It’s the late Nineties in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and a young Yasiin Bey — then known as the rapper Mos Def — is standing in the back of a narrow, dimly lit parlor, surrounded by rows of winding bookshelves. He’s preaching to a small crowd about the need for greater action in the community, asking who in the audience would have stood their ground when faced with the tanks at Tiananmen Square a decade earlier. His friend and frequent collaborator, Talib Kweli, is perched behind him, solemnly nodding along with his arms folded.
A grainy video posted to YouTube in 2012 shows Bey pacing the floor as he works up the audience. “It’s young people like you, all over the world, dying, catching bullets,” he warns, pointing dramatically at the crowd. “I hope I didn’t blow nobody’s vibe or high, but I had to say it.”
Often cited as the oldest African-American bookstore in Brooklyn, Nkiru Books was once located at 76 Saint Marks Avenue, just a few blocks southeast of where the Barclays Center now stands. Nkiru (nKEE-roo, meaning “the best is yet to come” in Nigeria’s Igbo language) is gone now, the storefront transformed into a trendy organic bistro, the surrounding neighborhood one of the most rapidly gentrifying areas in the five boroughs. But for much of the Nineties, the shop served as a hub for the black literary community in Brooklyn, ushering in a new vanguard of African-American poets, artists, authors, and rappers. Nkiru nurtured a modern renaissance of radical black thought and spoken word in New York City and launched the careers of acclaimed writers like Edwidge Danticat, Saul Williams, and many others along the way.
Following the success of their debut album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, the duo purchased Nkiru in 1998, temporarily rescuing the store from bankruptcy. Ultimately unable to contend with skyrocketing rents and the notoriously difficult book industry, the shop shuttered for good in the early Aughts. But now, over a decade since the store’s demise, Kweli is once again attempting to resurrect its spirit, selling a selection of texts by black authors and poets online.
“When you buy a book written by a black author and give it to a black child, it’s not art for art’s sake. It’s not something you hang on the wall and admire from a distance,” Kweli tells the Voice. “It’s necessary that this kid sees this book and has this in his life. He needs it.”
Born and raised in Park Slope, Kweli grew up just five blocks away from the original Nkiru, walking by its brick façade nearly every day as a child. He became a voracious reader after discovering The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a teenager and finding that he liked to challenge the conventional wisdom of his instructors at school. But by the time Kweli began his freshman year at NYU, dreams of becoming a rapper had already begun to dominate his life, leaving little room for academics. Despite being the son of two longtime New York City educators, Kweli dropped out at the age of eighteen, determined to surround himself with music and art.
“School just wasn’t working for me, but I needed money and I knew I wanted to work at a record store or a bookstore. I needed to work someplace where I wasn’t going to feel like a drone,” Kweli remembers. “I started in the Village and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and went to every book- and record store that I could find until I got to Gramercy Plaza. Nkiru was one of the last places I stopped.”
Founded in 1976 by Leothy Miller Owens, the store’s original mission was to supply low-income communities in Brooklyn with multicultural children’s books — stories that would allow young people of color to see their experiences reflected back at them through literature, often for the first time. A prominent member of the black academic community, Leothy first sold books out of her family’s apartment in Crown Heights then moved the business to the Slope in 1990. Over the years the store gradually began stocking texts from a wide range of black, Latino, Asian, and Native American writers. Although Owens passed away in 1992 — leaving the shop to her mother, Adelaide Miller — special events with famed authors such as Maya Angelou continued to draw hundreds to the small storefront, further solidifying Nkiru’s place as a vital cultural institution in Brooklyn. Kweli’s search for a simple part-time job had landed him in a place that allowed him to nurture and cultivate his love for black art.
“We hired him because he was smart,” explains C.J. Smith, the store’s former manager, “but we also welcomed him into our literary family because he fit.”
Kweli puts it more bluntly: “I would have killed and died for that place,” he says. “I felt like I was home.”
Nkiru was a refuge to many in Park Slope. Smith had a knack for developing close relationships with emerging authors and spotting fresh talent in the neighborhood before the rest of the industry caught on. In the Nineties, the novelist Terry McMillan lived down the block from Nkiru and visited the shop frequently. Other celebrated African-American writers, Octavia Butler and Walter Mosley among them, would give regular lectures and book signings at the store, even as their careers began to take off nationally. When the shop landed Alice Walker — whose novel The Color Purple had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 — Smith remembers gripping Owens’s hand tightly, the pair jumping up and down “like fools” in jubilation.
Smith later read the eulogy at Owens’s funeral. “What Leothy and I shared was a marriage; if I was yin, she was yang,” Smith says. “She was kind and giving and something of a visionary when it came to Nkiru. I can’t begin to think of where we would have been had she lived longer.”
Even without its founder, Nkiru continued to influence the arc of authors’ careers throughout the Nineties, providing a much-needed platform for the borough’s burgeoning literary scene. Danticat was just one talent to launch from that platform. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Danticat immigrated to Brooklyn as a child and published her first book, Breath, Eyes, Memory, in 1994 at the age of 25. Written in a spare, matter-of-fact prose style, the novel dealt with issues of race, gender, and sexual abuse in the Haitian diaspora. Smith received an uncorrected proof of the novel before its publication and offered the young writer an opportunity to give her very first reading at the store.
