A historic Detroit bookstore that celebrated black...

A historic Detroit bookstore that celebrated black culture is getting a new life

Detroit's Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstore and Cultural Center is slated to reopen after closing a few years ago.

Story by Rhonda J. Smith, Detour Detroit Emerging Voices fellow

Detroiter Jacque Nickerson took the Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstore and Cultural Center for granted, but when a steady decline in sales forced it to shut down about two years ago, she reckoned she may have been a reason.

“One of the problems for me was I thought it would always be there. You just assume everything is okay and it isn’t,” said Nickerson, 92, of the bookstore on Livernois Avenue near her Russell Woods-Sullivan neighborhood in Northwest Detroit. “I have to take some responsibility for it [closing]. It was always important to me, but I didn’t do enough to make sure it was important to coming generations.”

Nickerson may soon get the chance to be a more active supporter of the Afrocentric center.

Plans are in the works to reopen next summer, said Kandia Milton, a project coordinator and minister at the Shrine of the Black Madonna #1 of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church, the group that launched the store’s first iteration in 1970.

The new store will have a new look and a new emphasis, focusing on being a cultural hub for the community and not just a retail space.

“We are in the process of working with architects to do a complete renovation of the facility,” said Milton, 48. “In the 1970s it was our intent to be a place where we could bring about cultural awareness and be an expression of cultural determination in our neighborhood and community.” 

For more than 30 years, the store carried out that mission by selling books, clothing, art, and other cultural artifacts. It also hosted events, including book signing and lectures with African American scholars and writers.

“[The store] was an access point for African Americans to become more aware of our history, not just our slave history, but our total history and its significance, its impact on the world,” Milton said.

“We sold books by authors who couldn’t get into the major stores,” he added. “The writers were those who wrote about issues that were important to our people. We were a self-sustaining entity. The church didn’t have to support the store. It was really a holistic, one-stop shop for African culture.”

Milton theorized that the ease of buying books and African art online spurred declining revenue for the store. In 2014, the church held a liquidation sale to recoup monies. Those funds, along with what has been secured through a capital campaign, will be used to sustain all the church entities and invest in the community, including developing the new facility. The groundbreaking is planned for January. Milton declined to share the total amount raised for the development project. 

The hope was to reopen the store if it could be self-sustaining, like it was in earlier decades. Organizers believe the new store will be just that, and plan to kick off the new iteration of the center with an African-centered marketplace. 

“We started to rethink [our approach], and thought we could put together a model that would work for the community,” Milton continued. “We will be less of a retail space and more of a place where the community can convene around cultural issues. Yes, we will still sell books and art, but the focus will be on community engagement.”

The reconstructed site will also house the church’s national office. The Shrines of the Black Madonna Pan African Orthodox Christian Church has sites in Detroit, Houston, Atlanta, Calhoun Farms, South Carolina, and Liberia. There are also bookstores and cultural centers in Atlanta and Houston.

Shrine founder Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstore and Cultural Center.
Shrine founder Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstore and Cultural Center. Courtesy Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

The shift for the Detroit location has been a dream for James Ribbron, 60, a member of the Shrine since 1969 and a church historian. Ribbron maintains the archives of Shrine founder Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, the former Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr., including all his sermons since the church was founded in 1953. 

Ribbron advocates sharing the Shrine’s history beyond its congregation and believes the revamped Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstore and Cultural Center will allow the church to do that.

“It’s important to have an institution like a cultural center for history to be housed, like you can go to the museum in [Washington] D.C. or down to Wayne State,” Ribbron said. “We have the institutional framework to house and tell our story.”

Shrine members will not be the only ones telling the story. Nickerson said once the new store opens, she will continue the mission she started in 1970.  

“When it first opened I said, ‘Have you seen the new shop?’ I plan to do that again and continue sending people there,” Nickerson said. “I won’t stop.”

First photo of Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstore and Cultural Center courtesy Rhonda J. Smith.

Detour’s Emerging Voices fellowship program was funded in January 2019 by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a partnership between the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan, the Ford Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Interested in supporting Emerging Voices as a sponsor? Email Ashley@detourdetroiter.com.