By: Aswad Walker
Far from Houston’s main shopping haunts and almost hidden from view of motorists traveling along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. between OST and Griggs is a Houston icon that is a mind-blowing revelation for those fortunate enough to find it—the Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural Center and Bookstore.
The Shrine Bookstore, as it is referred to by loyal customers, is difficult to find but worth the trouble, just like the African and African American history the store celebrates. Home to exhibits on Black Inventors and the African Holocaust, the Shrine Bookstore also prides itself on providing difficult to find African American literary classics as well as books from a multitude of genres. In addition, the African attire and artwork available make the Shrine Bookstore a true center of culture.
However, the Shrine Bookstore has never been content with merely celebrating past history; it has been actively making history here in Houston for the past 24 years and has had a profound effect on the city’s appreciation of African and African American history and culture
Part of the largest Black-owned bookstore chain in the nation, Houston’s Shrine Bookstore opened in December 1986. What was once a decaying bowling alley in South Park, was renovated and transformed into the 23,500 square feet “crown jewel” of the trio of cultural centers owned by the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church. The other two stores are located in Atlanta and Detroit, the city where the first one opened its doors in 1970.
Born at the tail-end of the Black Power Era, the Detroit store gave African American authors a place to sell their books long before mainstream stores began carrying such items.
“The original name of the first Cultural Center was the Sudan Import Specialty Shop,” recalled Anika Sala, Detroit native and manager of the Shrine Bookstore in Houston. “Our church founder, Reverend Albert B. Cleage Jr. assigned his sister, Barbara Martin to create a center for Black culture, heritage and self-determination. What Martin did was start an incredible legacy that has celebrated our history and made some history of its own.”
Operating on the premise that it was imperative that African Americans regain their cultural identity not only in order to affect a stable relationship between themselves and society, but in order to survive as fully functioning people, Sudan Import Specialty Shop which later changed its name to the Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural Center and Bookstore, provided an outlet for African American authors, historians, poets, educators and artists with a venue from which to enlighten the African American community about our history and culture.
“I remember when authors and academicians like Amiri Baraka, Dr. Yosef Ben Jochannon and others were selling photocopied manuscripts from the trunks of their cars because Black bookstores were so few and far between,” said Sala. “We really did provide a much needed service; and still do.”
The Shrine Bookstore started with books, jewelry, African carvings and paintings, and African fashions manufactured onsite by the Black Star Clothing Factory but continued to expand to meet community needs.
For over 12 years, Anika Sala has been the manager of Houston’s Shrine Bookstore. With her effervescent personality, Sala serves as hostess for a variety of functions sponsored by service, community, social, and corporate groups in the bookstore’s private galleries.
As a local buyer, Sala works to stay on top of the latest literary and cultural trends in the Southwest. She also tries to seek out African American vendors in order to offer a variety of quality items in the shop. A community activist at heart, Sala is an avid believer in the “each one, teach one” philosophy, often providing customers with informative packets explaining such things as African art and textiles, artists’ backgrounds, information on African countries, and updates on the state of Black bookstores and businesses.
“Though I’m proud of our accomplishments as a business I am even prouder of our work as an institution that has the community’s best interests at heart. And that has been shown time and again by the programs, speakers, events and conferences we’ve had, many of which are free and open to the public. In that way, I think we have made history worthy of remembering and emulating,” shared Sala.
The list of speakers and workshop presenters who have come through the Shrine Bookstore reads like a Who’s Who of African American history and accomplishment.
“We have hosted people like Dr. Betty Shabazz, Susan Taylor, Leonard Jeffries, James Small, John Henrik Clarke, Ivan Van Sertima, Tony Martin, Monique, Hill Harper, Tavis Smiley, Randall Robinson, Tyra Banks, Alice Walker, Terry McMillian, E. Lynn Harris, who was a very big supporter of ours, Dr. Ben (Yosef Ben Jochannon), Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Naim Akbar, Haki Madhubuti, Iyanla Vanzant, Anthony Browder, Omar Tyree, Nathan McCall, J. California Cooper, Eric Jerome Dickey, Patti Labelle, and I could go on and on,” shared Sala.
“Another community favorite is author Pearl Cleage who happens to be the daughter of the founder of our church,” said Sala, who believes the ideas shared with the community by the authors, activists, academicians and politicians who have come through the Shrine have had a profound impact as well as the events and exhibits sponsored.
“Houstonians may remember that the Shrine Bookstore was one of the main collection sites for donations going toward the Rwandan/Haitian Relief Effort of the mid 1990s,” said Fana Vincent who teaches a weekly African History class in the Shrine Bookstore every Saturday at 1:30pm.
“The Bookstore has hosted some powerful conferences over the years, like the African Holocaust Conference where Dr. John Henrik Clarke and Dr. Ben along with Marcus Garvey scholar Tony Martin gave incredibly moving presentation. The Bookstore also hosted the Black Women of the New Age Conference with Malcolm X’s widow, Dr. Betty Shabazz, and Susan Taylor providing keynote addresses. I can’t even tell you the number of people that to this day point to those conferences as personal moments of enlightenment,” added Vincent.
