Books and crafts at the forefronta Rastafarian and Pan-African shop just off 53rd Street, has closed its Hyde Park location, but its owner says he plans to return to the neighborhood at some point.
The store, which was also a longtime community space and publisher, closed its doors on September 4 at 5206 S. Harper Ave. thus ending a 17-year operation.
For the last yearFrontline owner Ras Sekou Tafari has been raising funds to save the business, which is under financial strain due to rising operating costs and a pandemic-related drop in sales.
“We were struggling to cope with the high rent…(and) because of COVID-19, we had to close for this period in 2020,” Tafari said.
Tafari said there was a flood of customers in the summer of 2020 in response to the police killing of George Floyd, sparking a national movement to support black businesses and read black authors.
“But after that the money dried up,” he said.
Frontline received about $35,000 in federal funding for the pandemic around the time, but Tafari said it was earmarked for employee wages and rent repayments, rather than to offset lost merchandise sales.
Paying the worker for their small adjoining tobacconist (which allowed the bookstore to be made more kid-friendly) also drained the funds available for rent, he added.
The rent for the Hyde Park area – the shop and an office above – 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 in arrears.
This is the beginning of the end, said Tafari.
Tafari grew up in the Caribbean and spent time in England. He saw community bookstores act as libraries and safe places for the black community. He opened Frontline in 2004 and called it “Truebary” because “there are no lies” where people could come in and read Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis and Amos Wilson.
Before the pandemic, Frontline hosted book signings, lectures, poetry slams, and spoken word performances.
Over the years, the Frontline area has also been home to three other black bookstores: The Freedom Found, Reading Room, and The Underground Bookstore. One of the few remaining Afrocentric and Black bookstores in Chicago, The Underground Bookstore is now located at 1727 E. 87th St.
Russell Norman, who organized the Frontline GoFundMe campaign and last October Customer Appreciation Day Fundraiser, said that when he stopped by to meet with Tafari recently, he found the storefront empty.
“Essentially, they destroyed a historic bookstore that’s been there for a decade,” Norman said. “And not just a bookstore, it was a meeting place; People would party there, events, performances by legendary artists from all over the world.”
Frontline also held a fundraiser in May, with food and African-centric music, in a last-ditch effort to stave off the closure. Supporters of the store were asked to do so make donations and buy “book packs” consisting of a variety of books on a subject such as “philosophy and opinion” or “stolen heritage: lessons for Africans.”
However, it “didn’t leave a real dent,” Tafari said. That GoFundMe raised just $4,448 of his $50,000 goal.
Frontline used to have three locations, but its 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue locations also closed last January for financial reasons.
Now Frontline has consolidated its merchandise at its remaining location in Evanston. “We plan to put some energy into the Evanston space and work with the Evanston community to build this place.” Frontline North609 W. Howard St., opened in 2019.
Then “[after]slowly building up the space, we want to go back south,” Tafari said.
Tafari added: “It will eventually be Hyde Park, but we might open up to cheaper places 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 in there. But we were able to thrive in Hyde Park until the economy started to shrink.”
They still operate as a publisher and Frontline’s online store remains open at frontlinebookpublishing.com.