major way. It started about 4 years ago. We had a book signing with L.A. Banks, a fantastic writer of vampire books, a New York Times bestselling author. At that particular signing, a customer said she already had the book by the author on her Kindle, but that she would get a physical one, because the author was present. The books that customers really like, they still buy. The books that they’re casual about they’ll get on Kindle. So there’s still a place for books.
I have a loyal customer base that keeps coming back, but I have to go out and get new customers. I have a website where people can purchase items, I go around to different schools, I partner with different entities–but I don’t think you can replace face-to-face communication. However, I do believe in multiple streams, so that I don’t shut myself off from opportunity.
Would you have moved to such a secluded place in the beginning of your career?
When you start a business like mine, you want to be where there’s foot traffic. When I started in Oak Park, I was close to the theater (on Lake Street). I’d recommend that new businesses like mine be next to an anchor tenant like that, because capital doesn’t always flow where you can spend thousands of dollars on advertising. But, no I wouldn’t recommend starting off in a place like this. A lot of my clientele is established and I conduct a lot of my business outside the store.
What have been some of the benefits of doing business that are unique to Maywood?
This is where my number one customer–the African American–is concentrated. Word of mouth is a gold mine here and it’s strong. This community seems very tight knit. You can get to the right people quicker and sidestep the nonsense easier. Maywood is also cultural treasure–there’s the underground railroad connection, Fred Hampton. I’ve never been in a town that had a black mayor. I remember when Henderson Yarbrough actually came here and welcomed me to the neighborhood. I’d never experienced that in twenty years. So I really felt welcomed here. A lot of my best customers come from Maywood. There are some police officers who are very supportive of Afri-Ware. And they’re people of high character, not just your everyday, lock ‘em up folks.
I’ve been happy since I’ve been here. There’s now a bus stop at this location and the owners of the building have started responding to some of our concerns. What’s nice is that there is a group of us who are able to come together and voice our concerns versus just it being one voice. It’s a real community feel among the business owners that I’ve never had in any other community. VFP
Afriware Books & Gifts is located inside Eisenhower Tower, 1701 S. 1st Avenue, Suite 503. For information on hours of operation, products and events, click here.