Top-of-the-line books and craftsa Rastafarian and Pan-African store just off 53rd Street, has closed its Hyde Park location, but its owner says they plan to return to the neighborhood eventually.
The store, which was also a longtime community space and publisher, closed its doors at 5206 S. Harper Ave. on Sept. 4, ending a 17-year run.
For him last yearFrontline owner Ras Sekou Tafari has been raising funds to save the store, under financial pressure from rising operating costs and a pandemic-induced decline in sales.
“We were struggling to deal with high rent… (and) due to COVID-19, we had to close for that period of time in 2020,” Tafari said.
Tafari said that during the summer of 2020 there was an outpouring of clients in response to the police killing of George Floyd, sparking a national movement to support black businesses and read black perpetrators.
“But after that, the money ran out,” he said.
Frontline received about $35,000 in federal pandemic funding at this time, but Tafari said it went toward employee salaries and back rent payments, rather than making up for lost merchandise sales.
Paying for the labor of his small tobacco shop next door (which made the book sales space more kid-friendly) also depleted the funds available for rent, he added.
Rent for the Hyde Park space, the store and an office above it, was more than $5,000 a month; a sharp increase from the $900 he paid in 2011. In August, the building’s property management company, Winnemac Management Properties, refused to accept Frontline’s rent payment because they were months behind.
That was the beginning of the end, Tafari said.
Growing up in the Caribbean and having spent time in England, Tafari saw community bookstores act as libraries and safe spaces for the black community. He opened Frontline in 2004, calling it a “truebary” because “there are no lies,” where people could walk in and read Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis and Amos Wilson.
Before the pandemic, Frontline hosted book signings, conferences, poetry contests, and spoken word performances.
Over the years, the Frontline space had also been home to three other black bookstores: The Freedom Found, Reading Room, and The Underground Bookstore. The Underground Bookstore is one of Chicago’s few remaining Black and Afrocentric bookstores, now located at 1727 E. 87th St.
Russell Norman, who organized the Frontline GoFundMe campaign and last October Customer Appreciation Day fundraiser, said when he stopped by recently to catch up with Tafari, he found the store empty.
“In essence, they destroyed a historic bookstore that has been there for a decade,” Norman said. “And not just a bookstore, it was a meeting place; people would have celebrations there, events, performances by legendary artists from all over the world.”
Frontline also held a fundraiser In May, with African-focused food and music, in a final effort to stave off lockdown. Store supporters were asked to donations and buying “book packs,” which consisted of a variety of books under one theme, such as “philosophy and opinion” or “stolen heritage: lessons for Africans.”
However, “it didn’t really make a dent,” Tafari said. the GoFundMe he raised just $4,448 of his $50,000 goal.
Frontline used to have three locations, but its location at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue also closed this past January due to financial reasons.
Now, Frontline has consolidated its merchandise at its remaining location in Evanston. “What we plan to do is put some energy into the Evanston space, work with the Evanston community to build this place.” north front line609 W. Howard St., Opened 2019.
Then, “(after) slowly building the space, we want to go back south,” Tafari said.
Tafari added that “Eventually it will be Hyde Park, but we can also open cheaper spaces before we get to Hyde Park.”
“Because Hyde Park has been good to us,” he continued. “It has its strengths and weaknesses. The weakness is the high cost of being there. But we were able to thrive in Hyde Park, until the economy started to decline.”
They still act as a publisher, and the Frontline online store remains open at frontlinebookpublishing.com.