How a Black-Owned Bookstore in Newark, New Jersey, is Surviving the Pandemic

Dexter George, the owner of Source of Knowledge in Newark. More than a bookstore, it stocks tribal clothing, artwork and houses his self-taught framing business. (Credit…Ben Sklar for The New York Times)

Dexter George, the owner of Source of Knowledge, a bookstore on Broad Street here, wore a tool belt as he walked through aisles dotted with djembe drums and past walls lined with Ghanaian masks. Smoke coiled upward from a bowl of burning sage.

Mr. George, 56, has kept his business operating partly by practicing caution during the pandemic. Even when he opened his front door to start the workday, he kept the key in the inside lock; all customers who were allowed in were quickly directed to have their temperature taken and take a squirt of hand sanitizer. Mr. George eyed them through a hard plastic face shield.

“There’s a lot of people we aren’t seeing again,” he said. “This virus is going around in a circle until it gets everybody.”

Mr. George counted 30 customers killed by the coronavirus. Almost 1,000 people have died in New Jersey’s largest city because of Covid-19 and the vaccination rate remains below 30 percent. Throughout the pandemic, Mr. George considered not only safety concerns, but also the costs of closures and curfews. He weighed reduced foot traffic against his mortgage of $6,500 per month for the two-story building that houses his bookstore. On his commute, he noted roller gates that remained down and “For Lease” signs going up.

But Mr. George was not done building. Early in the epidemic, he created a GoFundMe page to alert customers to his status: “Covid almost killed us!”

Contributions revived him. While Black business ownership rates nationwide dropped 41 percent from February 2020 to April 2020 — the largest decline for any racial group — Mr. George watched as 1,200 patrons donated $69,211 to support his 30-year-old enterprise. Personal checks and civic grants further steadied the store’s finances.

Long unable to secure loans, he used some of the money to reinvest in his 2,700 square-feet of retail space.

“At the end of the day, you only fit in a box,” he said of putting the money back into the store. “Can’t take it with you.”

By summer, he closed off half the store and planned an expansion. Sawdust mixed with incense as he knocked down walls, raised the ceiling, transformed an elevator shaft into an office and relocated the cash register from under the stairs. His second-floor tenant, Walm N’Dure, extended the fitness center he runs to the roof, configuring a rock-climbing course replete with netting and a retractable awning.

“It has always been a fight, up and down, a lot of mishaps,” Mr. George said. “Despite all of that we always rise.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Kevin Armstrong