Gentrification in DC Threatens Iconic Black-Owned Bookstore 'Sankofa'

One of the oldest Black-owned bookstores in Washington, DC is in jeopardy of closing due to high property taxes. Sankofa Video, Books & Cafe, located on Georgia Avenue, is an African video and bookstore that opened in 1998. The store was named after the famous film by its filmmaking owners Haile and Shirikiana Gerima, according to the store's website. Sankofa is an Adinkra symbol for “going back to our past in order to go forward,” the store’s website states. Sankofa is now in jeopardy of shutting its doors forever due to gentrification and the rise of property taxes.

"Being in DC has been a lot of work in terms of our relationship with the city," Shirikiana Gerima told WUSA9. "Now with gentrification, the relationship has become more hostile so that the taxes we have to pay each year — $30,000 — is completely outrageous."In an effort to keep their business, Sankofa's owners will testify before the DC Council in support of a bill requesting tax abatement for the store. The bill, which was filed by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, would waive property taxes from the store from October 2019 to September 2029.

There is a public hearing about the bill to save the bookstore at the Wilson Building on Monday, June 3 at 10 a.m., and the owners have urged supporters to come out in support. "What we’re facing now with gentrification is what we’ve been facing since we’ve been here — on steroids," Shirikiana told WUSA9. In an interview with The North Star, Shirikiana said that the kind of literature, film, and books Sankofa provides remain important today.

“We know how critical it is to have this material in your hands as a young person, or for anyone who is trying to traverse this crazy environment we’re in,” said Shirikiana. “We’ve really put our lives into making those tools available through the bookstore, and through the scripts we write and produce.”

Shirikiana said she wants Sankofa to be included in the new changes in the community, which is being gentrified. She said she wants Black people to feel included in the community.

“We have a dignified relationship with our community now, and we want the city to know that we want the kind of respect back from them that we have provided all these years. We have tried to be an institution that has helped contribute to a city,” said Shirikiana. “The only thing wrong with Sankofa is that it has been overly taxed.” Joshua Clark Davis, assistant professor of history at the University of Baltimore and the author of From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, told The North Star that Sankofa is part of a long history of Black-owned businesses in DC. Black bookstores boomed in the 1960s and 1970s, and had a resurgence in the 1990s, he said. There has been at least one Black-owned bookstore in Northwest DC since at least 1968.

“Black-owned bookstores have been one of the centers of Black culture, life, and politics back in DC since the 1960s,” said Davis. “Sankofa is carrying the torch of Black history.”

Davis noted that there are Black-owned bookstores all over the country, but DC has been the most fruitful city for this kind of business. He noted that Sankofa is a bookstore where people can find books about Black history and culture written by people of color. While chain bookstores and online retailers like Amazon are hurting independent bookstores, Sankofa’s focus on community offers something online bookstores can’t.

“To have a community space with book readings, talks, and a place to get coffee, that’s something that Amazon doesn’t offer,” said Davis. “That can’t be replicated online and that’s why these places are so important.”

In April, the Bronx’s celebrated the opening of its only bookstore, The Lit. Bar. The store’s owner, Noëlle Santos, is a Bronx native who always had a passion for reading and previously told The New York Times that she began volunteering in small, independent bookstores after college. She entered a statewide business startup competition in 2016 and won second place, receiving an award of $7,500. With her winnings, Santos opened up a pop-up book shop at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, according to The Times. After the pop-up, she started a crowdfunding campaign and raised $170,000 to open her own bookstore.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.