Nzingha Nommo- Owner of AfriWare Books
In the age of Amazon, sustaining a brick and mortar bookstore has been no easy feat. Once prevalent bookstore chains like Borders and Waldenbooks have been shuttered as customers have increasingly shopped online. Independent bookstores have often been run out of town. Thankfully, one local bookstore has bucked the trend, serving its customer base for over 25 years.
AfriWare Books, located in Maywood, is an African-centered bookstore, gift shop and cultural events center which provides a platform for authors, activists, and advocates to share inspiring cultural information. Customers will find a wide variety of genres to choose from- from history and business to fiction and afrofuturism. Comic book enthusiasts can even find titles featuring their favorite Black superheroes.
The success of AfriWare is particularly impressive considering its owner Nzingha Nommo never planned to open a bookstore. In fact, until adulthood, Nommo didn’t particularly enjoy reading.
For much of her young life, Nommo, an avid musician was committed to pursuing a career as a concert pianist. It took her father’s convincing to consider a less difficult, more potentially lucrative career path. Upon advice from her college counselor, Nommo who loved math, but hated reading chose a career in electrical engineering.
Although not her passion, Nommo enjoyed several successful years in electrical engineering before an incident of blatant racism caused her to seriously rethink her place in corporate America. “It was a turning point for me. I had to ask myself, “Why am I spending time in a place that doesn’t value my skillset?” Nommo recalls. At roughly the same time, a couple of coworker friends started a book club featuring African American works. The first reading assignment: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. “I had not been exposed to the rich variety of Black books at the time…As I was reading through this prose, I realized that I could identify with it so easily. The discussion that ensued helped us to form a close bond. Reading books of this calibre was totally unknown to me. I felt cheated. I felt miseducated,” Nommo shares.
Infused with a heightened interest in Black culture, Nommo began to volunteer as a sales agent representing some of her coworkers with the sale of their African themed goods and artwork. Nommo later took the advice of a teacher-friend who was a veteran in the book industry, and added Black-authored books to her sales items. She was surprised to find that the books became her best sellers. She also discovered her love for entrepreneurship. A rare company leave of absence program gave Nommo an opportunity to pursue her newly found passion full-time and Nommo didn’t look back. AfriWare was soon founded.
MORE THAN A BOOKSTORE- IT’S A MISSION
For Nommo, Afriware is more than just a bookstore. Through the inclusion of its cultural events, AfriWare provides an opportunity to not only educate, but also uplift her people. “When I had my moment in time, my woke moment, I wanted others to experience that. Some people get that when they read. Some people get that by the images that they see. I wanted Afriware’s inventory to have a little bit of everything, so that no matter where you are on your journey, we could assist you in finding an accurate image of yourself that was valuable, deserving and positive. In the media we’re inundated with inaccurate, imbalanced, criminal distorted images and views and opinions of ourselves. I wanted to provide the counterbalance,” Nommo shares. “I want to be present during that magical sacred time when that light bulb goes on. It is when people say to themselves, ‘Aah. That’s who we are. Giants. The offspring of a mighty people who gave birth to humanity.’ When that light bulb goes on, and you see the person glowing. I’ve witnessed that. Each time it happens, I never get enough of seeing that. I like to assist in providing information that makes the light bulb turn on.”
HOW AFRIWARE HAS REMAINED IN BUSINESS IN THE TOUGH FIELD OF INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES
Nommo has learned over the years that nurturing her customer base and adjusting to their needs is critical. That includes providing book titles that go beyond her personal preference. “The business started off that way. And I’ve found that’s the best way to go out of business,” Nommo laughs. “I would be a fool if I didn’t consider what the community I’m trying to serve is requesting. I’ve learned to at least check it out. It has made me a more open person.”
Nommo also touts the value of fostering partnerships. Afriware’s collaboration with groups such as Maywood Youth Mentoring, District 89 Schools and Trinity United Church of Christ have helped it serve the community. With every event, Nommo and her team are intentional in finding out how all parties can win. “Partnerships are key. And being consistent. If you’re wrong, say you’re wrong. Apologize. That is valued more than being financially successful. You really need to be consistent. And people value that.”
ON NOMMO’S RECOMMENDED READING LIST
Though Nommo always seeks to learn her readers’ preferences, there are a few classics that always make her recommendation list. For readers who aren’t quite sure where to start with African-American Lit, Miseducation of the Negro by Carter G Woodson, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Black Economics by Jwanza Kunjufu are Nommo’s must-reads. And for readers who aren’t ready for such “heavy” lifting, she recommends Survival Strategies for Africans in America by Anthony T. Browder.
Whatever your reading preference, Nommo and her team at AfriWare are ready to assist. Nommo considers it her privilege. “ It’s such a pleasure and an honor to serve the Black community. It’s really humbling. “
You can shop AfriWare in store at 1701 S. 1stAve. Suite 400, Maywood, IL or online at afriwarebooks.com.