“After the reading C.J. said to me, ‘Big things are going to happen for you, girl,’ ” Danticat recalls. Over the years she’s gone on to publish a handful of well-received novels; she was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2009. “It was a really wonderful and beautiful moment. I think for a young black aspiring writer, Nkiru was kind of like our Algonquin. It was a beautiful thing.”
Following the release of Breath, Eyes, Memory, Danticat’s late father, a New York City cabdriver, would stop at Nkiru once a week to pick up copies of his daughter’s novel, proudly handing the books out to friends and loyal customers. “I think I had a big, big cry that day when C.J. told me that. It was a very big gift to me, in terms of revising the way I thought my parents felt about my work,” Danticat says. “[Black bookstores] are more than bookstores. They’re places of community-building; they’re places of fellowship. And Nkiru certainly had that feeling.”
Despite the store’s strong standing in the community, the shop was in constant financial peril. Kweli was hired at Nkiru only to be let go eight weeks later during the store’s slow summer months. Before long he was called back for the Christmas rush and vowed to make himself indispensable moving forward. At first his job was to open boxes, pour cups of coffee, and run small errands. But as he became increasingly familiar with the titles on the shelves, it soon made sense to have Kweli on the floor assisting with sales, helping customers pick out books for their teenage sons and daughters.
Kweli’s rap career was starting to gain momentum, too, and his friends began hanging around the shop each day, waxing enthusiastic about music and books for hours on end. Smith remembers seeing artists like Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean walk in, and the shop eventually evolved from a bookstore and hip-hop clubhouse into a revolutionary performance space.
“Myself and Mos Def, once our names started having some weight, we came up with the idea of doing a hip-hop event at Nkiru called ‘Foundations,’ ” Kweli explains. “Foundations was a beautiful thing because it was like, donate what you want, or give us $5, and you can come hear Company Flow, Shabaam Sahdeeq, Mos Def, Dead Prez, Brand Nubian, Saul Williams, muMs da Schemer, and Jessica Care Moore. No one had a deal. These were just people who were around at the time.”
Nkiru, along with the Brooklyn Moon Café in Fort Greene and the Nuyorican Poets Café on the Lower East Side, became a hotbed for the city’s growing spoken word and slam poetry movements. In many ways, the events served as a precursor to Def Poetry Jam, the Russell Simmons–backed HBO series hosted by Bey from 2002 to 2007. The show catapulted many of the underground rappers and poets who had been performing at venues like Nkiru throughout New York City for more than a decade.
“We all felt like we were part of some renaissance,” says Saul Williams, the poet, rapper, and actor best known for his roles in the 1998 film Slam and the recent Broadway musical Holler If Ya Hear Me. “We knew we were holding on to something special. We could feel it. What was happening in the mainstream seemed much wacker than what we were representing.”
Foundations helped raise a few dollars here and there, but by the late Nineties the store was floundering financially. Kweli and Bey, however, were finally starting to make real money, pulling in thousands each night while touring through Europe. Before one performance in Norway, just months away from the release of Black Star, Kweli sat his partner down and began to lay out the shop’s woes. Ultimately, it was Bey who suggested buying Nkiru, and when the duo returned to New York they made Leothy Owens’s mother an offer, agreeing to take on the tens of thousands of dollars in debt the store had amassed over the years.
“I’ve learned a lot from Mos Def,” Kweli says. “I remember coming home from Europe, taking my money, and going down to the distributor with a fresh energy, like, ‘OK, me and Mos Def are about to turn this store around. We’re gonna use this rap money and buy all of these books.’ ”
For the first six months, business improved. There was even talk of opening sister branches in Atlanta and Los Angeles. But soon Nkiru began to falter once again. Offering drastically reduced prices on new hardcovers, chains like Barnes & Noble were also starting to re-create the coffee-shop aesthetic of independent bookstores, welcoming authors for in-store readings and lining their lobbies with plush sofas and armchairs. It was a difficult period for small bookstores, but African-American-owned shops were hit especially hard, Kweli says. In a last-ditch effort to stay afloat, the store rebranded itself as the Nkiru Center for Education and Culture, registering as a nonprofit and applying for a series of grants. Daily operations were taken over by Kweli’s and Bey’s mothers, and the shop moved to a new location on Washington Avenue. Still, Kweli could sense that the end was near. Nkiru closed shortly thereafter.
“It was tough in the moment, but I gotta say, in retrospect, it wasn’t just Nkiru having these problems,” he says today. “Nkiru was part of a network of black bookstores that all went under.”
While Kweli hasn’t ruled out the possibility of one day opening another brick-and-mortar shop in Brooklyn, for now he’s focused on using the Nkiru brand to sell books through his website, KweliClub.com. The site continues to stock classic texts from authors such as James Baldwin and W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as titles from modern black writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander. The goal is to keep the heart of Nkiru alive for the next generation of young African-American readers.
“Leothy Miller Owens had a vision. ‘Nkiru’ means ‘the best is yet to come’ — it’s a Nigerian Igbo saying. It meant something to her,” Kweli explains. “The spirit of Nkiru was passed on to me…. Now I have an opportunity to add another chapter to the legacy.”