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'We always rise.' A Black-owned bookstore navigates the pandemic
Masani Barnwell-George, wife of Dexter George, helps a customer at Source of Knowledge in Newark, N.J., on May 12, 2021. Source of Knowledge, owned by Dexter George, has been a Newark mainstay for decades and has survived the past year thanks to the generosity of its customers and an owner who provides more than just books. Ben Sklar/The New York Times.

by Kevin Armstrong

NEWARK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Dexter George, owner of Source of Knowledge, a bookstore on Broad Street here, wore a tool belt as he walked through aisles dotted with djembe drums and past walls lined with Ghanaian masks. Smoke coiled upward from a bowl of burning sage.

George, 56, has kept his business operating partly by practicing caution during the pandemic. Even when he opened his front door to start the workday, he kept the key in the inside lock; all customers who were allowed in were quickly directed to have their temperature taken and take a squirt of hand sanitizer. George eyed them through a hard plastic face shield.

“There’s a lot of people we aren’t seeing again,” he said. “This virus is going around in a circle until it gets everybody.”

George counted 30 customers killed by the coronavirus. Almost 1,000 people have died in New Jersey’s largest city because of COVID-19, and the vaccination rate remains below 30%. Throughout the pandemic, George considered not only safety concerns, but also the costs of closures and curfews. He weighed reduced foot traffic against his mortgage of $6,500 per month for the two-story building that houses his bookstore. On his commute, he noted roller gates that remained down and “For Lease” signs going up.

But George was not done building. Early in the epidemic, he created a GoFundMe page to alert customers to his status: “COVID almost killed us!”

Contributions revived him. While Black business ownership rates nationwide dropped 41% from February 2020 to April 2020 — the largest decline for any racial group — George watched as 1,200 patrons donated $69,211 to support his 30-year-old enterprise. Personal checks and civic grants further steadied the store’s finances.

Long unable to secure loans, he used some of the money to reinvest in his 2,700 square feet of retail space.

“At the end of the day, you only fit in a box,” he said of putting the money back into the store. “Can’t take it with you.”

By summer, he closed off half the store and planned an expansion. Sawdust mixed with incense as he knocked down walls, raised the ceiling, transformed an elevator shaft into an office and relocated the cash register from under the stairs. His second-floor tenant, Walm N’Dure, extended the fitness center he runs to the roof, configuring a rock-climbing course replete with netting and a retractable awning.

“It has always been a fight, up and down, a lot of mishaps,” George said. “Despite all of that, we always rise.”

George never expected to peddle wordsmiths’ wares. Born in Tobago, he grew up going barefoot and sleeping on floors. His grandmother was illiterate and his formal education ended after the fifth grade. At 17, he migrated to East New York with his mother, Brenda, and twin brother, Derrick. It was a hard transition. One morning, George woke up with a cold and told his mother he was going outside to find herbs in a bush, the place he typically went for natural healing methods, and boil them.

She laughed.

“I have to take you to a drugstore,” she said.

“What is at a drugstore?” he said.

“Medicine,” she said.

He worked as a welder until suffering a slipped disk in his back. He found purpose in selling books on sidewalks in Manhattan before saving money to open a bookstore across the Hudson. His first shop was on Branford Place, where he developed a reputation as reserved. On payday, Masani Barnwell, a kindergarten teacher in Newark, walked in to buy books for students in her classroom with characters that looked like the children in her classroom. She wanted them to be inspired and purchased copies of author Fred Crump’s series, which retells traditional fairy tales with Black characters. She saw a different side of George.

“He wasn’t that doggone quiet,” she said. “He approached me.”

While their romance grew, George gauged his next move. In 1998, tired of the drama that drifted into his store by Market Street, which had devolved into a high-crime area, he bought an abandoned building that had housed a jewelry store to serve as Source of Knowledge’s new base. Soon after, he traveled to Africa with Barnwell, and brought back African masks and other carvings. To diversify his offerings, he started selling tribal clothing and artwork. To help with his mortgage, he rented out his second floor to a series of tenants that included a bail bondsman, computer coders and the Nation of Islam.

