Inside one of N.J.'s last Black-owned bookstores, where ‘your Black is beautiful’

Posted Feb 14, 2020

This story is part of a new NJ.com series: “Black in N.J.,” which celebrates Black culture in the Garden State and seeks to further discussion about issues facing New Jersey’s Black community.

***

When you walk into Source of Knowledge in Newark, you’re in a space that is unapologetically Black.

Incense burns. Soulful music plays in the background. Books by Black writers line the shelves and art pieces from Senegal adorn the walls.

Yet the small book shop, located downtown on the corner of Broad and Lafayette streets, is easy to miss. Other than a tiny beige banner displaying the store’s name, the building’s worn facade is nearly invisible, outshined by the gleaming buildings nearby: chic new apartments, a Courtyard Marriott hotel, the cavernous Prudential Center arena.

Moreover, its industry has all but disappeared; Source of Knowledge is one of only two Black-owned bookstores left in New Jersey.

But like any good novel, this vibrant store’s true value lies within.

“When somebody comes in here, they get amazed. They’re so shocked to see that there’s so many books that represent us,” says Dexter George, the store’s founder and co-owner. “They feel the spirit of the place — it’s like they don’t want to leave.”

Source Of Knowledge sells all sorts of titles: novels and Black history texts, vegan cookbooks and essential oil explainers, you name it. Here customers find stories about hallowed Black figures like Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, or less-discussed heroes like writer Ida B. Wells and human rights activist Sojourner Truth.

But what you won’t find on the shelves are traditional children’s stories like “The Ugly Duckling” or “Goldilocks and the Three Bears." Patrice McKinney, one of the store’s owners, is blunt about her qualms with the popular books.

“The duck was ugly because he was the only black duck amongst all the little yellow ducks. So they chased him away, and he came back a grown white swan loved by all, the end,” McKinney says. “So that tells the child, ‘black means ugly, white means beautiful.'”

An unabashed McKinney also critiques “Goldilocks": “She did destruction of property when she tore that chair up, then you eat their food, lay in the bed and when they wake you up, you cry,” McKinney says. “So our books are ‘The Ebony Duckling’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty'” with the latter title featuring a Black princess.

Frequently dressed in African garb and jewelry from head to toe, McKinney is a walking billboard for the culture and greets everyone like family. Some customers say McKinney fuels the fire at Source of Knowledge, which was honored with NAACP Newark’s “Small Business Champion” Award in 2019. She speaks emphatically to anyone who will listen about literature, the criminal justice system and other challenges faced every day by Black Americans.

“It’s not work,” McKinney says. “It’s something that we enjoy doing.”

For McKinney, the business doubles as a place of empowerment, for people in New Jersey to take pride in their African-American heritage. She even helped a Nigerian couple, who were regulars there, plan their wedding which was then held inside the store.

“We start from the children on up," she says. "That’s why every book you see has faces that look like (us) in here. Because they need to know their Black is beautiful.”

From immigrant to business owner

In 1982, Dexter George immigrated to the U.S. from Tobago, a small Caribbean island of 60,000 people. Without any formal training or postsecondary education, he managed to create a hub for learning in his new home of Newark. For a few years, George earned a living by working for a book company in New York City. But after learning the business, he decided he didn’t want to work for anyone else.

Now, after nearly 30 years spent at Source of Knowledge, George can’t imagine doing anything else, he says. On any given day you can find him stocking the shelves, ringing up customers and answering the phone.

Twenty six years ago, he met Masani Barnwell, then a grade school teacher in Newark who would turn to his store when planning her reading curriculum.

“I needed books for my classroom and I had no intention of reading ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ ... or ‘Goldilocks.' Our girls didn’t have golden locks,” Barnwell said.

Barnwell says her students lit up when they read books featuring Black and brown characters. It made them feel their stories were worth being told.

George and Barnwell became business partners and got married in 2017.

The blueprint

As Black-owned bookstores disappear across the country, Source of Knowledge is a rare sight in New Jersey, one of just two such establishments left open (there’s also La Unique in Camden), according to a database created by the African American Literature Book Club (AALBC). In 2000, there were at least 350 Black-owned independent bookstores in the U.S. By 2014, only 50 stores remained, the AABLC says.

And as downtown Newark becomes more gentrified and rents increase, many Black-owned establishments of all types — restaurants, small markets, apparel stores — have been forced to close shop. Source of Knowledge has managed to survive for nearly three decades thanks to community support, but George also attributes the store’s survival to something else: the power in property ownership.

He says many minority-owned small businesses in Newark haven’t been able to survive like Source of Knowledge because they don’t own the space.

George and his partners own the entire multi-story building that houses Source of Knowledge. It’s been the blueprint for their longevity and allows them to help other Black business owners, like Walm N’Dure, who runs a small gym upstairs.

“I can only respect (the owners). It takes a lot to be down here," N’Dure says. “It’s a lot of hustle. It’s a lot of push.”

N’Dure, of Newark (by way of Senegal), says Source Of Knowledge held a spot in their building for his new fitness facility, keeping the space open two years before he could move in. When he saw the Senegalese masks hanging near the store’s entrance, N’Dure knew he was home.

“I haven’t seen masks like that since I’ve been back home,” N’Dure says.

Source of Knowledge remains a vital piece of Brick City’s Black community. The store hosts open mic nights, seminars on various topics, and then there was the Nigerian wedding, held in the store in 2013. More than a dozen people attended the ceremony, featuring dancing and a broom jumping ceremony, a tradition that became prominent during the days of slavery. The wedding took place in a back section of the store, which now houses a Black-owned hair salon.

George and company say they’ve also met with the Newark Board of Education, hoping to persuade leaders to introduce more stories written by Black authors to the school district’s curriculum.

The store even maintains relationships with nearby prisons.

“This is where it all began for me,” award-winning author and Plainfield native J.M. Benjamin says.

Benjamin served 12 years in prison for drug-related crimes and began writing his first book, “Down in the Dirty,” in 2005 while he was incarcerated. When he was released in 2006, his book was already a hit at Source of Knowledge and the owners brought Benjamin in for his first book signing. The author has gone on to pen a dozen more books, becoming an Essence Best Selling author and winning awards from the African American Literary Awards Show.

“They’ve provided a platform for so many independent African American writers,” Benjamin says. “They’ve allowed these authors, who were self publishing, to house their books in a store, when there were no other stores that would offer that opportunity."

Everyone is welcome at Source of Knowledge, the owners say.

“We don’t preach hate toward any race, but we make sure to let (people) know that this is about loving us,”Barnwell says. “And just because we love us, doesn’t mean we hate you.”

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment