Black Bookstore Celebrates 35 Years

Ed Gordon talks with Rukiya Curvey Johnson, national director of the Detroit-based Shrine of the Black Madonna — the nation's oldest and largest black-owned bookstore chain. The Shrine is celebrating its 35th anniversary at its stores in Detroit, Atlanta, and Houston.

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ED GORDON, host:

Detroit's Shrine of the Black Madonna is celebrating its 35th anniversary. The independent bookstore is celebrating this impressive milestone at a time when independent bookstores are becoming increasingly rare. The non-profit Shrine is America's oldest and largest black-owned store dedicated to selling books in the country. This bookstore evolved out of Detroit's violent riots of the late 1960s. Over the last three and a half decades, the Shrine has served as a cultural center and a literary mecca. It has also spawned branches in Atlanta and Houston. The Shrine's national director, Rukiya Curvey-Johnson, is one of the many people keeping the store's traditions thriving.

Ms. RUKIYA CURVEY-JOHNSON (Shrine of the Black Madonna): The Shrine is deeply ingrained in the cultural landscape of Detroit and our other cities, but especially here in Detroit. It is a cultural landmark and it is a place that serves as a reference point really for Detroit, period, when it comes to all things black. So, you know, we get people coming in not only looking for books and jewelry and apparel and artwork, but they come to us for anything--restaurants, hair braiding, you know, anything that has anything almost to do with the African experience.

GORDON: Talk to us about the history of the bookstore itself and how it got started.

Ms. CURVEY-JOHNSON: The bookstore was started in 1970 at the behest of our founder, Reverend Albert B. Cleage and his sister, Barbara Martin. They wanted to open this cultural center and bookstore up so that black people would have a place to come where they can strengthen their connection and identification with the black experience all over the world so that people here in Detroit would know what life is like in the Mississippi Delta, would know what life is like for black people in Brazil, what life is like for black people in Paris. And it was also opened to be a forum for black artists and authors. In 1970, there really weren't that many places you could go to hear Nikki Giovanni, to find a book on a shelf written by a black author. And they thought it was the right time and the right place to do it, and so the doors opened.

GORDON: When you talk about some 35 years later, what's interesting to me, too, is how not only the Shrine is seen but how black America has changed to a great degree because this has its roots in the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church. And I can remember black middle-class folks who didn't understand that when this first opened, and they just thought if you went over to the Shrine, you know, you were ready to sign up for the Panthers and get in the movement and throw your fist up and start shooting folks.

Ms. CURVEY-JOHNSON: Right. At the time, you know, that was a part of what it was. It was more about being, you know, a little militant, but the Shrine is much, much more than that. During economic development in the community, really supporting black businesses, developing, you know, the talent, whether it's creative talent or business talent or spiritual talent--developing those resources to better serve the community. And that's really what the Shrine is about.

GORDON: Now you being the CEO of the Shrine comes honestly for you. We should note that this is now a family legacy.

Ms. CURVEY-JOHNSON: Yes. I actually grew up in the Shrine. My first job actually was in the Houston bookstore because my mom was the manager. I actually used to read the children's books and pick out one for display. And so this has just been, you know, a legacy, a labor of love, and I love, and I'm so glad that I was able to come back to the Shrine.

GORDON: Now you have a little one now.

Ms. CURVEY-JOHNSON: Yes.

GORDON: Are you going to do the same with her and make sure--and one of the things that I've noticed throughout my visits over the years to the Shrine is often you will see parents taking their children to the Shrine and showing them, not only historical aspects but often things that they grew up with, that they remembered and pointing them out.

Ms. CURVEY-JOHNSON: Yes. Yes. Actually, my daughter has spent, ooh, probably the first year of her life going to the bookstore with me. So she is definitely getting grounded in everything and we actually have a lot of those books that you probably grew up with yourself, you know, books by John Steptoe and...

GORDON: Talk to me a little bit about, before we let you go, some of the programs that you all have ongoing. I know there are a couple of competitions and some literary campaigns that you guys are involved in.

Ms. CURVEY-JOHNSON: Right. We have actually just launched our new literacy awareness campaign. After getting kind of settled into the Detroit store, we found out--at least I found out that 47 percent of adult Detroiters are functionally illiterate, which was really shocking to me and really explains some things in this city. And I thought what better place than a bookstore to start to recruit people to be literacy volunteers? Another component to that is helping schools build their libraries so that we're having school days at the bookstore where a percentage--10 percent of the purchases actually will go to area schools to help them build their libraries. And also to celebrate literacy, we're kicking off a short story contest for new and unpublished writers. And we're actually partnering with Black Issues Book Review to have the winning entries published online. And so while it may not be the end of literacy, it's at least--illiteracy, rather, at least it's a start and a means to help.

GORDON: And that competition is The Write, and that's W-R-I-T-E...

Ms. CURVEY-JOHNSON: Right.

GORDON: ...is mi--competition. The deadline for that is the end of January 2006.

Ms. CURVEY-JOHNSON: Right, January 31st, 2006.

GORDON: All right. And the piece--it says here, no longer than 4,000 words and you have to be previously unpublished.

Ms. CURVEY-JOHNSON: Right.

GORDON: Right? Rukiya Curvey-Johnson, thank you so much, national director and CEO of the Shrine of the Black Madonna celebrating 35 years of helping black America know where we has come from. And we greatly appreciate it, and I would encourage anyone who has not been, who lives in Detroit or the surrounding area or those of you who visit Detroit, there's a great place to stop off and get steeped in our history, the Shrine of the Black Madonna, not only in Detroit, but in Atlanta and Houston. We thank you so much.

Ms. CURVEY-JOHNSON: Thank you so much.

GORDON: That does it for the show. A special thanks to WDET in Detroit for hosting us all week.

(Credits)

GORDON: To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

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