East Durham’s newest business invites the community into deeper conversations on Black art and Black literature
By Hannah Lee | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Beverley Boitumelo Makhubele and Naledi Yaziyo assumed their checklist was complete. It was a thorough list, after all, of everything they had to do before Rofhiwa Book Cafe‘s grand opening on May 15. They purchased furniture, chose paint colors for the space. Pre-ordered hundreds of books. Delicately arranged displays to show off their wares. But seven hours after opening the doors, Bev and Naledi realized they’d overlooked one critical component:
“[Customers] wiped out our entire selection and our secondary selection within the day,” Bev, the founder, says. Naledi, the curator, adds: “We hadn’t thought that people would come here and buy every single copy.”
It’s not a bad problem to have for a business starting up well over a year into the pandemic. Bev and Naledi acquired the space at the southwest corner of Angier Avenue and South Driver Street in Old East Durham in October 2020.
“When we walked in, it was completely empty, and the lights were cut off,” Bev says. “We were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what have we done?’ There was a lot of panic.”
That was a reasonable amount of concern, considering it’s the couple’s first foray into the entrepreneurial world. Bev has experience working in operations, and Naledi is a Duke graduate student and researcher studying cultural anthropology. The common denominator that ultimately drove their dream to where it is today is their combined love for combing through, collecting and curating African and Black literature.
Both have sizable libraries in their personal homes. Bev started exploring the idea of sharing their collection with their East Durham community in 2018, after the passing of their grandmother. “[Her death] kind of shifted a lot of things for me,” Bev says. “One of the things that I started to rethink about how to do was … collecting. I started to imagine what it might look like in the present moment, as an ongoing project.”
Bev met Naledi at The Pinhook a year later, and Naledi soon invited them over to her home. Books were scattered across nearly every surface – on tables, chairs, empty parts of the floor.
“I was like, ‘This person is curating in her living room,’” Bev says. “It was maybe the first time that I had felt and seen most clearly that this was a very obvious moment and opportunity for us to work together.”
The pair’s bond over books and the conversations they share regarding various Black narratives is ultimately what they hope customers experience in their colorful little corner of the world.
“We both grew up in libraries in South Africa that aren’t silent in the way that libraries are here,” Naledi says. “Community libraries in South Africa are community spaces. And so when Tumi [Bev] came to me with this vision of a bookstore that moves and accommodates people in ways that don’t feel like an imperial library, I was immediately intrigued. It felt like the thing that I already knew.”
Their vision grew into this bright and inviting blue- and orange-colored space, a successful realization of their mutual goal that became most apparent in July when the entire cafe was rearranged to host its first exhibition by Afro-American mixed media artist Shambo Medina. Every window, every open wall, was filled with his two- and three-dimensional paintings and sculptures. Two weeks later, 40 kids from Kestrel Heights Charter School filled the floor during an afternoon storytime.
The other half of this gathering place is the cafe, with its full-fledged coffee program sourcing from Three Keys Coffee as well as North Carolina-based Black and White Coffee Roasters. Chris McAuley and Chelsea Thoumsin of Getchusomegear – a project that exclusively serves marginalized coffee workers who do not have access to coffee gear – played an important role in educating the staff on barista basics. Bev and Naledi took over from there.
“We are committed to an ethic of changing the store and ourselves,” Bev says, “which is to be thinking about a Blackness that is always changing – a Blackness that isn’t one thing. And we tried to model that not only in the policies that we implement for the store, but also in the actual material effect of being able to make the store what it needs to be to help us think about that Blackness in that moment.”