Cult Shop: a cultural gem in Harlem
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Conceived primarily as an independent bookstore to honour and celebrate black writers, the sun-drenched, street-facing Schomburg Shop is set within the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. A division of the New York Public Library founded in 1925, the Center is named after the black historian and activist Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. The original store opened more than 15 years ago, but a 2017 redesign gave rise to new flexible fixtures that lend themselves to literary discovery: adaptable white shelves and neon beams that vertically divide the book sections.
Surrounding these are candles, jewellery and silk screens created by black makers. A feature wall at the entrance displays greeting cards etched with black figures and the recognisable quotes of black literary titans. “We support small black businesses,” explains Rio Cortez, buyer and creative coordinator. “Any support that comes to us sustains those relationships and the whole Schomburg Center.” Shop opening hours may currently be restricted to pick-up orders only, but all support continues to make a difference to the enterprise.
Cortez came to The Schomburg Shop after a 10-year career in publishing, and wanted her experience to inform the store’s approach. Her depth of knowledge is visible in the expansive book collection: Woke Baby ($7.99), a lyrical instruction on toddler empowerment, sits alongside (H)afrocentric: Volumes 1-4 ($20), a comic-book series tackling gentrification, racism and police violence. The curated Black Liberation Reading List includes well known works from James Baldwin and the bestselling Roxane Gay.
If the books provide an education on blackness, then the gifts and homeware are a celebration of black lives. T-shirts and tote bags ($25) made in collaboration with the artist Derrick Adams marked The Schomburg’s first literary festival last June. Cosmogram coasters ($25) feature the Center’s art installation Rivers, a site-specific work in honour of poet Langston Hughes by multidisciplinary artist Houston Conwill. The Black Power button set ($10) reminds the purchaser that black is beautiful and to “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud”. An Ossie Davis mug ($12.95) features one of Cortez’s favourite quotes: “I find, in being black, a thing of beauty: a joy; a strength; a secret cup of gladness.”
Cortez’s selection of wares is deliberately curated to capture the sense of jubilance of which Davis speaks: “There are so many black people from other countries who come in and are delighted to see themselves reflected in our shop.”
The store often provides a springboard for new brands. Following a partnership with Blk Mkt Vintage, this hub for historic black culture and style is now flourishing in Brooklyn. A pop-up by artist Harper Iman (postponed for the time being) will display her coveted, bespoke handmade dolls ($98-$150) in their full 2ft-tall glory.
Book events are also frequent happenings, such as a signing for Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ memoir When They Call You a Terrorist.
A blueprint of support and promotion is at the heart of this enterprise. “We’re an institution that focuses all the time on the preservation of black lives.” Cortez pauses and smiles. “It feels good to be seen.”