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Still, readers and researchers came for his eclectic catalog. In the children’s section, bibliophiles found “A is for Activist,” “Bippity Bop Barbershop” and “Yo Soy Muslim.” For adults, there was “The Destruction of Black Civilization” and “Bad Blood,” an account of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. In the business section, he displayed commemorative editions of “Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?”

A rollicking crew rolled through. Debates broke out; Mikey Spice’s reggae played. One night, Mayor Ras Baraka recited poetry on the second floor. When a couple inquired about getting married at the store, staff members decorated the space without charge. In lieu of gifts, guests bought books. The African tradition of broom jumping, which enslaved people performed in antebellum America, was incorporated into the ceremony.

“How could you charge for that?” said Patrice McKinney, a former customer who left corporate America to work at the store more than a decade ago.

The line between family member and customer often blurred. Ali McBride, 50, has been a patron since he was a teenager, buying books like “James Baldwin: The FBI File” and “Reciting Ifa: Difference, Heterogeneity and Identity.”

But McBride, around the time he retired from New Jersey’s Department of Corrections, went through a divorce that upended his life. Having sold his residence in order to ensure his mother was set in her Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, house, McBride needed a place to live. George invited him to stay in the basement of his home in East Orange, New Jersey.

“He didn’t open up a property to me,” McBride said. “He opened up his house. It blew my mind.”

George always welcomed white customers, but few came until last summer. After George Floyd’s killing by the police, George noted a rise in white visitors. They inquired about authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi. He preached consistency in supporting Black businesses.

“Don’t just do it because something traumatic happened,” he said. “It has been happening for years. Let’s have a dialogue.”

For quiet, George, who has battled anxiety since he lived in Tobago, retreated downstairs to complete his most fulfilling work: framing art. After teaching himself the craft and spending $100,000 on a joiner and cutters over the years, he has become a skilled framer. On the awning outside his shop, he advertised his services for one-hour custom services.

“When Amazon came in the market, I said, no, we cannot do books alone,” he said. “The books will put you out of business.”

One day in May, Nicole Sirju-Johnson, assistant vice president for diversity at Binghamton University in New York, and her husband, Jamar, perused framed paintings and masks in the store. The inventory ranged from stone statues to a painting of a Black man with an American flag wrapped around his neck as a noose to masks featuring elephants with upraised tusks. A black bull mask with gold accents was selling for $550 and paintings went for as much as $8,000.

Nicole Sirju-Johnson is from Brooklyn; her husband is from Harlem. They had just closed on a 4,000 square-foot Colonial and wanted to fill their walls with African art in Binghamton, New York, where the population is more than 70% white.

“There’s not many of us,” Nicole Sirju-Johnson said. Her husband added, “We want to treat them to get to know our culture.”

George smiled, aware of the ongoing gentrification around him in Newark and the guaranteed-income pilot program in a city where 27% of the population lives in poverty.

“I worship how little I have,” George said. “People are hungry. You have to help, be a model.”

George’s vision is to buy a van, build shelves in it and drive through Newark giving away books to children. Each week, he sets aside $50 for it. In the store, he plans to construct a juice bar to keep customers around longer. He wants students from across the street in Teachers Village schools to take field trips through his aisles.

With the pandemic waning — both George and McKinney have been vaccinated — and the weather growing warmer, more customers have started coming. On a recent afternoon, Jessica Molokwu, 25, walked down Treat Place toward Source of Knowledge’s back door. Along the way, the backs of buildings were colored with cultural history. There was a mural of Harriet Tubman holding a lantern next to the late graffiti artist Jerry Gant’s “Detox the Ghetto” motto. Molokwu ambled by a sign that George recently put up as a reminder of the struggles faced by Black entrepreneurs in the last century. It read: Building Black Wall Street.

Molokwu walked inside, breathed in the sage and told McKinney she was seeking information about her Nigerian heritage.

“Welcome home,” McKinney said.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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