By Brooklynn Cooper The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Akwete Tyehimba says the current social justice movement has impacted her business in a way that she has never seen before. She says people are even traveling from outside the city to support her business called the "Pan-African Connection" which has a focus on products related to African and Black culture.
When the coronavirus pandemic caused non-essential businesses to shut down in March, the owner of an Oak Cliff bookstore that’s become a community fixture wasn’t sure how it would survive.
Akwete Tyehimba, who took over Pan-African Connection when her husband died in 2012, was forced to halt dance and language classes as well as robotics and cartooning. No more gardening, cooking or yoga, either, at the store that’s also an art gallery and resource center.
And its popular Sunday market that draws dozens of vendors and hundreds of visitors has been on hiatus for four months.
Tyehimba said she became “semi-depressed” when the store off Ann Arbor Avenue just east of I-35 was forced to close because of stay-at-home orders.
“My morale dropped,” she said. “I was really concerned about how we were going to get through it.”
But after 31 years in business -- including two relocations -- Tyehimba was determined to overcome the pandemic.
Shifting focus After the initial shock, Tyehimba knew she had to snap out of her depression and get to work.
Even though the store was closed to customers for about 2 1/2 months, she was there every day making sure the business prospered. She started shipping orders that customers called in and shifted her focus to revamping the store’s website. Tyehimba relied on curbside pickups in addition to revenue from online sales.
A call to her mortgage company allowed her to defer house payments until August and prioritize paying the store’s rent, which is more than $4,000 monthly. She’s still making mortgage payments to avoid falling too far behind.
“My faith and my culture teaches that I have to trust that everything is going to be alright,” the 57-year-old Waco native said. “Somehow we were going to get through it.”
In addition to books, Tyehimba sells African sculptures, dashikis, drums, and wellness products like oils and soaps. Before the pandemic, these came from Africa -- where no shipments were leaving the continent -- and New York -- previously one of the nation’s hot spots for the virus.
With her supply line in jeopardy, she quickly pivoted and found alternative suppliers and brands for her most popular products.
When she reopened the doors for walk-ins in late May after the governor had started to allow retail businesses to operate, Tyehimba said customers flooded in. She couldn’t keep books on the shelves.
Because of the focus on African and Black culture, the store normally sees an increase in business around Juneteenth, the June 19 holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans.
But Tyehimba noticed that the uptick had happened weeks before that.
When George Floyd died on Memorial Day after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost eight minutes, protests against racism and police brutality swept the nation. Along with demonstrations, many took to social media to encourage people to buy from Black-owned businesses.
Google Trends recorded an all-time high for the search “Black-owned businesses near me” in the U.S. last month. Dallasites joined the cause, too. Two years ago, when Marvel’s Black Panther premiered, Pan-African Connection’s sales more than tripled as customers shopped for movie attire.
That increase paled in comparison to last month’s sales.
“God made a way, and we never saw it coming,” she said.
Tyehimba said the movement impacted her business in a way that she has never seen before. She met shoppers who traveled from outside of Dallas to support the store.
“Not just Black folks -- white folks were coming in from everywhere,” Tyehimba said. “A lot of white folks would come in and let me know that they were more human than what this system is.”
Although Tyehimba appreciates the surge in business, she laments that Floyd’s death was the catalyst.
“It’s sad that we have to wait until somebody dies to do this,” Tyehimba said. “We create our own actions, not this trauma that triggers us to react.
We need to create our own consistent actions of growth and development and change.”
She hopes that the new faces she’s seen continue their support beyond this moment of racial reckoning.
‘Like family’ While some have just begun to make a conscious effort to buy from Black-owned establishments, many of Pan-African Connection’s customers had made the store part of their lifestyle.
Stephanie Boyce, a Grand Prairie resident, has been shopping there for two years.
“I’ve been intentionally buying Black for years, but I appreciate people being more intentional,” said Boyce, who teaches at Paul Quinn College. “As an educator, I let my students know that this place even exists. We have to lean in as a community. I could be getting these books from Amazon.”
Porscha Kelley, who grew up in Oak Cliff, said that she always tries to buy from Black-owned businesses.
“Or I barter,” Kelley said. “Like, ‘What can I do for you, what can you do for me?’”
Kelley has been a customer at Pan-African Connection since the store was in South Dallas -- it relocated to Glendale Shopping Center about five years ago. In 2016, Kelley hosted a signing for her first book, Young Black and American, at the store. Since then, she’s written a second book, and both are for sale there.
Kelley called Tyehimba a “champion in the community for young entrepreneurs.”
“We’re not just a bookstore,” Tyehimba said. “We’re like a family. Their children are my children. ... We are there to support each other.”
Tyehimba plans to find a way to host a socially-distanced version of the market, which used to take place every first and third Sunday before the pandemic. Along the storefront sidewalk, vendors sold goods that ranged from art to vegan juice. She and her late husband started it eight years ago to help small businesses grow their clientele.
One option she has considered involves inviting a few vendors at a time on alternating weekends to the market, called Ubuntu.
“It’s a Swahili word,” Tyehimba said. “It means, ‘I am because of you, you are because of me. We’re in this together.’” ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.