Frontline Books and Craftsa Rastafarian and Pan-African store just off 53rd Street, has closed its location in Hyde Park, but its owner has announced plans to eventually return to the area.
The store, which was also a longtime community space and publishing house, closed at 5206 S. Harper Ave. on September 4, ending a 17-year run.
For the Last yearFrontline owner Ras Sekou Tafari has raised money to save the storefront, under financial strain due to rising operating costs and a pandemic-induced drop in sales.
“We were struggling to cope with the high rent…(and) because of COVID-19, we had to close during this time in 2020,” Tafari said.
Tafari said that in the summer of 2020 there was a flood of customers in response to the police killing of George Floyd, which sparked 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 pandemic funding at that time, but Tafari said it was for employee salaries and rent reimbursement, rather than making up for lost merchandise sales.
Paying for labor for their small adjoining tobacco shop (which has made the book selling space more child-friendly) has also drained funds available for rent, he said. he adds.
The rent for the Hyde Park space – the store and an office above – was over $5,000 a month; a steep increase from the $900 he paid in 2011. In August, the building’s property management company, Winnemac Management Properties, refused to accept payment of rent from Frontline because he had months late.
It was the beginning of the end, Tafari said.
Growing up in the Caribbean and spending time in England, Tafari saw how community bookstores acted as libraries and safe spaces for the black community. He opened Frontline in 2004, calling it a “truebary” because “there are no lies”, where people could walk in and read Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis and Amos Wilson.
Prior to the pandemic, Frontline held book signings, talks, poetry slams and spoken word performances.
Over the years, the Frontline space has also hosted three other black bookstores: The Freedom Found, Reading Room and The Underground Bookstore. The underground bookstore is one of the few Afrocentric and black-owned bookstores in Chicago, now located at 1727 E. 87th St.
Russell Norman, who organized the Frontline GoFundMe campaign and the one last October Customer Appreciation Day fundraiser, said when he recently dropped by to catch up with Tafari, he found the storefront empty.
“Essentially, they destroyed a historic bookstore that’s been around for a decade,” Norman said. “And not just a bookstore, it was a meeting place; people held there celebrations, events, performances of legendary artists from all over the world.
Frontline also organized a fundraiser in May, with African food and music, in a last-ditch effort to avoid closure. Store supporters were invited to to make donations and buying “book bundles”, which consisted of a variety of books under a theme, such as “philosophy and opinion” or “stolen heritage: lessons for Africans”.
However, it “didn’t really make a splash,” Tafari said. The GoFundMe only raised $4,448 of their $50,000 goal.
Frontline had three locations, but their 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue location also closed last January for financial reasons.
Now Frontline has consolidated its goods at its remaining location in Evanston. “What we plan to do is put some energy into the Evanston space, to 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 come back to the south,” Tafari said.
Tafari added that ‘it will eventually be Hyde Park, but we could also open cheaper spaces before we get to Hyde Park,’
“Because Hyde Park has been good for us,” he continued. “He has his strengths and his 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 decline.
They still act as a publishing house and Frontline’s online store remains open at frontlinebookpublishing.com.