Former Houston City Councilwoman Ada Edwards regularly organized town hall meetings and public forums on topics like police brutality, educational apartheid, and women’s wellness, using the Shrine Bookstore as her venue of choice.
“The Shrine Bookstore is one of the few constants in this city that delivers African culture on a year-round, 365 basis and not just in February during Black History Month,” said Edwards who now works for the city of Houston as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Neighborhoods. “It has made history come alive, and exposed a lot of people to a culture and history that many never even knew they were a part of.”
One of the city’s Kwanzaa events, coordinated through Operation Unity, a consortium of progressive local organizations, is held in the Shrine Bookstore.
“Annually, the last day of Kwanzaa, Imani (Faith), is held in the Bookstore with African drumming and dance, spoken word, song, youth presentations, steel drum, and an African Market,” said Vincent who serves as one of the drummers for the Fire Ritual which kicks off the Kwanzaa festivities on that last day.
“Some people would be surprised to know what all goes on in [the Bookstore]. We have a nice wedding preparation area. We have hosted a couple of Murder Mystery Dinner events which have gone over very well. We have a powerful open mic and spoken word event every first Friday of the month. We host weddings, family reunions, school tours, plays, rites of passage programs, mentor programs, Kente Klaus during the holidays and organizational meetings. And we have offered several classes, including African History, African Dance, belly dancing, ballroom dancing, Black Theology, and Contemporary Black Reality,” said Sala.
“Still, it’s the conferences like the Tavis Smiley Youth-2-Leaders conference and others where I see us having the biggest impact in terms of community service,” added Sala, who pointed out that the Dojo in the Bookstore has in years past been home to martial arts classes, yoga sessions, and summer camp activities.
Another area of impact within the store is its African Holocaust Museum, formerly known as the Black Holocaust Exhibit, a collection of more than 100 primary documents, artifacts and compelling images that tell the story of slavery and the horrors of the Middle Passage. The collection includes bills of sale, wills, newspaper notices for run-a-way enslaved, letters from slave traders, slave shackles and more.
The exhibit opened in Atlanta in February 1991 to approximately 1,000 patrons. Since then the Detroit and Houston Bookstores have opened exhibits as well. The original exhibit was created by Velma Maia Thomas. Thomas, a minister in the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church, was approached by a representative from Random House Publisher, after reading a 1995 New York Times article on the exhibit, to write about it and the Middle Passage. The result was the award-winning book, Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa to Slavery and Emancipation (1997, Crown Publishing, Random House, Inc.), which became a national best seller.
Cardinal Mbiyu Chui, pastor of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church’s Detroit church, developed the exhibit on display in the Houston Bookstore to remind patrons of the deep psychological impact the institution of slavery had and still has on people of African descent.
Deloyd Parker, director of SHAPE Community Center, views the Shrine Bookstore as a vital part of progressive efforts in the city even while it honors the past.
“The bottom line is that the Shrine Bookstore has played a significant role in the historical preservation of Black thought and achievement and growth in the city of Houston,” said Parker. “The Bookstore has been very significant in promoting Black awareness and institutionally impacting Black culture. But what is really special about the Shrine Bookstore is that it’s not just about the Shrine Bookstore. It’s their willingness to work with and partner with other like-minded organizations, institutions and individuals for the edification and empowerment of the Black community. That’s why SHAPE Community Center proudly lifts up the Bookstore as a critical community partner.”
“Another of our many valued partners is the University of Houston’s African American Studies Program. Dr. [James] Conyers, the director, has really been great about holding events here and making sure that his students have a healthy mix of community connection and community service to go along with what they are learning in academia,” said Sala.
Even with kudos from the community, the Shrine Bookstore faces challenges moving forward.
“We are still seeking renovations on our building from Hurricane Ike damage,” said Sala, pointing to the institutions marquee sign that is still in disrepair. “However, the real challenge we face is the same challenge all Black bookstores face. Many have closed down because the products we once sold exclusively can now be found at chains like Borders, Target, Wal-Mart or online at Amazon.com. And with new technologies like the Kindle and the customers’ ability to buy online, bookstores are hurting. But if you lose bookstores you lose the hub of communication where fellowship around ideas stimulates dialogue; kind of like what happens at the barber shop.”
Sala mentioned that the Shrine Bookstore is more and more becoming an event center.
“But we will still carry books and artwork and serve as a place for informing the community,” added Sala. “As the saying goes ‘a people perish due to a lack of knowledge.’ We’re not going to let that happen.”
During the month of February, the Shrine Bookstore will be showing Black History documentaries every Wednesday and Saturday at 12 noon and 4pm. In addition, the Bookstore, for the 22nd year, is offering free tax preparation, spearheaded by Willie Perry and the IRS, on Wednesdays from 11am-4pm and Saturdays from 11am-6pm.
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